Ahh, Nadine Dorries, a politician who if she was a character in The Thick of It would no doubt be amusing, but in real life, where she exists as a Tory MP, is so much less funny.
Last week Dorries, who has apparently based her entire political career on preaching a twisted morality that disrespects women, managed to push past the first reading of a bill that proposed that abstinence is included in sex education lessons for girls only, aged 13-16.
A bit of context. Dorries is a virulent anti-choice campaigner who has aligned herself with various anti-choice groups with an agenda to overturn the legalisation of abortion as it stands. She has campaigned for reductions to the abortion time limit, and recently proposed that a woman seeking an abortion should legally be required to seek counselling from a non-interested party (as in, not the abortion provider) which handily pushes her belief in the non-existent medical condition ‘post abortion syndrome’. Her endgame, it seems to most feminists, is to do away with abortion altogether.
It is highly unlikely that Dorries’ proposal to bring in abstinence education for girls only will make it any further but we also didn’t think it would get this far, so it is important we pay attention and consider what the problems with her proposals are.
On the surface, Dorries co-opts feminist language around sex and education that is very persuasive. She explains that she is introducing this bill because we are living in a world that is ‘saturated with sex’ (although I would caveat that by saying it isn’t sex so much as a version of performed sexuality) and that girls need to be empowered to say no to sex. She says that it needs to be as cool to say no as it is to know how to put on a condom.
Now, in many ways, I completely agree with this. Of course we should empower young girls to say no to sex if they don’t want to be having it. Young girls these days are under all sorts of pressures to constantly be seen as sexual and conforming to a narrow idea of what it means to be sexy. They are undoubtedly being pressured into having sex and they should absolutely be educated that they have a right to respect, and that they can say no to sex they don’t want. Recent Home Office research has found that girls aged 16-19 are now at the most risk of experiencing intimate partner violence and having spoke to rape crisis workers, these girls are so often confused about consent, that they don’t see the violence committed against them as rape or assault. Instead they see it as something they have to put up with to earn or deserve their boyfriends’s ‘love’. Girls are growing up in a world that frames sexuality as a performance to win fame/approval as opposed to something you engage in because you want to, because you feel desire or pleasure. On top of this, porn promotes a view of sex as being about violence and conquest, saying no but meaning yes…hell yeah we need to empower girls to say no if they don’t want to have sex.
Also, if a girl chooses to abstain from sex, and has made that choice because she wants to, then this choice needs to be respected. It’s all about empowering girls and boys to be happy and comfortable with their sexuality, their choices and their bodily autonomy.
But this is categorically not what Dorries means. Because you don’t empower girls to say no via abstinence education. All that achieves is teaching girls to say no whether they want to have sex or not. It takes away the choice to engage or abstain from sex as the girl wants to.
Dorries seems to have a rather warped idea about how sex education happens in schools. As well as getting Year 7 confused with 7 year-olds (her claim that seven year olds are taught how to put on a condom is untrue) she seems to think that school sex ed is a great big love in that encourages young people to go out, experiment, sleep with a string of people, and that so long as they use a condom they’ll be ok.
This isn’t true.
When I was at school, my sex education was pretty patchy. We’ve all heard the story about how we learnt about STDs from a booklet illustrated by a hedgehog family. Yes, that’s right, hedgehogs. But we were taught that we should wait for ‘the one’, that we shouldn’t rush into anything and that we should use contraception. The onus was always on waiting. In fact, I could have done with a bit more info about going out and having fun and enjoying my sexuality, rather than lectures on how we really should wait, because, you know, you just should. I even remember being told that getting the morning-after pill over the counter wasn’t a good thing because it made having sex too easy. And that abortion was wrong. In a secular school!
It’s important to note this because it kind of undermines Dorries’ argument that sex education isn’t talking about waiting and instead is ‘sexualising children’.
But, if schools are already promoting the idea that we should wait, what’s the problem?
Well, actually, not all schools are teaching that. Some schools shy away from sex education altogether. And if it became law that girls aged 13-16 had to be taught abstinence education, then in those schools that would be sex education full stop. And as everyone who takes a passing interest in this knows, abstinence only education doesn’t work. Teens have always had sex. Teens will always have sex. So if you don’t teach them about contraception, choice and consent, when they do go and have sex they are woefully underprepared for keeping themselves safe. And then teen pregnancies and STD rates climb up and pressure is piled on.
The other massive issue of course is that Dorries is only promoting abstinence education for GIRLS. Boys don’t need it apparently. This is so blatantly sexist it is hard to know where to start, but basically it positions girls as the gatekeepers of sex, and puts the onus on girls to say no. She thinks that boys will always pressure girls into sex, and so girls need to be equipped to say no. The fact that we should be educating boys to not pressure girls into sex doesn’t seem to register with her, because, after all “boys will be boys”! (Not all boys pressure girls into sex obviously. This also doesn’t register with Dorries).
But this is typical of the abstinence-education movement, through which sexism runs like an ugly vein. From comparing women who have sex to ‘damaged goods’, or Ariel Levy’s ‘Miss Tape’ example – the tape who ends up used, ruined and ugly – abstinence-only advocates suggest that it is the woman’s responsibility to prevent sex and if she fails in that duty, then she is a bad, bad girl. So Dorries’ exclusion of boys from her plan suggests that it is ok for boys to pressure girls into sex. The problem is when girls say yes.
So, what is the solution? It is a complex problem. Girls are being pressured into having sex that they don’t want, and they do need to be empowered to say no when they want to. But trying to fix this by ignoring that a teen girl has very natural and normal sexual feelings and may actually want to have sex is not the answer. Telling girls that they shouldn’t have sex is not the answer. And not teaching about contraception is certainly not the answer.
I believe, and I have always believed, that the most important thing sex education can do is teach boys and girls about consent and respect from an early age. So that as children grow up, they are informed about respecting their peers, and understand about equality. As they get older, and more detailed sex education begins, they are taught about the importance of informed consent. They should be taught that it is ok to say no, but that if they want to have sex, it isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ and their sexual feelings and sexuality are perfectly normal and natural. They should be taught about contraception and responsibility and, once more: respect and active, informed consent.
If girls are being pressured into having sex, they need to be taught about consent so that they understand they can say no. And if boys are pressuring girls into sex they need to be taught about consent so they understand that you should NEVER force someone. Boys and girls are growing up confused, they don’t even understand what rape is (http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2010/11/consent-education-and-rape.html), and, as in Levy’s book, girls are increasingly seeing sex as something they perform, rather than because it can feel amazing. By teaching about respect and consent and desire and pleasure, we are encouraging young people to see sex as something they engage in because they want to, because they are consenting to, and because they are sexual beings.
Because come on. 1 in 3 teen relationships were found to be violent by the NSPCC and Bristol University. Teens are now the highest risk age group to experience intimate personal violence. We are failing our daughters and our sons by not talking to them and educating them about consent, and instead giving them confused messages about waiting and saying no, whilst porn tells them that violence and coercion is cool and sexay and media culture tells girls the most important achievement they can have is to be permanently sexual according to a narrow definition of sexiness.
What Dorries is proposing isn’t the answer. It shames young women, instead of supporting them. It leaves them unprepared to deal with sex and sexuality. And it ignores the fact that we need to talk to boys about consent and respect, rather than treating girls as the moral gatekeepers of sex.