As part of your study, you wish to follow thirty couples’ relationships and sexuality for a year. Why are you going to do so?

“I want to follow couples over a longer period of time to see how love, intimacy and partnership evolve in their relationships and to see how their sexuality evolves in that context. One of the reasons why I’m conducting this study on the combination of relationships and sexuality is because those two fields of research tend to be completely separate. A lot of research has been conducted on romantic relationships, and a lot of research has been conducted on sexuality and sexual development, but there has been no cross-pollination between those two fields whatsoever. I think that’s incomprehensible.”

Daphne van de Bongardt is an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, Education and Child Studies and has been conducting research on the development of relationships and sexuality in twenty-somethings for ten years now. In 2017 she was granted a Veni grant by NWO for a research project entitled Lovely sex or sexy love.

Van de Bongardt is looking for heterosexual couples aged 18-27. If you and your partner wish to take part in the Lovely sex or sexy love study, please consult the website for more information or to sign up.

Why are couples more interesting than individuals?

“A lot of research on love, relationships and sexuality focuses on individuals. Couples aren’t necessarily more interesting, but when you ask two people in a relationship questions about their relationship, you get different data than you will when you ask individuals. Such couple-based studies are already being conducted, but not very often, and the people they follow tend to be adults.”

What exactly will you be asking your couples?

“I will collect data in several ways during the course of a year: through questionnaires and by means of an interview on their relationship history. During the first half of the year, participants will also keep a diary of sorts on their smartphones, to which they will add entries twice a day. This will allow us to measure variability in the short term. For instance, when a couple are arguing a lot during a particular period, what does that do their sex life (lovely sex)? Or the other way around: after they’ve had good sex, do they find it easier to find solutions to a conflict (sexy love)?

“During the second half of the year, they will discuss general statements on relationships and sexuality with each other. I’m interested to see how they discuss those subjects. Will they agree? Will they end up quarrelling? Will they discuss the subjects in positive terms, or rather in a way we’d consider unusual and undesirable?”

Image credit: Levien Willemse

Do you think that participants in your study will start feeling differently about their relationships and sexuality?

“They might, yes. But I think that might mostly be a good thing. They will seriously contemplate their relationships and how they feel about the sex they are having in the context of those relationships. In my experience, nearly everyone finds it interesting to contemplate such matters. Many people are concerned that research on sex or intimacy is harmful to participants, but it has actually been demonstrated that participation in these types of studies does not negatively affect young people.

“Of course, it may be quite confrontational, too. Not everyone has nothing but pleasant experiences with relationships and sexuality, and we may end up seeing someone discuss an unpleasant experience during an interview. I have a protocol for such situations, both for myself and for my research assistants, which allows us to help people in such cases.”

Do you think that is your job?

“No, I’m not a social worker. We can help people by asking questions, or by referring them to a social worker, but that’s all we can do. The objective of my study is to gain knowledge. We need that knowledge so that we can improve the way in which we raise our kids and provide them with information, but also so that we can improve social work.”

Can you present us with an example of how your research has resulted in things being improved?

“My very first study focused on the training the teachers who provide sex education at secondary schools had received themselves. We found that sex ed was barely discussed at teacher training departments. Secondary school pupils are often presented with a very technical story on sexuality during a biology lesson. Afterwards, the teachers will often show nasty images of STDs, the message being, you don’t want to catch any of those! So the teacher will say something about condoms, and with a bit of luck, he or she will demonstrate how to slide a condom onto a banana.

“Of course, that’s not nearly enough. Teachers need proper resources to help their pupils learn more about sex and relationships. For instance, how to discuss homosexuality with your students when you can tell that many of them are prejudiced. There is a lot of room for improvement in that regard. My study at the time resulted in a learning package for teacher training degree programmes, drawn up in association with Rutgers [the Centre for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights – ed.].”

How would you rate the sexual health of Dutch adolescents?

“Relatively good. Compared to the United States or the United Kingdom, our adolescents are four to ten times less likely to experience STDs, unwelcome pregnancies and abortions. That doesn’t mean that things can’t be improved in the Netherlands, though. We are still seeing STDs. We are still seeing unwelcome experiences. And what’s a hot topic right now is online sexual interaction – for instance, sexting. Which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It is something we have to discuss with adolescents, though. Why do they do it? And with whom? Why do they enjoy it? And how should they deal with situations in which someone does share an image or video of them?

“Research on young people and sexuality has changed a lot over the years. Thirty years ago it was mostly about risks. It completely revolved around preventing adolescents from having sex. Nowadays, thankfully, we conduct studies on what constitutes a normal development. What is characteristic for the Netherlands is that sexual development in adolescents is gradual. Which means that there is some time between the first time our teenagers French kiss, the first time they finger each other or give each other a hand job, the first time they have oral sex, and the first time they have intercourse.”

Is that any different in other countries?

“Yes, in the USA the order in which things happen tends to be different. For instance, American kids start having oral sex earlier. Among other things, that is because of different ideas on child-rearing. Amy Schalet conducted a great comparative study in which she interviewed American and Dutch parents. It showed that many American parents greatly dramatise sexual development. Dutch parents are more likely to regard sexuality as part of a natural development. They feel that adolescents have sex when they are ready to do so. It is more common in the Netherlands for teenagers’ boyfriends or girlfriends to stay with their partners overnight. This allows them to experiment with sex in the privacy of their own safe homes. In the USA, that is less common, , which means that teenagers will often experiment in cars, shrubs, or under the grandstands next to the American football fields. Those are environments where people are less likely to feel good or relaxed.”

Image credit: Levien Willemse

Do adolescents who experience that gradual sexual development have healthier, better and more rewarding sex lives?

“We know that they are more likely to have safe sex than adolescents who do things in the opposite order or who go all the way in one go, just like that. We do not yet know whether they have more agreeable sex lives. Thankfully, more and more sex research now operates from the premise that sex and intimate relationships can be good and fun – that a nice romantic relationship has positive effects on your wellbeing and health, as well as all sorts of other things.

“I think that’s a very positive trend. I think we should all be aware that healthy and agreeable love and sex are important to our individual wellbeing, and that this is true for young people as well as adults. Studies have demonstrated that people in a relationship are genuinely better off in terms of physical health. In other words, learning how to build a relationship, learning how to talk to your partner and learning how to talk about sex are incredibly important.”

Do you think that #MeToo has affected the way in which young people think about sexuality?

“I hope that young people have become aware that it’s fine for them to think about and contemplate what they do and don’t want, even if things are happening in a grey zone. I think #MeToo is a perfect occasion for parents and teachers to open a conversation with their kids about that grey zone. Everyone knows that you can say ‘no’ when you really don’t want something to happen. But what do you do if, say, you’re dating someone and your new boyfriend or girlfriend says, ‘We’ve now been dating for three months. Surely we can stop using condoms now? You trust me, right?’ These are questions adolescents have to deal with, and we need to discuss them when raising our kids and providing them with information. Just telling kids that they always need to use condoms is way too black and white.”

A great deal of attention has lately been paid to transgressive behaviour at universities, as well. In Amsterdam a full professor was allowed to misbehave for many years, and here in Rotterdam students feel that the university is not dealing properly with victims of sexual assault. How do you feel about that?

“Generally speaking, we are seeing that all sorts of transgressive behaviour are taking place at universities. They are taking place here in Rotterdam, too, judging from the most recent employee satisfaction survey. Student counsellors and confidential advisers must be able to refer their clients to the right people if they need advice or help. That last step appears to be a bit of an issue in many organisations. I think there’s quite a bit of room for improvement in the professionalisation of help. Thankfully, Erasmus University is working on that – for instance, through its diversity policy.

“In addition, I think there are departments where not enough attention is being paid yet to the theme of sexuality. That includes my own department, where I’m an assistant professor and a lecturer: Educational Sciences. This is, by definition, a department where we prepare students to work with children and adolescents. Many of these degree programmes in the Netherlands pay hardly any attention, if any, to sexual development. I think that’s inconceivable, and students are telling us they wish to learn more about this. We need to be less afraid of intimacy and sexuality. By having normal conversations on the subject, we are making it easier for people to discuss what is pleasant and what is unwelcome. It is absolutely vital that we gain a better understanding of this, both for the wellbeing of individual people and for the sake of our society.”