Sex, drugs and… Dutch politics

Sanne van Oosten

The Netherlands, the land of sex and drugs? How did the Netherlands get this image? And what did Dutch politics have to do with it? The Dutch politician Boris van der Ham just published a book about the history of the legislation concerning sex, drugs and alcohol in the Netherlands. He traced back the transcripts from debates in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and dug up some interesting historical inconsistencies.

When Van der Ham was young he traveled through Europe. There he was confronted with the preconceptions other Europeans had of the Netherlands. “It’s an amazing country, no freaking morals!”, someone said to him. This was flattering, in a way, but it also made him feel a bit uncomfortable. No morals? That’s not really what the Netherlands is really like. The Dutch don’t live like rock stars, most have very normal lives without really strange sexual lives or any drug habits. Should the Dutch therefore be proud of their image?

Van der Ham also shows how the image of the Netherlands in the United States has made a 180 degree switch from about a century ago. Now, American tv-anchors and politicians like Cal Thomas, Bill O’Reilly and Rick Santorum, like to paint the Netherlands as a devilish country, something America should never strive for. But 100 years ago the Dutch were known for their tidiness, piousness and diligence. American school books were decorated with drawings of exemplary Dutch scenes, something American should strive for.

Another interesting inconsistency is that most people think that way back when all laws were very strict and that this strict block of rules only started to be stripped down in the sixties. But that isn’t actually the case. Most laws that were stripped down in the sixties, such as birth control, abortion etcetera, actually only dated from a few decades before. Until the end of the 19th century the Netherlands actually had very loose laws concerning, sex, drugs and alcohol. These laws were based on the Code Penal instated by Napoleon in the beginning of the 19th century. These laws were based on the fact that church and state were to be separated, therefore, religious attitudes should not be reflected in the law. Not until the beginning of the 20th century did this start to change, only to be changed again during the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.

Many people also think that the government must have been strictly against the production of drugs throughout history, only to alleviate some laws concerning cannabis during the seventies. But this too is not the case. The Netherlands was actually very much in favor of drugs like cocaine and derivatives of opium before the Second World War. Why? It’s all about the money. The Netherlands played a significant role in the trade of cocaine from their colony in the East Indies, now called Indonesia. In 1900 the Netherlands even founded a cocaine factory!

Meanwhile the United states were starting their ‘war on drugs’, but none of the European partners were very interested in joining this fight, as they had colonies that produced these drugs and didn’t want to lose the revenues won by this. Not until after the Second World War, when the Netherlands lost their colony Indonesia, did they change their mind and chime in with the US on the importance of fighting drugs. Not only because of the loss of Indonesia, but also because they were yearning for American Marshall aid, and knew they needed to abide to the US in order to get their share. Indeed, all about the money.

But the historical inconsistencies don’t stop there. In many debates held in the Dutch parliament about a century ago it was continuously stressed that the introducing birth control to the market was absolutely out of the question. No way would that ever happen! Subjects such as homosexuality, pornography, drugs and alcohol lead to much less emotional debates, but birth control sure did, it seemed to be a relentless taboo. Nevertheless, in the sixties, this was the first law to yield for the demands of the sexual revolution.

After going through the most interesting political debates on sex, alcohol and drugs throughout the years, the book continues with a contemporary philosophical discussion on free morals. The most important questions are: When is a person really free? Are you really free when you are addicted to drugs? Or are you then a slave to your addiction? But shouldn’t you also have the right to run risks? Should the government really make their country fool-proof? And even if they should do so, can the government ever save their people from harm? Isn’t it the most important that people are educated enough to make their own decisions? But even then, don’t certain groups of society run more risk than others warranting extra protection? Should youngsters receive extra protection? And if so, which age should be chosen?

The list of questions goes on and on and Van der Ham answers these questions thoroughly. But in the end the most important answer is: keep on asking questions and keep your eyes wide open. It isn’t about ideological blindness nor about shrugging your shoulders at abuse. Having free morals isn’t easy, you need to be critical of these morals at all times.

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2 responses to “Sex, drugs and… Dutch politics”

  1. Jeanne van Oosten says :

    Note that ‘free morals’ isn’t the same as ‘no morals’.

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