Love, sex and relationships occur in almost every life, so it is important to do scientific research on them. This happens in the Erasmus Love Lab. On Valentine's Day 2022, the lab will celebrate its first anniversary. Project leader Dr Daphne van de Bongardt: "We can help to interpret current social issues through research and pass this on through our education. The definition of sexual health of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is important to me: a person is sexually healthy if there are no negative aspects and positive aspects are present."
Homely atmosphere in the Love Lab
Daphne and her colleagues' greatest wish was to have a location on the campus where the research of the Erasmus Love Lab could be done well, pleasantly and safely. That place is now ready, complete with comfortable chairs, a sofa bed and dimmable coloured lamps. "Not a clinical white room, but a place where privacy is guaranteed and where people quickly feel at ease. This helps if your research involves sharing intimate and/or sensitive things."
The six researchers of the Erasmus Love Lab are happy to have joined forces. "We do social and behavioural science research from different disciplines: psychology, sociology, pedagogy. Not only about sex, but also about intimacy and love. A lot of literature is only about sex or only about love. I find that strange. Three quarters of young people in the Netherlands have sex with a romantic partner for the first time. So research into the combination of love and sex is very important."
A good relationship because of the good sex or vice versa?
Van de Bongardt is currently researching couples between the ages of 18 and 28. The main question: do you have a good relationship because of the good sex or do you have good sex because of the good relationship? "Most young adults in my research believe that the partnership is the basis for sexuality. It is not a representative sample for all young people in the Netherlands. But it does give an innovative picture."
"Just explaining how to put on a condom is not enough"
"You can extend this to education. In some secondary schools, students are taught how to put on a condom. But that alone is not enough. We know from an American study that teenage girls can have trouble negotiating with their male partners about the condom. The boys say: 'We have been dating for five months, you trust me or you love me, right?' So there are all kinds of relational aspects involved. Young people have to learn how to deal with this kind of complex conversation, so that it goes as you want it to. And otherwise it does not. Use a condom' is an important message, but more is needed to make young people use it. Like paying attention to the interpersonal context in which young people have sex, and of course the digital world in which young people interact. Include that in the information."
The Erasmus Love Lab researchers are now much in the news about the cases of sexually transgressive behaviour in the showbiz and sports world. According to Dr. Van de Bongardt, the problem of sexually transgressive behaviour is deeply woven into our society: "It goes beyond the fact that Marc Overmars, in his own words, does not understand that it is totally inappropriate to send dickpics in that context. There are deep-rooted systems of thought behind it, of which the perpetrators are perhaps also partly victims. I understand that this is a precarious statement, because of course the first and most important victim is always the person who suffers the transgression. As a society, we have not made a very strong effort to teach boys that you have the best sexual experiences when your partner is also having a good time. And that you therefore check that too."
"Educate your children early on that they are in charge of what they want and that they can talk about anything"
"If you don't work on that as parents, teachers and society, then perhaps you also have a bit of a shared responsibility. I sincerely believe that there are boys and men who have not thought through or understood that sending such a photo is very often not wanted by the receiving party. In addition, there is the issue of power differential. This has played a very big role in the current cases, and makes receiving such a photo uninvited all the more intimidating. That is very important to take into account when assessing potential undesired behaviour."
More attention to the role of educators and teachers
During her master programme 'Gender, Sexuality and Society' Dr Van de Bongardt did research at Rutgers, the knowledge centre on sexuality in the Netherlands. There, she studied the role of sex education at school on sexual development. "I studied how much attention there was for sex education in teacher training courses for secondary school teachers. It was frighteningly little! During the training and later during the lessons, even in Biology, it was often not discussed. How then can you expect boys and girls to learn to handle sex properly?"
Van de Bongardt advises parents to prepare their bonding and communication for conversations about love and sexuality: "Teach your children in good time that they are in charge of what they want and that they can talk about anything." Unfortunately, some children do not receive this sufficiently or at all from home. "Then hopefully the school can play an important role here. That also applies to youth workers, student psychologists and all the other people around young people."
Besides their own research and media activities, this month dozens of master's students are starting their thesis projects with the lecturers/researchers of the Erasmus Love Lab. "We are very happy to see that we are educating the next generation of professionals on these topics. There is still so much to research in the area of love, relationships and sexuality. And also much to improve in daily practice."