‘You’re really naked when you have sex’
In Sex under 25, 2017, the large-scale research among 20,000 young people from 12 to 25 years in the Netherlands, Rutgers and Soa Aids Nederland found that young people started kissing/petting and having sex a year later than five years ago. In 2017, half of young people had sexual intercourse at 18 years compared to 17 years in 2012. A similar shift can be seen in international research. How can this be explained?
Qualitative research by Rutgers among 47 boys and girls between 16 and 25 years from different backgrounds has given insight.
App contact preferable to face to face contact
The young people we spoke to agreed: social media has largely replaced the offline world. They use social media to get in touch with each other and to portray themselves positively: to show how beautiful, sexy and popular they are. Dating apps and social media such as Facebook and Instagram make it easier to flirt and to see how ‘marketable’ they are. In this way, they can avoid uncomfortable silences and have less chance of being rejected. But that doesn’t mean that this leads to having sex earlier. Approaching someone in real life is difficult.
‘It’s all via WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. You can say all sorts of things via a computer using all kinds of emojis, but when it comes to real life, then I can imagine that many people feel very awkward or they don’t know what to say, but they know what to type. And if it starts like this, you don’t even know how to communicate or how to behave normally towards each other, never mind wanting to have sex.’
Everything has to be perfect
The Dutch young people in the research indicated experiencing pressure from parents and society to be successful and to make the right choices. This also applies to sex: making your own choices and being ready to do so is often emphasized. Insecurity and fear of failing hinders experimenting with sex. Moreover, the norm dictates that first-time sex should be special, with someone you are in a relationship with.
‘Because when you hear everyone saying: o yeah, you have to be a hundred percent convinced, you really have to choose it yourself and you should do it with someone who really likes you, I think that you raise the bar very high.’
Not just sex
Young Dutch people don’t just experiment with anyone. The online pool is large, and because of this the choice is immense. And social media makes all your actions more visible. Girls in particular indicated being afraid of being ‘exposed’, that images or information might be shown online. This makes them extra careful.
‘This is really unfair too. If a girl, for example, does it with four different boys, then we say: ‘What a slut, really a whore’ and if a boy does the same, for example, then we say: ‘Hey, well done.’’
Regarding homo- and bisexual young people in the research, fear of negative reactions played a role in waiting with kissing and sex. Lesbian girls are less at risk of negative reactions than homosexual boys.
‘I think that being lesbian at that age maybe appears more innocent. Just girlfriends walking hand in hand. While, if you are homosexual, then the reaction is like: ‘Oh, you’re a homosexual.’
Less going out, less kissing
For some Dutch young people, kissing and experimenting with sex starts when going out socially. Because of the shift in the legal drinking age in the Netherlands, some young people now are older when they go out. This applies less to lower educated young people; they indicated that they can get alcohol anyway and give parties themselves, where a lot of kissing/petting goes on.
Experimenting is important
The fact that Dutch young people have sex later is not a problem in itself. However, the shift from standard contact to online contact means that part of the sexual development of these young people takes place online. Flirting and trying to see if you arouse someone’s interest can also be done online. Moreover, the larger online world offers more possibilities for Dutch young people to make contacts, and non-hetero people or those who for other reasons don’t have the ability to connect with classmates. However, the research also shows the less pleasant side of the online world in the Netherlands: fear of exposure, the pressure to portray yourself positively and to be perfect, insecurity because you continually compare yourself with others, and as a consequence of all this the greater barrier to approach someone ‘in real life’. It is precisely the ‘awkward’ silences and blunders when kissing in a first relationship that allow young people to learn how relationships work and what their role is in this. In this way, they gain realistic expectations and can build confidence for later relationships. The fact that this process has shifted a year is, of course, not a problem in itself, but it will be if they lack the language and self-confidence to initiate sexual relationships.