Say no to Nadine Dorries
As usual, this post comes with the disclaimer that I loathe to give Dorries the oxygen of publicity that she clearly craves. So instead, take this post as a plug for tomorrow’s demo against the second reading of her abstinence education for girls only:
So, what is this bill and why should we be opposing it?
Nadine Dorries is proposing that girls, and only girls, should have compulsory abstinence education. Considering that sex education across the UK is so patchy, this would result in some girls only receiving abstinence based sex education.
There are multiple problems with this proposal.
Let’s start with the problem of offering abstinence education to only girls. This positions girls as the ‘gatekeepers of sex’ and teaches girls that their responsibility is to not have sex (until they’re married of course). This creates a culture of shame around sex, as well as shame and confusion about their very natural developing sexuality. It teaches girls that sex (outside of marriage) is wrong, and that therefore their own sexual feelings (if they have them) are wrong too. It’s also incredibly heteronormative, teaching that sex is wrong and must not happen, unless it is sanctioned by hetero marriage.
Dorries and her crew seem to think that the opposite of abstinence education is telling girls to go and have lots of sex and damn the consequences. This is a dangerous and nasty untruth. Opponents to Dorries’ bill (like me) believe that boys and girls need to have comprehensive and unbiased sex education that teaches about respect, consent, desire and equality in relationships – as well as info about contraception, safe sex and biology. This gives young people the tools and understanding they need to decide to have sex if and when they want to, or to not have sex if they don’t want to.
Dorries plays on the very real issue of young girls being coerced into sex they don’t want to have. But her plan for abstinence education, in my view, actually leaves girls more vulnerable. Because it isn’t as simple as telling girls to always say no. You need to teach girls and boys about consent and respect. Telling a girl to say no doesn’t solve anything. We already do it and it’s not really working. As we all know, it isn’t always as simple as ‘no’. If for example a girl is raped or coerced into sex, she might not be able to say ‘no’. She might freeze, or be frightened, or understand that saying ‘no’ out loud might put her in more danger. The impact of abstinence education in this instance is that the girl may then go on to blame herself for the attack, perhaps not reporting it in case she is judged for not having said ‘no’. If we teach about consent and respect, then we tell our young people what is and isn’t ok or consensual in sexual relationships, that they have bodily autonomy that needs to be respected.
The decision to exclude boys from her sex education programme is based on her belief that ‘boys will be boys’. This belief argues that there’s nothing you can do to stop boys from wanting sex so it’s better to leave it up to the girls to draw a line in the sand that boys must not cross. Again, not only does this strategy leave girls incredibly vulnerable to coercion; it lets boys off the hook massively. If they’re not getting a comprehensive sex education, then they don’t learn to take responsibility or to respect boundaries. They won’t be learning about consent, and respect. This lack of education for boys could leave girls more vulnerable to coercion and violence.
Of course, one of the key issues is that we all know that abstinence education doesn’t work. Teenagers have been having sex since we were living in caves, and they will continue to have sex. Telling girls that they shouldn’t be having sex will, as I say, leave them with feelings of shame and confusion over their sexuality, and if they then go on to have sex, will leave them woefully unprepared to know about contraception, safe sex and consent. There are enough studies out there to show that countries with abstinence only sex education have high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs precisely because at no point is safe sex discussed. It isn’t the other way round.
Abstinence only education builds a culture of shame around sex and sexuality. It dis-empowers girls and robs them of their voice. It ignores and shames their very natural and real sexuality and sexual curiosity. It doesn’t allow for girls and boys to learn about consent and respect and this lack of education is having a real impact already on coercion and violence in teen relationships. If this bill passes, then this crisis can only get worse.
We owe it to our young people to give them the knowledge and tools they need so that when they are ready and want to have sex, they have it safely without coercion and violence. And we owe it to them to give them the tools to be able to say no to sex or sexual contact they don’t want to have. You don’t get that by creating a culture of shame and silence around sex, that positions girls as ‘gatekeepers’. You get it by educating about consent and respect. We need to teach our young people about consent and respect, otherwise we will continue to live in a society where 1 in 3 teens have experienced violence and coercion in a relationship (NSPCC, Bristol Uni).
I don’t want that for my future children.
Fight this bill.