red ears

A saucy comic book causes Rita to reflect on American attitudes to sex education…

The little girls sat in a corner giggling hysterically over a comic book. Not an unusual sight, until I saw the comic book in question. This happened at a large family gathering in Belgium some years ago and the girls, aged about ten at the time, were my cousins’ children. Seeing me notice them, they offered to show me what was so funny. The Flemish comic book was called Rooie Oortjes, Red Ears, meaning, as I was to discover, that reading it would turn your ears red with embarrassment. It featured rather crude drawings of people having sex. They were all smiling and happy and looked as though they were having a jolly good time. I had lived in America long enough to feel a Puritan surge of shock. Then I noticed my cousin, a doctor and father to one of the girls, smiling indulgently and laughing along with them. It was not hard to imagine how the average American parent would react to this scene. As for my cousin, in America he would probably be arrested for child endangerment. After all, it was just a year since Americans collapsed in paroxysms of horror over the fleeting glimpse of a nipple on TV.

But casting off my Americanized shell, the scene appeared in a quite different light. Here were young girls learning about sex within the safe, loving environment of the family. Learning that sex is a natural, happy activity, not mysterious, forbidden, and shameful.  Rooie Oortjes, for all its crudity, seemed uninhibited rather than pornographic. On the long flight home I found myself wondering how this relaxed, accepting attitude to sex played out in statistics. Americans would no doubt imagine it resulted in teen orgies and all the social ills of a permissive society. But what were the actual teen pregnancy and abortion rates in Belgium? Once home I put on my librarian’s hat and did some research, with interesting results. The rate of teen pregnancy in Belgium was lower than in the U.S. and the abortion rate was far lower than the U.S., in fact one of the lowest in the world. This comparison holds true today. Key to these statistics are mandatory sex education and easy access to birth control.

Abortion is, of course, the hottest of hot button issues in America and it is once again in the news as the Supreme Court considers a case concerning the buffer zones around clinics that are intended to protect women from harassment. On this issue, as on so many others, I often find myself watching the conflict from the perspective of an outsider. It is frustrating to see Americans locked into extreme positions and shouting past one another when other countries have already come to pragmatic compromises on the same issues with positive results. If you are against abortion surely you can support the reachable goal of reducing the number of abortions. Other countries have shown that the most effective way to do this is not to outlaw abortion (according to the World Health Organization that doesn’t work) but to focus on sex education and contraception. But it is an unquestionable premise of the American Creed that we are Top Nation and don’t need to learn from others. And as the arguments become even more polarized, contraception itself is under attack.

So I don’t expect American children will be reading the English language edition of Rooie Oortjes any time soon. But I do hope that Americans can rediscover their lost pragmatism and give up on the wars over ideological purity that are sapping so much of the national energy.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

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  1. malty on Wednesday 29, 2014

    I blame the waters of the Meuse. Simenon, if Fenton Bresler is to be believed, spent his youth on the banks of the river and made Casanova look like a spotty celibate, having bedded in his lifetime ‘tens of thousands of women.’ Later modified to ‘tens of thousands of women, many of whom were prostitutes’ a classic correction as ever was. As we know, the river rises in France and this may be one reason for the excessive number of risings in Belgium, it does not however explain Herman Van Rumpuy.
    A Luxembourger I know swears that Belgians only exist because the French needed a draught excluder, keeping at bay the north winds.

    Northern English sex education, early fifties style…

    “Suppose you know all about it now”

    “Huh?”

    “You know, sex and all that stuff”

    “Oh, that, yeah, s’pose so”

    “Good, no need to explain then”

    Armed thus, how could I go wrong, setting out on life’s great fumbling adventure.

  2. Recusant on Wednesday 29, 2014

    I sometimes think the editors are using you as clickbait, Rita. It can be the only explanation for the reasonable sounding, but statistically inept, argument you put forward. There is almost zero correlation between levels of sex education and abortion rates. Hell, if there were, we would find the abortion rate here in the UK tumbling as sex education times rose: the reverse is the case.

    • Peter on Wednesday 29, 2014

      That’s our Rita, Recusant. The dream never dies (“learning about sex within the safe, loving environment of the family”), and if sex education proves less than it was made out to be, the only answer is more sex education. Of course, this is an adult dream, not a kids’ one. “No, Mom, I really don’t want to talk to you about orgasms”.

      I was converted from my reactionary suspicion of sex-ed at parent-teacher night at our son’s middle school. The sex-ed teacher was a severe fortyish woman in leather pants who we knew wasn’t popular with the kids. She fixed us with humourless eyes ( sex is much too important to joke about) and defiantly told us she would answer any questions the kids had. I had a few myself I was tempted to ask her, but was much too scared. Then the penny dropped. If she freaked me out, what must she be doing with 13 and 14 year olds? I suddenly saw the embarassed horror the kids were being made to go through and thought “This is better than saltpeter. It will be years before they get over this and try anything”. I left feeling much comforted.

      • Recusant on Wednesday 29, 2014

        Still, Peter, it is the first time I have seen Belgium being proffered as a beacon to the world. Up until today I had only seen them being used aa examples of how not to do colonialism, child protection, arms trading, stable government, good intra-community relations, etc., etc..

        • Peter on Wednesday 29, 2014

          What I find impressive is how the girl on the cover perfectly conveys the essence of modern gender equality and fiercely-guarded female independance. Too bad we hopelessly repressed Anglospherics can’t she’s the ideal aid for shy fathers wishing to teach their daughters all about fun, guilt-free sex.

        • Frank Key on Wednesday 29, 2014

          I thought “how not to do stable government” was a point in Belgium’s favour. During that recent lengthy period without a functioning government, Belgium’s economic performance was better than most other countries in the Eurozone.

          • malty on Wednesday 29, 2014

            A plausible explanation, however, just turning off the street lights that extended way out into country areas may have helped and, craftily, having the yanks take responsibility for the painting of that tank in Bastogne town centre must have redressed the balance of payments deficit, not to mention the amount of MEP fiddle money being spent in Brussels. Add to that the entrance fee charged at Spa then Belgium must have a salary plus benefits package the same size as Bernie Ecclestones.

    • Worm on Wednesday 29, 2014

      So what do you think is the reason behind the UK’s very high teen pregnancy rates compared to the rest of europe? (not a leading question, genuinely interested as I have no idea)

      • Recusant on Wednesday 29, 2014

        I don’t know, Worm. My best guess is that is just the way we are; in the same way that our teenagers seem to enjoy getting hammered and having a fight of a Friday night. Maybe it is a combination of Anglo-Saxon individualism, Brit bloodymindedness and the sense that no one, in the name of individual liberty, is responsible for any one else here.

        If sex education was the answer, why does Sweden have an abortion rate higher than the US and more than twice Belgium’s, and that notorious den of hedonism, the Isle of Man, a lower rate than Belgium? Another fifty examples are available to refute Rita’s thesis.

  3. Denkof Zwemmen on Wednesday 29, 2014

    Umm. I don’t follow these things too closely, but isn’t Belgium where they’re always having those huge pedophile scandals?

  4. Brit on Wednesday 29, 2014

    I struggle to believe that any child learns anything much in a sex education class that they haven’t already heard about in the playground.

    • Peter on Wednesday 29, 2014

      Plus in the playground they get to giggle beyond the purview of adults and walk away if they wish.

      It’s all a bit of a black hole for me as my “What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine…?” inquiries of my children on this subject were repeatedly met with “Nothing.” I also noted a strange absence of marks and progess assessments in their report cards (“Sean needs more work getting a condom to fit snuggly on a banana. Extra practice at home would be benefical.”). But what do the sex-ed Jesuits think the kids need to know that takes up an entire regular spot in the curriculum? Just how many erogenous zones are there? I trust they are not studying the Kama Sutra for credit or learning about safe, hygienic sado-masochism. The mood has to be sombre and clinical as in any adult/child discussion on this topic, so I assume “Casanova and the art of seduction” or “Dirty jokes in the Victorian era” are out. If the young people I know have internalized a “relaxed, accepting” attitude to sex as a “healthy natural, happy activity, not mysterious, forbidden, and shameful”, they are keeping it well-hidden from me, although I suppose out of pity is a possibility. Alas, I don’t know any Belgians and must resign myself to dying ignorant, awash in guilt and shame.

  5. Rita Byrne Tull on Wednesday 29, 2014

    The comments bring to mind “No Sex Please, We’re British.”