What does it mean to be sexually liberated, as an individual and as a society? How are we to think and what are we to do? How does one cultural background influence these ideas?
I’m going to tackle these questions through my experiences and observations in the Netherlands, where I lived for two years. I’m writing a series of reflections on my time there on my blog, but wish to discuss this issue via the Lazy Women platform, as I love the way such issues are addressed on this platform.
The Netherlands and Racism – The roots, the nuance and my experience
In the second instalment of this series on my personal blog, I discussed some deep-rooted internalised racism and how it is far more pervasive than many are willing to admit. Remnants of colonial manners of thinking about non-European cultures and people are still around today.
Examples of subtle racism include general ignorance on areas outside the West and dismissal of them as entirely backward, likely only exposed to the negative aspects of Asia/India. This extended to ideas of assuming I had a lack of sexual knowledge, openness and agency, and that I was going to be pressured to marry someone I didn’t know at a young age. Though a common experience I have throughout Europe, I noticed that much of these subtle racist assumptions were even more common and stronger in the Netherlands. I believe this is due to the fact that the Netherlands is considered successful and progressive even among Europe, giving some a further sense of superiority.
I noticed some much subtle racism regarding mentalities around sex, on what is considered safe, appropriate, private and open-minded…
The Culture and Boundaries around Sex – What does it mean to be liberated?
One does not need to be sexually active to be sexually open and aware. They can be and that’s fine. But it’s not a requirement.
The Dutch are known to be quite sexually liberated people, with less taboo on multiple sex partners, accessible contraception and STD testing, young people often being able to have sexual partners as teenagers under the safety of their own roofs. This is important. Making sex taboo does not help sexual health at all. I found though that many Dutch people, of course not all, were completely okay with discussing intimate details of their romantic and sexual experiences. While initially startled, it didn’t bother me or make me uncomfortable.
However, I encountered numerous Dutch people, friends and random people, revealing details of my dating life, or rather lack thereof, without my consent. Be this in friend circles or at parties when people share scandalous stories. This is not per se exclusively Dutch either, I think this reflects a general global trend of hypersexualisation of lives, media and other domains. But in my experience, people hadn’t shared things without my consent elsewhere. I often found myself being spoken for, “she doesn’t date, she’s so innocent etc etc” (Sorry for just not wanting to and being busy with uni?), or pressured to speak on private matters.
I was extremely offended and struck by this. When I took it up with these friends or people, their response was “There’s nothing wrong with it”, “There is nothing to be ashamed of” or “You’re allowed to share these things here”. I was stunned.
We were the same age and often on the same educational level and they had no idea how much they were talking down to me, assuming I came from this backward sexually repressed culture of “virginity” tests and forced marriages. (These days it’s often simply introducing people, mind you.)
Just because I do not like to share details on my personal life, does not make me backwards and sexually ignorant.
Further, the use of words such as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’ or ‘shy’, though not used maliciously, felt rather patronising and dismissive, insinuating I had to be more sexually active to reach to be a mature adult, talking to me as I didn’t know about the world and that sex was so vital to do so. I was spoken to as if I had to be “taught” to be more open. Also, words such as ‘pure’ trigger me due to their origins and connotations regarding women’s sexual activity and virtue. Even the term “lose” your virginity, has connotations of losing something when it’s more like gaining your sexuality.
To be fair, when I properly discussed it with my friends, they acknowledged their internalised racism, expressing admiration for the way my mother spoke about sex with me. Here, they embodied the best of Dutch ideals, willingly engaging in discussion and being open to a new perspective. We all need to do it and I am not free of internalised bias either. That self-awareness is key.
Upon further discussion, we noticed how my very Indian mother, had spoken to me far more than numerous Dutch counterparts about sexual health and the psychology of sex (regarding self-esteem, assault, addiction, asexuality, pornography, homosexuality, fetish and far more). My people wrote the Kama Sutra! Many Indians are far more open than you think. Even if you think I may be an exception among the world and among Indians with my open mother, the point is that one should never assume and that one should take care in valuing one type of knowledge and experience.
The effects of hypersexualisation – On sexual health and ingrained sexism
Sexual liberation/openness is very nuanced, so-called ‘openness’ can also be an overcompensation or disregard for the weight of the topic. Hypersexualisation often disempowers women while it is masked as the opposite.
Some of my Dutch friends or acquaintances coming from a nation of easy sexual health access hadn’t been tested once after being sexually active with multiple partners for years, unaware that it is good practice to get tested even when protection is used because you never know (mind, many don’t use it, more on that later), because kissing or oral sex can even transfer things, because people (especially men) are often asymptomatic but pass things on. Why take the risk when tests are free and easy?
Many Dutch starting sex lives at a young age, often brought up as positive, is actually often quite bad. Research finds that “among our sample of sexually active adolescent females, early sexual initiation and a history of risky partners is related to lower self-esteem”. Thus sex can severely affect one’s self-esteem, be it becoming their primary source of self-esteem, not addressing the core reasons, and/or not having the emotional maturity and knowledge to engage in sex fully informed, not only about the physical aspects but about the gravity of the emotional aspects too.
Risky sex practices early are extremely dangerous as having unprotected sex without prior testing can be a life sentence. My half-Dutch friend reflected on it as follows: “I think not getting tested is a generational issue too. It’s almost as if it’s so normal for people to have sex at a young age, that the risks of having sex seem to have been pushed a bit into the background. That said, the Netherlands is a country among those with the lowest teen pregnancy rates.” So they may not be getting pregnant, which is great, but there are definitely other issues worth addressing here. Perhaps these young people don’t care to learn and know the full reality of matters, or some posit the extreme individualist culture resulting in trains of thoughts such as “My fun is more important than the small yet lethal chance that I could pass something on I didn’t know I had”. Not only that, but doctors and society as a whole focus on safe sex in practical regard, but less in emotional regard. Also noteworthy is that the lack of the latter enforces sexism. This paper ponders the effect of sexual health matters often going through a family doctor as in issue, in that some worry about anonymity, as well as the family doctor not having time and resources to properly engage in sexual health.
My experience does not represent all Dutch people but I met a lot of sexually active, open Dutch youth and had numerous violations of my privacy, something I hadn’t experienced elsewhere despite hypersexualisation being a widespread global phenomenon.
The lack of knowledge among many people who patronised and pressured me makes one question who is really ‘innocent’.
Going off my friend’s point, relative to the esteemed sexual liberation of the country, I also noticed a severe lack of education on the impacts of hormonal contraception and people and doctors alike encouraged consuming it like a daily vitamin, without going in-depth, favouring prevention of young pregnancy if they’re going to have sex anyway. This study on contraception in Europe explains that hormonal contraception is often recommended by the providers rather than women opting for it and concludes a great deal of progress is needed regarding awareness. In the Netherlands, I do believe it is taught in school, but perhaps not emphasised enough because there were little awareness and adequate emphasis on it causing depression, increasing certain cancer risks, weight gain, skin effects, mood swings, libido changes and far more. Men often simply expected women to be “on it”, unaware of the weight of what they expect in favour of their sexual pleasure.
It actually reflects that sexism is far more pervasive in the Netherlands than many are willing to admit. Responsibility for pregnancy prevention is not simply ‘women’s stuff’ since it takes two to tango and men can impregnate far more than women can be impregnated. Doctors seem to prescribe contraception without adequate emotional support and knowledge given to women. Numerous young men I spoke to, or friend’s boyfriends, while perhaps willing to pay for contraception, beyond not knowing the trials women can go through on contraception, did not know basic information such as the fact that in the Netherlands, one actually needs a prescription for contraception. They also weren’t aware of the different types of it, combination pills, mini-pills, copper IUDs and hormonal IUDs etc. These men don’t seem to be taught about contraception nor do they seem to want to learn, as it really isn’t hard to learn this stuff with a short research session, or to ask a doctor.
These men don’t even think themselves sexist, not realising they are part of the problem, not the kind exception. Of course, these men often genuinely think women to be equal and capable, but are simply ignorant. Thus despite good intentions, do not realise how their ignorance perpetuates sexism, and that their intentions or thoughts do not really matter if they don’t take action through learning and spreading awareness. They need to be aware of the incredible amounts women are forced to go through for pregnancy prevention and understand what these women take, how it affects their bodies and then let her decide whether she wishes to, without the man’s sexual pleasure being a pressuring factor.
Even when a man does understand and learn, we end up thinking he’s so amazing, whereas it’s really just the bare minimum. The bar is depressingly low. Admitting deep-rooted sexism and actively speaking out is the way to be better, not purposely keeping yourself in the dark as many do. Not acceptable.
Proper sexual health access and knowledge are vital to any society. Even the Netherlands, with its higher degrees of openness and sexual health access, has much room for improvement. I spoke to a Dutch sexual health professional while there and she agreed with my frustrations. I booked a session purely to have a conversation with her regarding some questions I had about reproductive health. It was free and very easy to do. I had Dutch and international friends alike who were totally unaware of this. Once she had answered my questions, we discussed a little about the intense pressures and odd ideas of liberation and she understood where I was coming from, agreeing that it is unfortunate that many don’t take the free sexual health services. But on her end, she just had to support whoever did come in, give proper information and help, and try to explain to the pressured youth that they could take things at their own pace, and it would not make them any less whole.
To conclude, TL:DR
- One does not need to be very sexually active to be sexually open and aware. They can be and that’s fine. But it’s not a requirement.
- Sexual liberation/openness is very nuanced, so-called ‘openness’ can also be an overcompensation or disregard for the weight of the topic
- My experience is not indicative of all Dutch youth. But I met a fair few with whom I encountered these issues.
- I do not think these qualities are unique to the Netherlands per se, but this is a post on my experiences there and I noticed some hypersexualisation tendencies were particularly strong there
I encourage all readers to muse on this and your perceptions and bias, educate yourself, and let me know your thoughts. I’m very curious to know how others relate to this.
Written by Yaska Sahara.
Yaska Sahara is a 21-year-old British-Indian studying BA in South and Southeast Asian Studies at Leiden University. She writes short stories, travel musings, culture reflections and language learning tips from her experience speaking five languages on her blog. She is also looking to publish her book exploring themes of neurodiversity (particularly Tourette’s syndrome), mental health and friendships to show the capability and emotional range of teens!