British pupils think of sex as "dirty, illicit and desirable" while Dutch children treat it as natural, new research reveals.
Sex education is much less successful in the UK than the Netherlands because teachers here are pressured into delivering a negative message. But the Dutch just give the facts, say Jane Lewis of Oxford University and Trudie Knijn of the University of Utrecht.
They argue that social and political pressure, such as Section 28, which is still on the statute book, have made it hard for British sex educators to talk frankly about teenage sexuality and homosexuality. In the Netherlands, such issues are treated as part of daily life.
Despite greater efforts in the UK to discourage teenage sex, this country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. The Netherlands has one of the lowest.
During the last quarter of the 20th century, the birth rate per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in England and Wales stayed at about 40, while for Dutch girls it halved from 8.4 to 4.1.
Differences in British and Dutch attitudes can be seen in textbooks.
Professors Lewis and Knijn found British science texts both conservative and negative in their treatment of sex, even though it is legal at 16.
No British textbook printed photographs of naked men or women while most Dutch science books have full colour pictures of both. Diagrams representing sexual intercourse in British textbooks show couples from waist to mid-thigh only. In most, they appear with one leg each, as if they had been cut right down the middle.
In personal and social education materials, Dutch texts stress the positive aspects of relationships and sexual intercourse (always called "making love", whereas the British refer to "having sex").
In classes where teachers introduced scenarios in which a boy was asking a girl to have sex, the English teacher focused on how to say no; the Dutch teacher on how to decide when to say no - or yes.
The researchers found striking differences in classroom behaviour. In Dutch classrooms, pupils asked and answered questions without any of the crude jokes and name-calling from boys that routinely disrupts English sex education classes.
Jane Lewis is Barnett professor of social policy at Oxford University."Oxford Review of Education", vol 29, no 1, March 2003.www.tandf.co.uk