How Libertarian is the Netherlands? Exploring Contemporary Dutch Sexual Cultures
Some years ago, I conducted research on gay men and lesbian women in organized sports in the Netherlands. The government wanted to know about discrimination and racism in sports, as well as about discrimination against gays and lesbians. The results were both comforting and disturbing. They were comforting because there was little discrimination, but they were disturbing because of the reason: gays and lesbians in general kept silent about their preferences. Discrimination only occurred in the most brazenly lesbian sport: women’s soccer. Most incidents of violent and verbal abuse happened precisely in the sport where lesbians prevail, so much so that some soccer clubs even refused to have women’s teams. The conclusions were clear: if gays and lesbians were to come out of the closet, and to begin to speak as freely as straight athletes did about their sexual interests, they would undoubtedly face discrimination. At the time of our research, violence and abuse were absent because homosexual interests and preferences were silenced (Hekma 1994).
This research led me to wonder about Dutch liberalism, particularly since half of our respondents lived in Amsterdam, which is reputed to be an international “gay capital” (Hekma, 1999). Yet the situation for gay men and lesbian women has not been as rosy as the permissive media image of the Netherlands suggests. Not surprisingly, the government used only the positive findings from my research, in order to point to a lack of discrimination. What was quickly passed over was the reason for gays’ and lesbians’ continued silence: the persistent fear of displaying homosexual desire in a straight world. This chapter seeks to explain the meanings of the gap between the libertine reputation and conservative practices of the Dutch.
The argument of the chapter runs as follows. First, I discuss the discrepancy between liberal Dutch sexual attitudes and conservative sexual practices. Second, I seek to explain this discrepancy by pointing to a one-sided sexual ideology that privileges nature over culture, male over female, love over sex, and private over public, while insisting upon the absolute antagonism between sex and violence. This is an ideology which stems from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, one which has been altered little by the various sexual revolutions that have occurred since that time. In the conclusion to this chapter, I suggest that the ideological apparatus which surrounds sex in theNetherlands ought to be expanded to create a greater variety of erotic possibilities and choices for individuals.
Contemporary Sexualities in the Netherlands
Paradoxes abound when it comes to sexuality in the Netherlands, not only with regard to the gap between homosexual practices and identities. Another paradox exists between tolerant sexual attitudes, on the one hand, and the actual amount of sexual experimentation on the other. Explicit sexual imagery is pervasive in the media, and many people seem to enjoy this. But, in general, very few people ever do themselves what they see depicted in these images, according to national sex surveys (Zessen & Sandfort 1991).
After the sexual revolution of the sixties, some commentators predicted an explosion of sexual freedom. According to all recent sex surveys, this did not happen. What did happen, according to sociologists, was that mainstream attitudes caught up with long-term changes in sexual practices. People had long been doing what they “should not” do. Before the 1960s, people were already participating in the acts that, after the sexual revolution, they would perform with less shame and secrecy (Schnabel 1990). Before the 1960s, morality and practice diverged, but in the 1960s the Dutch began to accept their own behaviors. Morality and practice came into agreement, and then morality got ahead of practice. Since the 1960s, fewer men have homosexual sex while more men define themselves as gay. While the Dutch have become more accepting in many areas of sexuality (with the notable exception of children’s sexuality)practices lag behind.
The general template for contemporary Dutch sexual practices can be summarized as follows: serial monogamy with a limited promiscuity at the beginning of sexual careers, and faithfulness in relationships. The normal sex act is coital with some oral foreplay, and other forms of sex are infrequent. Coital sex is so normalized that government campaigns tend to see a choice only between sex with a condom and no sex at all, as if most sexual practices were unsafe without a condom. Prostitution is now on the decline, both for sexual initiation and for extramarital sex. Less than 3 percent of Dutch men report having experience with prostitutes (Zessen & Sandfort 1991:92).
To keep desire alive inside sexual relations, the consumption of soft pornography is on the rise. The Dutch use twice as much pornography as do U.S. citizens (Zessen & Standfort 1991:121; Laumann et al.:135). In the Netherlands, more men say they are gay than in Britain or in the U.S.A., but fewer men participate in homosexual acts (Zessen & Sandfort 1991:80-81; Wellings et al. 1994:182-189; Laumann et al. 1994:293-294). Homosexual behavior is becoming confined to a small minority, while the traditional sexual border traffic between gay and heterosexual men, between “queen” and “trade,” is disappearing (Hekma 1992; Chauncey 1994). Meanwhile, self-stimulation is on the rise for both men and women (Zessen & Sandfort 1991:128-129). One could argue that with individualization comes onanization. Feelings of guilt about masturbation are slowly disappearing, more quickly in Holland than in the U.S. (Zessen & Sandfort 1991:130; Laumann et al. 1994:85).
Since the 1970s, the Netherlands has been among the nations with the most open-minded attitudes toward abortion, contraception, premarital sex, pornography, prostitution and homosexuality (Zessen & Sandfort 1991: 102-103). Because of the strong commitment to relations premised upon love, extramarital sex is becoming less tolerated. This belief in love and equal relations is the basis for the wide acceptance among the Dutch of gay and lesbian marriage. An exception to Dutch tolerance is everything that is connected to child sexuality, from incest to child pornography to sex play among children. After discussions of the sexual abuse of children emerged in the late seventies, intergenerational sex has become coterminous with abuse (Rossen 1989. In 2001, the government raised the age of consent from 12 to 16 years, and raised the legal age for working in pornography or prostitution from 16 to 18. The law passed parliament with a very rare unanimous vote (De Nieuwe Sekstant 82:2, summer 2002, p. 36).
Shifts in Dutch social attitudes have been reflected in other legal changes as well. Statues regarding abortion, pornography, public sex, and homosexuality have become less strict (Melai 1980; Moerings & Swier 1997) Earning money from prostitution was legalized in October, 2000. Prostitution is now considered to be normal labor for all parties concerned and regulated at the level of the city. Today, sex workers have their own organizations, and streetwalkers have been provided with safe zones (called “tippelzones”) where they can solicit clients under the protection of the police (NRC Handelsblad 1999). However, the social acceptance of prostitution lags behind legal improvements, as it continues to be seen by most Dutch citizens as an abject profession. For gays and lesbians, additional important changes have transpired in the last 30 years. Since 1974, they have been allowed entry into the armed forces (Ketting & Soesbeek 1992:6). Since the 1980s, gay cruising areas are no longer raided, but rather are protected by the police (Lieshout 1995). The Dutch Army and the police specifically advertise for gay and lesbian soldiers and officers. Since April, 2001, legal marriage has been available to same-sex couples, and has included full social and financial rights, including adoption (De Gay Krant 432, March 31, 2001).
The sexual policies of the Netherlands which seem, on the surface, to make sex more easily and widely available, in practice have not had this effect. To the contrary, legally protected forms of sex, such as homosexuality and prostitution, are even on the decline. It is my contention that the main explanation for this is to be found in another field of sexual politics. Today, men and women alike restrict their sexual pleasures to stable relationships, in a sense realizing the vision of Friedrich Engels (1883:511), who argued that under socialism, not only women, but men too would be monogamous. The Netherlands has become a sexual-social democracy, premised upon equal and monogamous partnerships. Outside of the context of stable relationships, both men and women have difficulty finding pleasure.
I offer the following explanations of why the Dutch, notwithstanding their liberal reputation, still have a sexual culture that remains highly restricted. This, while in other fields of consumption, social differentiation has developed far more quickly. The points I am making are not specific to the Dutch, but pertain largely if in different ways to other Western countries. My examples will be, however, mainly from Holland.
My questions are: why didn’t the sexual revolution bring about a revolution of erotic practices? Why was a fuller range of sexual freedom not realized? What obstacles keep tolerant attitudes from becoming libertine practices? One could argue with Foucault (1976) that experienced freedoms are also expressions of power effects, and the repression of sexualities a side effect of their production. With certain feminists, one could argue that, under conditions of male dominance, men’s sexual freedom and women’s sexual subjection are merely two faces of the same coin (MacKinnon 1989). Or with Bataille (1957), one could argue that Eros and Thanatos (the death and sex drives) are closely linked. While acknowledging the merits of these arguments, in this chapter I will investigate a series of additional obstacles to sexual expression in contemporary Western societies.
I have identified five major obstacles to sexual freedom that prevail in Western ways of thinking. The first is the sexual-gender division, the second is the view that sex and sexuality belong to nature, the third that sex and love should be combined, the fourth that sex is a private affair, and the fifth that sex should be non-violent.
1. Sex is a male affair. In sexual surveys, men confess to engaging in more sex than women in nearly all domains: heterosexual and homosexual acts, masturbation, and the use of pornography (Zessen & Sandfort 1991; Spira et al. 1993; Wellings et al. 1994; Laumann et al. 1994). Men define themselves in sexual terms more frequently than do women. Women answer affirmatively in higher percentages than men only in response to questions of sexual abuse and the desire to be dominated (Zessen & Sandfort 1991:125; Laumann et al. 1994:336). The gender division is even clearer in the world of prostitution. Prostitution transactions consist almost exclusively of men buying the services of women, and when men sell their bodies, they do so primarily for other men (Visser & Oomens 2000; Pheterson 1996 ). While there are some male sex-workers who cater to women (O’Connell Davidson and Sanchez Taylor, this volume), this is a small minority of the sex trade in most locations. A rather intriguing new trend, the presence of male-to-female transsexuals, transgendered persons, and transvestites among female prostitutes, seems to interrupt the gender dichotomy, but it also strengthens the male sexual position as consumer of prostitution, with men and former men offering sexual services alongside women to so-called heterosexual men (Bast 1997).
Gender differences are also very clearly in evidence amongst gays and lesbians. While there are dozens of gay institutions in Amsterdam, as in other “gay capitals,” the number of lesbian venues is less than a dozen. Gay spaces offer access to sex in dark rooms, saunas, and public cruising areas, whereas the few endeavors to organize public sex spaces for lesbians have failed (Kooten Niekerk & Wijmer 1985; Nijboer 1994; Hekma 1992 and 1999 ).
Admittedly, the range of sexual practices that women participate in has expanded a great deal in recent decades. Women now attend sex parties, participate in S/M, fetish and exhibitionst groups (Rubin 1991; Squires 1993), and have even broached the topic of female pedophilia (Sax & Deckwitz 1992). But the women who do so are a tiny minority, in much smaller proportions than men. The only dark room for heterosexuals in Amsterdam attracts many more men than women. The gender disparity is further revealed by the fact that women or heterosexual couples who go to parties and discos do not have to pay for entry, while men alone or in groups are charged an entrance fee.
The sexual-gender division is very clear: since the late eighteenth century, women have been considered in Western thought to be asexual or love-oriented, and sex has primarily been a male privilege. Until the eighteenth century, women were believed to become prostitutes out of lust; in the nineteenth century the explanation was more often found in socio-economic conditions, especially poverty. Since that time, men have been believed to desire sex, and women to desire love (Pol 1996; Laqueur 1990; Kraakman 1997). Although the modern sexual-gender system has come under criticism, its broad parameters are still intact. Gender differences may be slowly disappearing in many areas in the Netherlands, but the erotic field remains resistant to change.
In the Netherlands, the state actively perpetuates the sexual-gender divide that is produced in families and peer groups. As part of feminist sexual policy, the government fights against the sexual oppression of women. It is very active in the struggle against sexual abuse and the trafficking of women. Accordingly, public school sex education and commercials produced by the government instruct girls and women to say "no" to the sexual advances of boys and men, and instruct boys and men to accept that girls and women say "no". The presumption of this kind of education is both sexist and heterosexist. Teaching children only how to civilly decline heterosexual sex does not help children of either gender to explore their sexual preferences, or to enjoy sex in all its diversity. Teaching kids to say "yes" to sex might more effectively instil a healthy sexuality, because once they had learned to say "yes" to what they desired, they would also know to say "no" to specific undesired or destructive sexual propositions.
2. Sex is natural. Sexuality is defined by the state, public education, and science as a drive, an instinct that resides in genes and hormones. Sexual preference is presumed to be founded in bodily structures such as genes, brains or chromosomes. Most research on sexual preference is on the physiology of gay men's sexual choices, as if the sexual preferences of heterosexuals and lesbians were blank spots (LeVay 1993). Sex education, in most cases, is confined to physiology and partnership: discussions about the physiology of genital organs, making relationships work, and some information about pregnancy and venereal disease. It rarely addresses courtship, seduction, sexual acts, bodily functioning, or the culture and history of sex. Masturbation is not considered something you have to learn; supposedly it comes naturally. Sex education is about the prevention of disaster, not about the production of pleasure.
The overwhelming message is that sex is natural. There is a strange refusal to acknowledge the cultural sides of sex. This is all the more problematic given prevailing levels of sexual harassment and abuse. The belief in the naturalness of sex offers a ready excuse to men who perpetrate sexual abuse—they say that they could not “help it,” because their hormones forced them to do what they should not do. Yet the last thing authorities consider is education about sexual etiquette, styles, and cultures, because they generally believe sexuality is natural and flows unmediated from genes and hormones. Although most contemporary social theorists believe that sex is culturally constructed, there are very few people outside this discipline or academia who share that viewpoint.
The contemporary idea of the nature of sex has been handed down from the eighteenth century, as physical nature replaced divine nature. During the Enlightenment, religious explanations were replaced by biological and physiological explanations. The nineteenth-century Darwinian theory of evolution and early sexology spread and strengthened the idea that sexuality was founded in nature, but philosophers such as Lamettrie and Sade had come up with the idea a century earlier (Hekma 1987: 30; Stockinger 1979). Since the late nineteenth century, sexual preference, especially male homosexuality, has been considered to be innate (Wettley 1959; Lanteri-Laura 1979; Hekma 1987; Bullough 1994; Oosterhuis 2000). Since the 1980s, ideas about the nature of sex have been strengthened even more (Fausto-Sterling 2000). The Dutch government promotes this message in its propaganda, in media campaigns and on billboards. Yet what Western societies most need is not naturalization of desires, but sexual culture, or cultivation of sexuality.
3. Sex is love. From sexual and social surveys, it appears that most Dutch people strongly endorse the idea that sex should be confined to love or marital relations. A large majority of the youth endorse the idea of sexual fidelity (Vogels & Vliet 1990:80-82). The vast majority of heterosexual and lesbian people want to be faithful to their partners. Only among gay men is it quite common to separate love and sex, although the emergence of gay marriage has made many gay men wary of promiscuity. Few people accept extra-marital sex. Jealousy is very much an artifact of the present time, however outdated the concept may seem.
Remarkably, throughout most of Western history, love was defined in opposition to sex. In medieval courtly love, sexual acts were excluded. Spiritual love was ascetic. . Even the romantic love tradition was platonic, that is to say non-sexual (Paz 1993; compare Goodrich 1996). Until the twentieth century, marital relations expressed primarily economic or social necessities, rather than an ideal of egalitarian or democratic loving relations. Marriage was a contract between families, not between individuals who had fallen in love. Only very recently has the idea that sex and love should be combined become general practice and ideology.
Yet combining love and sex may pose severe problems both for love and for sex. Kinsey (1948:226-227) noted that the sexual output of men diminished in their twenties, and he argued that this was to be explained by male sexual physiology. Later Dannecker and Reiche (1974:200-203) re-analysed this decline not as a biological fact, but as a result of sexual boredom in marital relations. They found that their gay population that did not combine sex and love continued to have a high sexual output until their late thirties, and that sexual activity declined only after age 40, due to the fetishism of youth in gay culture. A recent American survey analysed sexual adaptation in couples and came to the conclusion that basing sex in love is unrealistic because it is highly improbable that people who suit each other in love, also suit one another sexually (Laumann 1994:161-171). Often, people divorce one another when sexual desire is extinguished. Nevertheless, because marriage is culturally defined as the major road to both sex and love, most people will seek the fulfilment of their sexual desires and loving relations inside this institution.
4. Sex is private. One of the strongest ideas concerning sex relates to privacy. The liberal argument is that the state and the citizen each have their own realm: the state is responsible for public affairs, and the citizen for his or her private affairs. The state should not touch upon the privacy of the citizen unless there is good reason to do so. Sexuality belongs to the private realm. This social order came about with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Before that time, sex was a public affair of families, villages, churches and the King. Showing the bloodstained sheets after the first wedding night was a custom that made sex a public affair. The French revolution brought with it a complete change in making sex a private affair. It introduced penal laws against public indecency forbidding all sex that was performed in public. This law replaced older laws that forbade non-marital and non-procreative sex, especially laws against lewdness and sodomy (Hekma 1987: 31-37).
Under the new regime, the private world was male and heterosexual. It was a world of respectability. All forms of sex that did not fit this model were driven into public where they were liable to persecution under public decency laws. In the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, public decency laws were mainly used against same-sex acts between men. At the end of the century, the new category of exhibitionism was added, while heterosexual sex rarely was persecuted. When it was, punishments were much less severe than for homosexual and exhibitionist cases (Hekma 1987:109). Only one case of lesbianism was prosecuted under this law in nineteenth-century Amsterdam, which even figured in the Dutch translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1897:111) because of its rarity. There was, however, one main exception to the relegation of sex to the private world, and that was prostitution. Its public nature was reflected in terms such as "public women" and "public lewdness". Prostitution offered a safety valve against roaming male desires on urban streets, in order to protect the respectability of bourgeois women.
If the idea of privacy was central to liberal, and later also to socialist thinking, it did not mean that private sex was protected. In the first place, private and public carry quite diverse, and sometimes even opposing meanings. In legal cases in Holland, "public" was defined as what was visible from a public place, and there was discussion over whether privacy could be claimed in all kinds of semi-public places, such as army barracks, hospital wards, public toilets, or parks that were closed for the night. In general, opinion held that such places were public. In 1886, with the new penal law, public indecency came to include offences that took place in private but in the presence of non-consenting others (Smidt 1882:275ff.). In addition, sex acts with minors under twelve or assaults in private were considered criminal, and thereby public, offences. Marital rape, however, remained legal until very recently: in private, the husband had the right to do with his wife whatever he liked (Moerings & Swier 1997:14).
Meanwhile, citizens have been cut off more and more from public life over the last two centuries, and relegated its control to state bureaucracies such as the police. The street that has always been an extension of private life has been lost to the citizen and left to the police and other officials. The increasing political apathy of citizens could well be explained by the gradual loss of public space for private uses. The idea of sexual privacy is deeply ingrained in Western cultures and makes all signs of sexuality in public highly problematic, from sex acts to sex education to erotic imagery on the streets and in the media.
A prime example of the difficulties of making sex public is the “coming out” of gay men and lesbian women, as well as others with predilections once classified as "perversions". Such individuals are caught in a double bind: their preferences are considered to be a private matter, yet they have public consequences. In my research on sports and homosexuality, this double bind was clear: in Holland gay men and lesbian women hold stricter to their privacy than in the United States, and in general do not want to be considered part of a gay and lesbian community. The lesser extent of homophobia in the Netherlands might explain this reluctance on the part both of gays and lesbians and of heterosexuals to acknowledge the existence of specific gay and lesbian demands for public space and other facilities.
What is the public side of sex? Let me give some examples. For many people, sexual desire is stimulated by public sex. Some people like to make love in parks, forests or dark alleys; others simply have sex while leaving the door ajar or the windows open. Still other people make their sex life known through the sounds that they make. Couples in love show their excitement in full public view in squares and markets or in more secret lovers' lanes. Sex is also made public by the media, politics, education, and other social institutions. marriage, for example, is a public institution that regulates sex. However much or little is said in schools about sex, education has a sexual side(that is to say, whether you speak about sex or not, not speaking sends as clear a message as does speaking about sexualities in the classroom). Laws and law enforcement agencies deal regularly with forbidden forms of sexual desire. And finally, prime examples of a continuous stream of public sexual representations are those institutions that often try to hinder them: media and politics. Thanks to former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the media, the vaginal play with cigars has received worldwide exposure.
The rejection of claims to space by gays, lesbians, and others with alternative sexual interests makes public space into a heterosexual, respectable sphere which confirms the heterosexism of Dutch society. After a recent visit to Amsterdam, American sociologist and queer theorist Steve Seidman asked where homosexuality was visible in public life (Seidman 1994). His own implied answer to the question was quite clear: nearly nowhere. There are indeed very few signs of gay and lesbian life even in Amsterdam's public spaces. The Homomonument and gay and lesbian couples holding hands are the most manifest and renowned examples, but even those couples remain rare in the inner city. Other signs are only visible to cultural insiders, such as the rainbow or leather pride flags that indicate gay and lesbian venues. The most obvious sexual cultures in Amsterdam, and in some other Dutch cities, are the red-light districts, but they are closely controlled and curtailed. In the mental map of the Dutch, these places are off-limits. They may attract foreign tourists, but most respectable Dutch have the feeling that prostitution is a "necessary evil" that should be relegated to a place where they themselves will never venture.
At present, there is a feeling among many people in Holland that the sexual revolution has gone too far, and that we are witnessing a process of verloedering (filthification) of public culture. Signs of this filthiness are considered to be drug addicts, erotic postcards, sexual advertising, the offensive eroticism of the red-light districts, the sale of child and bestial porn, sex in the media, and ostentatious homosexuality. City authorities have, in turn, recently forbidden the public display of erotic postcards, arrested illegal prostitutes, and closed down bordellos where these women worked (Chorus 1995). Recently, right-wing groups tried to mobilize a popular sense of “decency” to combat the presence of erotic advertisements in public. A quite academic poster of Andres Serrano showing a female urinating on a male, and advertisements for pizzas and clothing exhibiting scantily clothed women have aroused the wrath of Dutch conservatives (Lamoree 1997; Brendel 1997). Broadcasters have promised not to show not only any violent, but neither any sexual imagery on Dutch television before 10 o'clock in the evening (Boogaard 1998). The major battlefield in the Netherlands might well become the sexual use of public space and the diversification of sexual cultures.In the late 1990s the city government of Amsterdam began to crack down on all kinds of hedonistic celebrations in public space, furthering the transfer of the street as an extension of private life, the domain of the citizen, to a public space controlled and regulated by state authorities. The police have set strict rules for gay and lesbian parades, closed down certain sex shops and a gay cinema because of the presumed availability of child pornography, and restrained gay cruising in several areas through building projects or the creation of new bicycle lanes (Hekma 1996; Maatman & Meijer 1992). In an ostentatious raid in a small alley in the Red Light District, the police tried to show they were in control of this district, and that they were able to stand up to the major, mafia-like criminal networks that were presumed to have invaded it (Fijnaut & Bovenkerk 1996 ). Yet the big fish were not arrested, but rather the petty criminals and illegal transsexual prostitutes who often are themselves victims of the mafia. Were it not for tradition, we might question why it is that Dutch people object so much to public sex and not to driving cars, eating, smoking, or practicing religion in public, all activities which are arguably as private as sexual ones, and some much more dangerous to other people. This crackdown is a marker of a process of de-liberalization going on in the Netherlands, as well as elsewhere in Europe.
5. Sex is Non-Violent. A discussion of sexual violence and conflict are in order, so that my perspective does not seem too idealistic. Violence and conflict also belong to the sexual domain, as they are a component of all social relations. In the 1960s, the slogan “Make love, not war” emerged, expressing the vision that sex and love could pave the way toward a happier, utopian world. But to imagine that love and peace can be equated is to presume that love and sexuality can be easily disentangled from conflict and violence.
Expectations that the sexual revolution would pave the way for a more peaceful world were shattered when second-wave feminists opened up a cloaca of rape and abuse. In the 1970s, men’s desire for heterosexual sex came under attack because it often involved force and exploitation. In the 1980s, sexual ideals were once more shattered by the rise of venereal diseases, and especially by the (at that time) fatal disease, AIDS. In the same years, the terminology of abuse was extended in both feminist and popular discourses, so that even voluntary intimate acts could be defined as abusive if they transpired between children or between social unequals. Western culture’s traditionally widespread and diffuse fear of sex transformed itself into a fear of dangerous intimate acts.
Violence inheres in sexual relations in a number of ways. The emotional pressures on sexual relationships make them conflictual and potentially violent. Since violence is inherent in all social relations (political, economic or otherwise) it would be surprising if sexual connections were free of it. Feminist scholars have rightly criticized the idea of the home as "a haven in a heartless world" (Lasch 1979), and suggestions that the private world, where sexuality is generally located, is a space where violence and conflict do not exist. Yet violence and sexual desire may be intertwined in other ways as well.. Many people have preferences for S/M, and others who have no such explicit fantasies may harbour dreams about forced sex. The ideal of sexual equality or democracy runs counter to existing social inequalities, and may even be counterproductive for sexual pleasures that can be stimulated by various contrasts, such as gender, bodily aesthetics, power, age, class, colour, and so forth. Difference, like disgust, is a frequent companion to desire.
The notion of consent, conceived of as absolute and essential, is another component of the denial of the conflict and violence that inhere insex. Ironically, theories about sexual relations promoted in sex education curricula are frequently premised upon a notion of informed consent, even if most forms of education are compulsory--children typically learn language, and other requisite life skills, without their consent, and will be grateful later to have been obliged to achieve such capabilities. Only in the field of sexuality is consent considered to be pivotal. In keeping with the belief that sex is natural, erotic techniques are not formally taught to children. They do not learn, not even in the Netherlands, to discuss sexuality frankly and openly (Paans 2002).
If sexual socialization were compulsory, like other forms of education, it might more adequately prepare children for their erotic lives. Most early sexual experiences are confusing for children, and often they are abusive. The provision of a controlled environment for early sexual training is a sensible solution for sex education in a highly sexualized society. Children are becoming sexual beings at about age 12, according to biologists and child psychologists (Graaf & Rademakers 2003; see also Schaffner, this volume). It thus seems self-evident to start with sexual education before that age, to prepare children to be sexually autonomous and to make meaningful sexual choices.
The concept of consent that is used in many theories of sexual ethics is highly problematic because of its voluntaristic and individualistic presuppositions. It neglects a social context in which most people "consent" to whatever sexual norms societies produce. It also neglects to address fluctuations in feelings about consent. People often consent to acts that, in afterthought, they assess as abusive and non-consensual. This contradiction can reflect a mismatch between desires and values.Conversely, people may oppose most vehemently that which they might like best.
Violence is central to sexual pleasures, ethics and relations. Any theory that denies the centrality of violence in its negative aspects, like harassment and abuse, and in its positive aspects, like introduction to pleasure, is necessarily incomplete. The denial of violence leads to the social production of sexual victims who are not enabled to overcome feelings of violation and mistreatment because they have only learned that sexuality should be non-violent and non-abusive (Kay, this volume). The representation of violence as the "bad" side of sexuality hinders a practical approach to sexual pleasure. Sex is indeed dangerous, but people should be prepared for such dangers, not avoid them. Instead of using a vocabulary of consent and choice, it would be better to create a sexual infrastructure that offered young and old people alike chances to invent new forms of relationships, pleasures, and ethics (a point which I shall elaborate upon in the following section).
How Libertarian are the Dutch?
The sexual liberalism of the Dutch is a surface phenomenon only. Beneath this veneer, the Dutch are nearly as restricted in their notions of sexual pleasure as the Americans, Russians or English. Despite the commercial appropriation of some forms of sexual relations (E. Bernstein, this volume), consumer capitalism has failed to influence sexual worlds and to expand sexual possibilities to the same extent for sex as it has for cars, vacations, and electronic media. That there is somewhat more acceptance of sexual diversity in the Netherlands than in other Western countries might be explained by Dutch pragmatism, and by a rather limited respect for minorities.
The Netherlands is an over-organized country with established rules for everything, from the colour of houses to the use of any square meter of its small surface. Strong state controls, combined with a dense population and lack of space, contribute to the fact that officials will quite often stumble on sexual topics. Leftover spaces, ruins or untouched nature resorts are very rare, which makes space for public sexual adventures limited. The strong "cowboy" individualism that is typical of U.S. culture had no chance to develop in the Netherlands. Struggles over public space for sports, nature, transport, highways, housing, and so forth are coming to the fore, and in such fights sex is always at the loosing end.
The sexual ideology of most Dutch, and of Westerners in general, is one-sided. It needs to be amended. It is not my intention to promote another one-sided ideology—e.g., polymorphous hedonism, as opposed to heterosexual monogamy--but to open up the traditional sexual ideology as outlined above to more options. Among the many forms of citizenship, sexual citizenship deserves a place in political debates (Bell & Binnie 2000). Sexual desire has become a central feature of private and public life and deserves the frankness and openness of debate and action that is pivotal to democracy.
Others have begun to craft proposals for the development of more diverse sexual cultures (Wal 1995, Vermeulen 1997). Returning to the research on sports that I began this chapter with, I could say that such cultures would have everything sports have: spaces, clubs, training, rules, referees, and libraries. A sexual infrastructure could be put in place for people who want to use it, and education might point the way for those who wish to learn more about their sexual interests and possibilities. Such a sexual infrastructure would be a safe, public place, controlled and protected by its users – probably safer than the private bedroom where intimacies take place without witnesses. It would offer a learning experience for people who wish to “have a look” before indulging themselves in such pleasures. It would offer educational material for young people to learn about sexual variety and responsibility. It would also offer examples for parents and teachers to broach sexual topics. Such public space is as essential for the cultivation of sexuality as it is for sport activities.
Holland may appear to be liberal, but it is only so to a limited degree. That other countries consider Holland to be so tolerant demonstrates the relative lack of sexual tolerance in Western cultures more generally. This lack increasingly influences Dutch policies because of processes of globalisation and integration. The Dutch are caught up in a European Union that remains sexually conservative, and are strongly influenced by U.S. politics, media, and scholarship that mirror the sexual fundamentalism of American society (Altman 2001). These processes endanger the small kernel of sexual liberalism that is present in the Netherlands. Although the Netherlands is developing into a multicultural society, I argue that, unfortunately, this society is not becoming multisexual.