The Netherlands has long been considered open and liberated when it comes to sexuality. Sex work is legal, and nudity and sex scenes on television and in movies barely raise an eyebrow.
But allegations of widespread sexual misconduct that have engulfed a popular Dutch TV talent show recently have highlighted how that culture of permissiveness can allow issues of consent, gender and misconduct to be ignored.
The Netherlands has an image that anything can be discussed regarding issues of sexuality, “but if you really zoom in on this theme, it’s disappointing,” said Gerda de Groot, a coordinator at Sexual Assault Center, a national organization that helps the victims of abuse and misconduct. “Really talking about consent is very difficult.”
Since allegations of widespread sexual misconduct on the TV talent show, “The Voice of Holland,” came to light this month, implicating some of the Netherlands’ best-known celebrities, Dutch organizations say that they have seen a surge in calls reporting sexual abuse.
“We received more registrations in three days than in all of 2021,” said Janke Dekker, who heads the board of Mores, an organization that helps victims of sexual misconduct in the Dutch cultural and creative sectors. “That says something about the enormous wave that has been unleashed.”
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered in Amsterdam to raise awareness to issues of sexual misconduct, calling for a wider change in Dutch society, under the slogan “no blame, but change,” and experts say that the scandal is forcing the Netherlands to reckon with the subject.
“In the Netherlands, we haven’t experienced #MeToo in the same way as in France, for example, or America,” said Sara Alaoui-Dekker, the chair of Together We Rise, a nonprofit that aids victims of sexual violence. “It mostly passed us by, like it wasn’t in our own backyard. I think people are only now starting to realize what #MeToo is.”
Allegations of sexual misconduct against four prominent members of “The Voice of Holland,” a show that originated in the Netherlands and spawned versions now aired around the world, were first reported by BOOS, an online program from the public broadcaster BNNVARA.
Since then, the allegations — from anonymous victims, participants on the show, speaking in detail about sexual assaults and routine misconduct — have dominated Dutch news broadcasts and talk shows and fostered debate across the country.
The men accused of misconduct include two well-known singers who had been coaches on the talent show. The leader of the show’s band, Jeroen Rietbergen, admitted to inappropriate behavior and resigned this month after the allegations came to light. An unnamed director, who denied allegations against him to a Dutch newspaper, was also accused of sexual misconduct. No charges have been brought against the men by the police.
The creator of the show, John de Mol, then fueled outrage by saying that it was up to women to report misconduct, appearing to blame the victims.
“I hope they learned to immediately ring the alarm,” said Mr. de Mol, who oversaw “The Voice of Holland” for nearly a decade, through 2019, and who remains a powerful media executive. “Women apparently have some sort of shame. I don’t know what it is. I’d like to inform myself about it.”
After the comments aired, female employees of his production company, Talpa, addressed him in a full-page advertisement in a Dutch newspaper. “Dear John,” the ad read, “It’s not the women’s fault. Best, the women in your company.”
Mr. de Mol later said in a statement that he had not meant to blame the victims.
The scandal over the “Voice of Holland” allegations is not the first time that sexual abuse has made headlines in the Netherlands. A prominent Dutch casting director was accused of widespread sexual misconduct in 2017. And the country has also seen less prominent cases in recent years, including in the worlds of dance and gymnastics.
But none of those instances had as much resonance as the “Voice of Holland” scandal, Ms. Dekker of Mores said, partly because this case implicated well-known celebrities.
“We are noticing that the readiness to fight is big — this sense of, ‘They won’t get away with this anymore,’” Ms. Dekker said, adding that many victims nonetheless remained fearful of speaking out. Because the scandal has consumed Dutch society, social media contains support for the victims as well as criticism and harsh comments, she said.
Ms. Alaoui-Dekker of Together We Rise said that her organization had also seen a sharp increase in the number of women reporting misconduct allegations since the report about “The Voice of Holland” aired.
In the Netherlands, a country of about 17.6 million people, more than 100,000 people report sexual assault every year, according to government figures, 90 percent of whom are women. A total of 1.6 million people report some type of sexual misconduct, including things like unwanted stares and online harassment.
Ms. Dekker said that the government had in recent years been working to address sexual misconduct and to make people more aware of the issue. Last year, the government began an advertising campaign focusing on conversations around consent, and in 2020, the justice minister at the time, Ferd Grapperhaus, proposed modernizing and sharpening a law against sexual violence to include online abuse and sexual intimidation, among other things. The law is expected to go into effect in 2024.
“Sexually inappropriate behavior happens in the Netherlands as well. In that sense, it’s nothing new,” said Willy van Berlo, a program director at Rutgers, a Dutch center that does research and supports young people on sexual health and rights. “But the ‘Voice of Holland’ is a very big incident,” she added.
Part of the solution will be a push for more discussion about consent, gender and respectful behavior as a bigger part of sex education programs in schools, Ms. van Berlo said, adding that the curriculum often focused more on contraception and other parts of sexuality.
Aspects of that education have proved successful, she said, citing the low level of teenage pregnancies in the Netherlands. The number of teenage mothers went down by about 50 percent from 2010 to 2020, to less than 1,200, according to government numbers.
“We are very proud of that,” Ms. van Berlo said, “but respectful behavior and consent aren’t getting enough attention.”