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What Is Going Wrong With Sexual Citizenship Rights In The Netherlands?

by Gert Hekma in General , 02 juli 2012

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular have the reputation to be sexually liberal or tolerant places. The city is discussed in terms of a gay and sex capital where almost everything is possible. Dutch laws are liberal: no anti-gay laws, the first country to open marriage for same-sex couples, sex work legalized. The Dutch have the highest scores on sexual issues in value surveys: they say to be tolerant. There is little doubt that the Netherlands is a better place to enjoy sexually variant lives than the United States, Morocco, Zimbabwe and most other places.

But there are limitations on intimate human rights in the Netherlands. There is something wrong with our sexual citizenship. This concept means to say that we are not only political, economic, religious or gendered but also sexual citizens and that this is an essential part of our public life.

Many Dutch assume that being at the pinnacle of sexual freedoms means little is left to be done. They lay back. That was the attitude in 2001 when same-sex marriage was introduced.

At that time, many people said gay and lesbian emancipation was finished except for some small orthodox pockets, but otherwise we were “done.”

High pressure is put on those religious minorities to accept LGBTs like we see these days with the organization Different that should heal homosexuals, or with Muslim Moroccans. But legal emancipation of homosexuality did not mean social emancipation.

Dutch people embrace in surveys their acceptance of homosexuality but it does not mean prejudices and discriminatory practices disappeared. In fact, in the last decade since 2001 queers realized how much more is left to be desired when it comes to (homo)sexual emancipation.

Pro or Anti?

We all know the problems we still face. Young queers take a long time to come out, three to four years. Thirty percent of the budding gays rather likes not to be gay. Many of them show heteronormative behavior meaning they dislike showing effeminate or overtly sexual behavior or being too visible. High numbers have tried to commit suicide - and lesbian girls even more than budding gays. In this imposed heteronormative culture it does not amaze adult gays and lesbians have substantially more psychological problems than straight people.

There remains a lot of anti-gay and anti-lesbian violence. Many incidents have been reported about queer people who have been chased out of their homes. Schools are unsafe places for young queers where they are confronted with insults and other miseries while the responsible people rather neglect than oppose anti-gay attitudes. An age of consent at sixteen years forbids young queer and straight people to engage in sexual experiences but they nonetheless do it.

When it comes to the workplace, a third of gays and lesbians dares not to be out. Sport fields are unsafe places for LGBTs. And let’s not discuss the many gays and lesbians who take a low profile because they know many people don’t like queer visibility.

The nice numbers in surveys on acceptance of homosexuals, going up to ninety-five percent, are belied by the many people who don’t like to see two men kissing in the streets (nearly half of the Dutch) while a straight couple rarely creates such feelings of rejection. In research on anti-gay violence it also became clear that authorities (city hall, schools, youth work) who sometimes loudly claim to do all to fight against anti-homosexual attitudes were themselves not free of these - and did much less than they publicly announced.

They don’t take their responsibilities. Gay, lesbian, and gender emancipation needs major investments but governments only provide bits and snips - nice that they are doing it, but “drops in an ocean” - far too little to counter heteronormativity.


Homosexual topics are moreover a rather positive exception when it comes to sexual citizenship issues. Gay emancipation may get support from all political parties and has a high rhetorical value, but it becomes much less with other issues. Child pornography and intergenerational sex have become demonized. The number of laws and regulations to combat pedophilia has quickly grown - stiffer sentences, longer controls afterwards and other limitations. It doesn’t matter whether the sexual relations are desired or enforced. Bestiality had been no crime since 1811 but suddenly became one in 2010 with a North-Korean majority of 100% of the votes in parliament while experts joked about the mass-murder in the meat industry while loving an animal became a crime.

A main issue became threats to girls’ sexuality with “lover boys,” “breezer sluts” or grooming. Plasterk, former Labor minister of education and emancipation, condemned such dangers as “sexualization.” Instead of teaching all kids about sexuality - which he opposed – laws and regulations were the order of the day. The minister believed schools should teach language and mathematics, and he invested in religion education, but not in lessons about sexuality. Nobody complained there was too little sexuality, or too much religion in schools.

A major issue is the growing demonization of sex work. In 2000 Holland was the first country to legalize prostitution, but since the tone of the debate has completely changed. In Amsterdam, the City Council and in particular its Labor alderman, Asscher, have voiced worries about the abuse and trafficking of women as an integral part of the sex industry. Instead of prosecuting the perpetrators he rather chose to get rid of the windows in the red light district and making efforts to force sexuality out of the public sphere.

He did not show any concern for Amsterdam’s sexual reputation and the city’s traditional liberalism or that his policy affects the gay and lesbian world. He did not show either any concern for the economic and personal interests of sex workers, or the importance of the Walletjes as the city’s major tourist attraction. Neither did he see “sex in the city” as making Amsterdam a “sexual emancipation machine” - the Green Left has always supported the idea of the town as an “ethnic emancipation machine” while there is more reason to stress the first as few global cities defend the sexual rights of its citizens - whether they are gay, lesbian, sex workers, transgenders or other gender and sexual variants.

Perversion and Pathology

Another important issue is how sexual themes are framed. While in the past sexuality was seen as a biological and private issue, it has become an issue of sexual health. For a long time sexuality belonged to the realm of the natural and the private - as many scholars such as Dick Swaab should like to keep it - but it clearly is a question of pleasure, public rights and citizenship. It is a major issue that should be a topic of serious debate in politics and academia and not be left to popular emotions or moral demands.

This step to politics brings me to the question why sexuality remains so problematic and badly regarded. Why sexual taboos and silences remain widespread. Let me give some answers. In the first place the continuing tradition - now named Judeo-Christian (but the Islam has very much the same sexual tradition) - that has always deemed sexuality as something filthy, at best good for reproduction and only allowed in monogamous marital relations.

Abjection is still a strong feeling when it comes to sex, in particular regarding forms such as kissing men, anal sex, bestiality, child sexuality, prostitution or public sex (and remarkably the same people who oppose public sex love to look in zoos or at documentaries on nature to imagery that not only shows plenty of animal sex, but also the brutalities and violence that are its trademark).

In the second place the scientific study of sex has since the late nineteenth century only added to the rejection that sexual variation faces. All non-heterosexual sex was deemed to be perversion and pathology. The psychiatric profession may have acknowledged in 1973 that homosexuality is not a disease, but it kept to this classification for all other sexual variations. Trans, BDSM, fetishism, flashing belong according to medical science all to the realm of pathology.

Other sciences have kept by and large silent on sexual issues leaving the field to the insanities of psychiatry. Masturbation, the most innocent sexual act, was demonized by medical people as the worst thing young people could do from halfway the eighteenth to halfway the twentieth century. This moral panic has moved from masturbation to adolescent sexuality in general, compare the debate on sexualization. Progress is sometimes minimal or questionable.

In the third place there is a legal tradition that continues sex unfriendly attitudes. The criminalization in the period 1911-1971 of homosexual relations between minors and adults - and adult meant twenty-one years of age and above - is only a too recent history. It was based in the idea that homosexuals needed to seduce male and female youth to fill their ranks as they did not make babies. Legal authorities may have decriminalized homosexual relations, but other acts such as public indecency remain forbidden. An age of sexual consent at sixteen years delivers young queers, who often discover their sexual interests much earlier, for many years to straight families and schools with few positive gay and lesbian examples as they have no access to bars or internet.

Private versus Public

We still have an ideology that impedes sexual pleasure notwithstanding the advances that have been made in the sixties. This is my multilayered fourth point that includes six items. The first point is that we believe in “sexual nature” (the Swaab argument: we are our brains) so we lose sight of the need of sexual culture: cultivation of erotic pleasures. The problem for young people is not their so-called sexual drive, but how to find and enjoy sex - they need cultural knowledge.

Secondly, an essential difference is created between men and women and their sexuality that makes heterosexual relations difficult to practice, female sexuality undervalued and homosexuality marginal. In the third place preferably monogamous love is deemed the precondition of sexuality so sex is not recognized as an autonomous pleasure. Love and sex are different emotions that may be interrelated but need not be combined and indeed may better flourish separately.

Fourthly sex is seen as a private affair with few public repercussions, but it is in fact a very public matter in terms of desires to have sex in public, looking for partners, official ideologies or serious political and academic discussions that all belong in the civic realm.

The fifth point is the belief in sexual identities but it is not the self that is pre-eminent in sexuality, but the relational aspect. Apart from masturbation, sexuality is an engagement with others so not an individual but a social experience - even in the construction of selves.

Finally sexuality should take place in “equal relations” whatever that may be. In the past most sexual affairs were unequal, certainly heterosexual ones with the male being the active superior partner and the female passive and inferior.

This was also true for butch-femme, queer-trade, client-sex worker, man-boy relations while many youngsters learned sex from adults of both genders. Desire could only inflame between opposites.

Nowadays we have to be equal in bed so we increasingly oppose those relations that are based in inequality: pedophilia, bestiality, sex work, traditional heterosexuality or BDSM. There is no reason to value inequality more than equality as was the case in the past, or the reverse - in fact, most relations are imbued with elements of power (money, beauty, status, gender, force) so are unequal. The desire for equality is unrealistic. This ideology is another major obstacle for the expression of sexual rights.

Flagged Progress

The lack of serious political and academic discussions is based on the mentioned ideas that sexuality is “natural” or “private.” Politicians may discuss at length issues like same-sex marriage, the “refusing civil servant,” sex education, pedophilia, bestiality or sexualization, it is rarely founded on a comprehensive understanding of sexual citizenship. This concept nicely summarizes the political significance of sexuality: it is much more than a private or natural issue, but central to cultural functioning so at the heart of politics.

The sexual revolution may have changed our sexual ideas and practices in important ways, and very much have helped women and gay men, but there remains a lot to be wished for.

In the new century standstill or clear-cut regression can be witnessed: traditional values of sexuality and gender continue to be imprinted in young people, prostitution is legalized but kept its bad reputation, biological imperatives hinder sexual cultivation and eroticism is removed from the streets as in the Red Light District while gay cruising areas remain controversial.

Far from being liberal and tolerant sexual taboos continue to flourish in the Netherlands. The direction of sexual developments is not unilinear but quite contradictory. Old sexual norms that should have been abolished a long time ago persist, influencing sexual citizenship issues and hindering pleasure.

Utopian or Realistic?

Let me give some examples of what could be done:

- Comprehensive sex education that stresses sexual citizenship and pleasure rather than health or biology. Information on homosexuality given by volunteers of the COC may now be important but should be replaced by teaching sexuality in various disciplines - and not only “homolessen,” gay lessons. It will counter the silences, prejudices and gossiping that is now often the rule. Sexuality is, as Enlightenment philosophers already said, food for thinking and offers ideal possibilities for teaching. And when kids learn to say yes to sex, they also know how to say no.

- Schools should counter traditional gender and sexual ideas and practices in pupils on all levels: from the schoolyard to the actual teaching.

- Various social institutions should take sexual citizenship themes much more serious: from academia, politics, media to hospitals, companies, police, army. It regards an essential part of their functioning, not only because they may include LGBTs in the workforce but because sexuality is an issue relevant in all social relations.

- We could abolish the special chapter on sexuality in the criminal law, the “sexual offences.”

- We can also do ourselves something by dressing more special and queer: more colors, other materials. Amsterdam is at the male side too much a monoculture of blue jeans and boring suits. We could also be clearer to ourselves and others about variant sexual interests. When straight people ask queers about their sexual life, apart from giving strong answers, we can also ask them similar, equally intrusive questions like who is the male and the female in their relation, whether they practice anal sex or how it is to pay or be paid for sex work.

- As the search for lovers and sex partners happens in the public realm, the eroticism of pavements and parks or red light districts should not be countered or removed, but actively promoted. The streets should be places where people meet and engage with each other in a positive and supportive way, not to insult or threaten each other. Getting sexuality off the streets will mean imposing heterosexual norms. Sexual citizenship will be enhanced by strengthening the eroticism of public life.

- As sexuality is a main issue that regards pleasure, sociability and health it needs better support and more public visibility. Like authorities facilitate sport venues, they could do the same for sexual exploits using similar reasons: health, social cohesion, education, emotion.

There is not a very good sexual infrastructure for a country and city which praise their own sexual liberalism and tolerance. It should be very educational for young people to see sex in action in (semi)public spaces: sex clubs like the Church, cruising areas not only for gay men but for all sexual preferences, and so forth - use your imagination.

- Amsterdam could be made into a sexual emancipation machine for all gender and sexual citizens of various ethnicities and its guests - the many tourists eagerly desiring adventure. The city should again become a sex and gay capital and show passionate hospitality for all those who fled the ingrained anti-sexuality of other places and for those who like the sexual possibilities of being a stranger.

This all may look utopian and unrealistic, but we need utopias to move forward.



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