A Dutch Concert: Sexual education in multicultural schools

In: Thamyris 7: 1/2 (2000) 249-260


In the Netherlands, a discussion is starting how to deal with sexual education in a multicultural society. In this article, the focus is on the main antagonists in this debate: gay men who want to defend their hard won freedoms, and certain ethnic groups who sometimes object to both homosexual behavior and speaking about sex in public. The article reflects the Dutch situation where about 10% of the population consists of recent immigrants of Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan origin, their children and exiles of many different countries. Most Turks and Moroccans are Muslims who are often more traditional and conservative in sexual matters, not very different from Dutch fundamentalist Christians who make up another 10% of the population. The main argument of the article originates from an earlier publication that dealt with sexual education in multicultural Dutch schools. The background of this "pamphlet" will be explained later on in this article (Hekma & Doorduijn 1999).


There is a pervert logic in the meeting of Arab and Turkish Muslim and European Christian world. At the time of the crusades, Muslim culture harboured a world of poetry some of which was of men about boys (Wright & Rowson 1997). This reflected an old Mediterrenean tradition of older men pursuing younger men for pleasures that were becoming unmentionable in the Christian world. John Boswell (1994) has made a persuasive case for a lack of strong anti-homosexual feelings and concurrent stringent practices in the first millennium of Christianity. But sexual morals were changing and in 1120 on the Church Council of Nablus, in the Palestine territories of the crusaders, the first law against sodomy was proposed (Brundage 1987:213). The meaning of sodomy fluctuated between a broad definition of all non-procreative sex to a more specific one of anal sex between males or between man and animal.

Arab and Turkish worlds had among occidentals a reputation as a paradise for boy love and homosexual sex well into the twentieth century. Works and lives of many Western gay authors like Gustave Flaubert, Oscar Wilde, AndrÇ Gide, Franáois AugiÇras, Paul Bowles, Joe Orton, Jan Hanlo indicate the pederast and homosexual attractions of North-Africa (Aldrich 1993). But recently, a reversal has occurred in the cultural ascription of same-sex desires. While the Christian West for long periods objected to the widespread pederasty of the Muslim world, nowadays Muslims denounce the Europeans for spreading homosexuality, an inclination that would not exist in their cultures.

This reversed dichotomy of presence of homosexuality in the West and absence in the Arab world plays a role in these days in the cultural exchange between Muslim immigrants and groups that claim to represent the original Europe. The occidental view often includes the idea that secularized Westerners are tolerant of same-sex practices and preferences while Muslims would have intolerant attitudes. The mutual reproaches have led to worries on intercultural communication regarding queer ambitions in the Netherlands.

We are dealing with a complex situation. At one hand, the concept of homosexuality with its meanings of fixed identities and exclusive desires based in nature, has indeed been a recent European invention, dating back slightly more than one century. At the other hand, Arab concepts of same-sex inclination and practice follow lines of age and gender difference and of passing desires. Most men pursue boys while being married without being homosexually identified as long as they keep to "masculine" roles. The few males who continue to harbour passive desires into adulthood, have been infected with those because they were too often sodomized in their early youth. These men are more like women in their craving to be penetrated. While similar representations were also widespread in the northern parts of Europe, they have slowly been replaced by ideas of homosexual identities that are not age- or gender-structured and of same-sexual relations that are interchangeable (Hekma 1999).

The attitudes towards same-sex practices went in different directions since the Middle Ages. Of course, liwat derived from the Koran (refers to the people of Lot) was similar to sodomy derived from the Bible (refers to Sodom where Lot lived) and was as well considered to be a sin. But the Muslim world has rarely known as far as we know the severe persecutions of sodomites that the Christian West witnessed since the days of Nablus when the relevant laws were passed. The attitudes went once more in opposite directions with the sexual revolution and the rise of gay and lesbian emancipation movements. Since the seventies, several states in Europe have abolished anti-homosexual laws and have granted equal rights to gays and lesbians like service in the army and partnerships. The Netherlands is on the verge of extending the right of marriage and adoption to same-sex couples. But this change has not been wholeheartedly and although discrimination of homosexual people has become illegal in many places, it remains part of Europe's cultural traditions while its virulent forms survive underground.

The reproach of Muslim pederasty has nowadays changed to the intolerant attitudes of Muslims with regard to homosexual people. At the same time, Westerners who criticize Muslims for their intolerance, have themselves difficulty in proving their tolerance as old bigoted ideas and practices linger on. Gay men have joined the jeremiads on homophobia of muslims and have stated to feel like a threatened species because the recent and limited results of gay and lesbian emancipation would be endangered by anti-homosexual attitudes of immigrants and ethnic minorities (Fortuyn 1997).

The situation has become more complicated because some Arabs and Turks, often also Muslims, have come out as gays and lesbians recently, or are becoming conscious of same-sex desires and identifications in themselves or among friends and family members. They participate in a gay world of bars, sauna's and parks and have started love relations among themselves and with cross-ethnic partners. In several European countries, organisations and disco's cater to this specific group, as in the Netherlands the International Platform of Turkish Homosexuals (IPOTH), the Arabian Nights for Arab and Yoesuf for Muslim gays and lesbians. The argument that queer identities and communities do not exist in the Arab or Muslim world has to be revised as growing numbers of gays and lesbians are making themselves visible in Europe and in the Arab world (see for overviews Schmitt & Sofer 1992 and Murray & Roscoe 1997).

Culture clashes

One of the first gay-muslim culture clashes in the Netherlands was in 1986- 1987 between a mosk and a gay group in Zwolle, in the Northern part of the country. The gay group was going to be housed in a building where a mosk was already located. The municipality followed the same kind of policy to be found elsewhere: the cultural and sexual minorities were brought together because they would be victims of similar forms of discrimination. But the municipality had still to discover that minorities also discriminate amongst themselves. The Muslims rejected the presence of gays as homosexuality would endanger the purity of their religious community while the gay group denounced the anti- homosexual attitudes of the Muslims.

But worse was to come. In the summer of 1996, newspapers picked up the news that among rapists, ethnic minorities were much more prevalent than white Dutch. Young males of Moroccan and Turkish descent were presented as prone to sexual violence. The hidden message was clearly that white girls would be the victims of non-white males. The other news concerned sexual education. "Black" schools (where the majority of kids is non-white) would be slow to give sex education because parents might object to it, because its representation of nude men and women would not fit Muslim morality or because the discussion of touchy topics like homosexuality would only lead to anti-gay slander. Another problem concerned the "whiteness" of sex education. In addition, gay teachers indicated they found it more difficult to come out and discuss sexual topics in present than in earlier days because anti-homosexual attitudes were increasing. They felt it had become once again unsafe to be openly gay in "black" schools (van den Akker 1996).

The culture clash is evident on more levels. Gay movement and gay clubs are largely white while whites are only a small majority in the urban population nowadays. Non-white youngsters with homosexual interests have great difficulty to act upon their desires because of their home-situation at one hand, and the whiteness of the gay scene at the other hand. Although they may be since long a special target for Aids-education, this will not reach them because of the barriers between them and the gay world. Although interracial sex and love is quite common among straights, lesbians and gays, the step from sexual to social communication is often difficult. Surinamese or white gays often socialize among themselves in disco's and on parties, while many depart in mixed couples for a night of shared pleasures (Sanders 1988).

Proposals for sexual education

The news of these culture clashes, especially regarding sexual education, awakened the interest of gay men and others working in different organisations. The teachers' union AOb, the multicultural organisation for ethnic minorities Forum and the Dutch Institute for Health Education NIGZ decided in 1997 to organize a conference and establish a steering group "National Platform (Homo)Sexuality and Education" (LWAHO) that had to propose recommendations for sexual education. Members of this group came from the mentioned groups and included representatives of the Turkish and Muslim gay and lesbian foundations IPOTH and Yoesuf while I participated for gay and lesbian studies. This steering group requested some research and organized meetings and published after two years of discussions a "pamphlet" which included many recommendations (Hekma & Doorduijn 1999).

Research was done among high school students of Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan descent. It appeared that most of them did not object to sexual education and even had a strong interest to know more about homosexuality. Only one third had received any information on the topic although it is expected to be part of sexual education. Prejudices were widespread, more among male than female students. Negative attitudes diminished rather quickly the longer students, or their parents, had lived in the Netherlands. The level of education was also relevant to the presence of anti-homosexual sentiments. The lower the level of education, the more the attitudes were prejudicial. A difference was noted between stances towards teachers and family members. Accepting a gay brother or lesbian sister appeared much more difficult than accepting a gay or lesbian teacher. The research did not include a comparison with white students, so it remains unclear to which extent white and non-white students have different attitudes (de Vries 1998).

The problems regarding sexual attitudes are of course not specific for ethnic minorities as the white Dutch themselves did not get rid of their own bigotry and ambivalence. Teachers have moreover no training and little incentive to discuss sexuality in general and homosexuality specifically. The media may discuss sex at length and in more private situations there may be a lot of small talk on sexual topics, but a serious discussion still falls silent. This is not so different in schools or in Dutch parliament because erotic topics are still viewed to be private matters that do not belong in public realms.

In the most general respect, the LWAHO advised in the pamphlet to put sexuality in all its variations on the agenda to contribute to a safe school culture and to the sexual and gendered self-development of students. This means that not only physiology, venereal diseases and sexual harassment are discussed, but also seduction, self-stimulation and sexual variations, different forms of love and coupling, or the language, literature, geography and history of eroticism and sexuality. The focus should be on both white and ethnic cultures. It should also change from more negative to more positive depictions of sexual life, from disease and abuse to seduction and pleasure. The establishment of such education requires the creation of an infrastructure that makes sexual knowledge available from primary school to university by way of courses, libraries, websites, documentation centers and so forth.

To continue a tradition of silencing sexual topics was never discussed seriously in the committee. Both white majority and various minorities may have known a past when silence, taboo and privacy were dictates when it came to erotic expression, but in the sexualized societies of today this is no longer an option. These precepts favored in the past forms of straight domination for which such rules did not apply while among most groups secret homosexual relations between men were for the younger age groups allowed as safety valves. For a multicultural society that wants to include plural sexual options, silence is a past station. It breeds mutual contempt and violence and continues a culture of prejudice.

Nahas (1999) ascertained that information in itself is not forbidden for Muslims but a moral content would pose a problem. It means that sexual teaching can indicate ethical issues but should not enforce a particular view. Of course it will difficult to put into practice such neutrality or objectivity. In a panel discussion organized by the LWAHO, I raised from the public the question if the Marquis de Sade's work could be taught on an equal footing with Muslim or Christian perspectives. It confused the panel members very much and made clear that Dutch high schools are not ready to catch up with more libertarian views.

A central role should be played by the schools' administrations because they have to create an open culture that supports sexual and gender diversity and an infrastructure for a broad sexual education. The inspection of Dutch high schools was requested in the pamphlet to pay attention to the general situation regarding sexuality and gender. It had already done a survey on anti-homosexual discrimination in high schools among 600 teachers of "trust" who have a task in cases of harassment. Ten percent of them reported to have been confronted with 169 cases of anti-homosexual incidents including verbal insults and physical injuries, both directed to other students and teachers. In less than half of the schools education on homosexuality was available. The inspectors opined that many more cases of abuse and discrimination must exist but are silenced. The inspection recommended to create a school culture open to sexual diversity and to provide more education on the topic. Not silence, but verbosity and intercultural communication are the remedy.

A subsequent problem that was discussed by neither committee nor inspection, was the question of putting words into practices. How should schools, parents and society deal with erotic expressions of youngsters? Of course, the hope was expressed that a broad sexual education would make it easier for them to find their own ways. But there are still laws that forbid them to have sex before the age of 16. And they will have difficulty to find lovers that respect and fulfil their desires or places where to find such lovers and have sex. Gay spaces are still very rare outside the urban centers, while lesbians or people interested in other sexual variations have even fewer locations to find love and sex.

Several themes need more research according to the committee. In the first place, we should learn from experiences of teachers and students and pay attention to the actual forms of sexual education and its effects. For most teachers it is easier to generalize from sexual topics to love, gender relations, physiology of genitals or to subsume homosexuality under sex "in general". It is however very important to address difficult sexual themes directly and specifically. In my opinion, it might be better to first address homosexuality or gender variation and, if time allows, to pay afterwards attention to "general" sexuality. In the second place, more research should be done on processes of sexual and gender identification in schools, in particular on the situation of youngsters with variant identifications. According to me, the main question of the future will become how to move beyond traditional gender and sexual rules and how to create a multigendered and plurisexual environment in schools where peer groups continue to inhibit the development of sexual and gender diversity.

Sexual state of society

At present, the crossing of gay and ethnic emancipation has ambiguous results. While representatives of ethnic minorities have endorsed gay and lesbian emancipation, and the gay and lesbian movement has never explicitly opposed ethnic emancipation, the battle rages on in streets, on schools and elsewhere. Arab men have been removed from gay bars and dark rooms because they were considered to be pickpockets (and sometimes indeed were) while the white gay and lesbian movement has most often had difficulty embracing queers of colour. At the other side, imams have preached against homosexuality in their mosks and Muslim students have harassed gay teachers. Moroccans went to the streets in Utrecht in the summer of 1999 after the media had mentioned that the new king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, would be a gay man, and had thus put to shame the king and his subjects. At the same time, there have been several but not well-coordinated efforts to bring education on gay and lesbian topics to schools with mixed results. A recent video-project that deals with gay discrimination, is felt by high school students to discuss ethnic, not gay themes. It very much depends on school authorities to provide gay and lesbian information but most of them are not ready for it. It has been suggested to make sexual themes part of national programs and examinations that will force all schools to pay attention to such topics.

For both majority and minorities, it appears difficult to adapt their traditions to postmodern times that are not only multicultural but are also becoming multisexual. Clinging to traditions of silence and opprobrium that were observed in the fifties or in the deep province, is no viable option in these days that offer an overdose of information in the media and on internet, certainly with regard to sexual problems and pleasures. Parents are no longer able to force children down the holy road of their religion and culture or into a heterosexual mould. While some people continue to cling to such traditions, many others look for new alternatives or syncretic solutions. The main question is the organization of social life taking into account the many different cultural and sexual demands and desires. It means that a main effort will be to create respect for each others' cultural and erotic expressions in public life. A central problem will be acceptance of public forms of variant sexual expressions like lesbian motherhood or gay cruising that were for centuries objects of social rejection. Schools that have to guide children to a multicultural and polysexual civic society, have to make more efforts to put into practice the appropriate education. Societies are becoming a patchwork of cultural including sexual forms. Their legal and cultural institutions will have to reflect this diversity. Neither whites nor non-whites are well prepared for cultural and sexual pluriformity.

In Dutch society, gay men and lesbian women will very soon face no legal discrimination any longer. They are allowed to enter the army and an anti- discrimation law protects them as well as women and ethnic minorities. The government has promised to extend the rights of adoption and marriage to same- sex couples, and is expected to do so over the next year. At the same time, social discrimination has not disappeared among neither the old nor the new Dutch. Nearly half of the young men participating in the national survey on sex and youth indicated to disapprove of sex between males (Brugmans c.s. 1995:19). The efforts to combat such attitudes are ambivalent because of a general feeling among the Dutch that enough has been done for gay and lesbian emancipation, like for emancipation of women and ethnic minorities. Cases of discrimination are often seen as specific and not generic. Apparently, far too little has been done when such large percentages of young men who have grown up in a society where anti-homosexual discrimination would have disappeared, still show a strong dislike of homosexuality, and where heterosexuality remains the norm.

At the positive side, there is a slow proliferation of sexual practices and identifications. Apart from the Dutch gay and lesbian organizations that have a long history dating back to the early twentieth century, gay and lesbian Surinamers, Turks and Arabs have created their own groups. At the same time the gay and lesbian world is diversifying. There are organizations for lesbian mothers, pink soldiers, queer activists, interethnic couples and there are parties for sexual variations and fetishes like kinky, rubber, leather, sportswear, uniform, golden shower, s/m, spanking. The tradition of mati- relations among Surinamese women has not disappeared among immigrants in the Netherlands (see Thamyris 5:1). It can be expected that the innovation and mixing of erotic cultures, however marginal such developments still are, will lead to new syncretisms in love and sex and that lines of sexual, religious and cultural identification will slowly get blurred. Sexual cultures have shown to be dynamic over the last three decades, and there is no reason why this would change with all the technological advances that have always been used immediately for sexual options. The main question remains how much public space societies will allow for erotic aims, also in the educational system. Or to phrase it in broader political terms: how white straight male hegemony in public and private will be deconstructed.

Because of the legal rights for gays and lesbians, the Netherlands are often seen as a gay paradise. It is better to say the Netherlands has reached a new stage where abolition of legal discrimination has not eradicated social prejudices or subverted straight domination. The homosexual movement that should combat such discrimination, enters its end phase and seems not to be prepared for a new phase of sexual emancipation, to make the change from a legal to a social struggle. Most gay men and lesbian women tend to forget their own conflicted adolescence in straight environments and feel quite well in their new adult situations. They rather tend to ignore that Dutch society is a straight domain where by far most kids continue to grow up in families and vicinities and go to schools where heterosexuality is the norm and other erotic pleasures are seen as aberrations. Where very little space is given to gender and sexual difference. They even care less about kids of ethnic origin and variant erotic interests whose fates are often more onerous. The greatest effort in the Netherlands will be to make social life sexually diverse and to create access for young people of all ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions to erotic worlds they may be interested in. To add multisexuality to multiculturality, that avowed goal of Dutch politics. To teach students of all ethnic backgrounds on medieval Arab boy-love poetry or Surinamese mati- relations. Schools must play a central role in this process because it is the institution that prepares youngsters for civic society. Not educational policies, but sexual pleasures ought to be a Dutch concert where every bird learns to sing its own song.


Dutch society is tolerating, not accepting sexual or ethnic diversity. The Dutch are largely conformists who comply with differences but keep them at a distance. Their attitude could be summarized as indifference to difference. Social integration means most often cohabitation, not intermingling of various cultures while white, straight and male norms continue to define public life. Because efforts of ethnic, gay and feminist emancipation are often directed towards the center of politics and culture, and not towards its more innovative margins or each other, chances are high that the center will set the norms. It will defend its whiteness in agreement with gays against various ethnic minorities and its straightness in accordance with ethnic groups against sexual diversity. Coalitions between the different mariginalized groups in rainbow-like combinations are rare and are not expected to develop strongly in the near future.

Dutch society allows the different groups to exist, including gay Muslims or black lesbians, but it will not change its culture in polycultural or multisexual directions. It will not devote great efforts to diversify the curricular of its schools or public life. This hesitation feeds a justified concern that at one hand, large parts of the ethnic groups will become for ever part of a social underclass. At the other hand their growing presence and conservative influence in sex matters in Dutch cities that house the erotic margins, will hamper the emancipation of everybody's pleasures. Dutch indifference might thus end in cultural and sexual stagnation while few of the concerned groups produce major efforts to counter new forms of pillarization or to oppose the sexual and cultural homogeneity of Dutch society. Sexual cultures are excellent social laboratories of cultural and erotic exchange and intermingling. Sexual pleasure offers excellent possibilities to break down cultural barriers. But the Dutch concert has too few voices that counter the erotic timidity and normalcy of its population. To produce culturally diverse sexual worlds is beyond the imagination of most Dutch and their political leaders. They may be liberal towards others, not for themselves.

In the wake of a continuous series of pedophile scandals inside and outside the Netherlands (Rossen 1989, Jenkins 1998), the drive to supply sexual education to youngsters is becoming weaker. The unreasonable anxiety concerning children's sexuality impedes once again bodily intimacy or sexual language in adult-child relations. If the most innocent acts and words are being construed as sexual harassment or culpable desire, there is a little chance that either parents or teachers will have a strong incentive to provide sexual education or develop easy-going attitudes. The pedophile craze inhibits an open sexual culture and a free discussion on sexual education. In a society that becomes always more sexualized and where problems of intercultural communication on erotics are growing, the imposed silence creates major dangers of socio-sexual interaction. Youngsters will face growing problems to become sexual and gendered beings along their preferred lines because no one puts them on the way of self-deployment.

The contemporary sexual ideology that stresses the nature, maleness and privacy of sexuality and favours the view that sex only belongs within love relations, inhibits the development of a sexual culture that is public and open to women and men of all colours and differentiates sex and love. To counter their sexual stagnation Western societies need social spaces for the cultivation of erotic pleasures and loving relations that are both multicultural and polysexual (Hekma 2000). Apparently, there is a long way to go.

Gert Hekma, Gay & Lesbian Studies, University of Amsterdam


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