No Sex Please, We’re British: Abstinence

“Virginity and chastity are reemerging as a trend in pop culture, in our schools, in the media, and even in legislation. So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they’re simultaneously being taught—by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less—that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain ‘pure.’ So what are young women left with? Abstinence-only education during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night!”
Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

We’re uptight about sex, we have the fewest lovers in Europe and we’re not renowned as great lovers. Yet, this series will celebrate Britain’s increasingly liberal attitude toward sex. Now sex isn’t just seen as a necessity for procreation; it’s about having fun with your partner. As a society, we are much less repressed in the bedroom and more accepting of all things sexual. Sex has moved into the mainstream with the help of the fashion industry and what was once reserved for the bedroom – bondage dresses and fetish heels – is now being showcased on the catwalk. Yet in starting this series, it feels fitting to discuss recent developments, the potential for our progressive attitudes to regress, and the implications of our overtly-sexual culture.

Last Friday, the 25th January, a controversial bill calling for teenage girls to be given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence was pulled at the last minute from the House of Commons order of business on Friday. The bill, proposed by Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, would have required schools to offer extra sex education classes to girls aged 13 to 16, which would have included advice on “the benefits of abstinence. The bill gained a lot of traction, and whilst it would have probably failed, the debate it produced was unfitting of our newly-awoken nation. Surely this strategy, proven to fail, has no place in our discourse?

At the centre of the debate was always Dorries herself, who threw out phrases better suited to satire, or from unelectable Republicans in the US:

“Peer pressure is a key contributor to early sexual activity in our country. Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: ‘Now go and try this for yourself.”

As well as grossly ignorant to the benefits of education, it was the fact that this bill was to educate girls only that was so abhorrent. Making abstinence education ‘just for girls’ positions women as the gatekeepers of sex. It positions men as having no responsibility for decision making about sex, or for understanding consent. It supports an idea of women having no desire, and mens’ desire being uncontrollable. The fact that the bill was heteronormative, assuming that the only sex likely to happen is between a male and a female, was equally repugnant.

But she didn’t stop there, and supported her stance through the tasteless deployment of sex abuse cases.

“If a stronger ‘just say no’ message was given to children in school, it might have an impact on sex abuse, because a lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don’t realize until later that was the wrong thing to do…”

Sex abuse doesn’t take place because victims forget to say “no”. Sex abuse occurs because of the violent disregard of consent by the abuser. To anyone that vilifies ‘victim blaming’, particularly women in rape cases, the idea that a child is responsible for their own abuse is appalling. It is a dangerous step back for children and women’s rights. Dorries insists saying “no” would empower young women. And indeed, it is okay to not want sex but women shouldn’t be the only ones learning that, otherwise it alludes only to antiquated notions of female chastity and morality.

When I was 13 we had one sex education lesson, and our nurse told us a bit about contraception. There was no room for questions, or meaningful discussion of sex beyond the didactic. This is the kind of sex education we have in the UK. It’s vague and the information that is given has gaping holes. Homosexuality was never even touched upon during my time at school. It’s not enough when the basics aren’t explained or teachers are too embarrassed to answer the questions students really want to know. I learnt the most about sex from watching pornography alone, and I’m sure most of us did. This condom-free utopia of bronzed bodies and enormous members is obviously removed from reality, and from responsibility.

Healthy decision-making regarding sex and relationships should be equally taught to both parties involved, with an emphasis on mutual respect and consent. Abstinence education will not empower young women. Additionally, who could possibly praise the “advantages” of abstinence education when they’ve been scientifically and empirically debunked? Perhaps the starkest message comes from an evaluation review to 10 federally-funded abstinence-only programmes which was conducted with the full support of the US Federal Government. A federal-supported, 10-year evaluation of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs found that these programs had no impact on youth remaining abstinent, age at first intercourse, number of sexual partners, or condom use. In fact, these programs appeared to have negative effects on knowledge: abstinence-only program participants were less likely to know that condoms can lower the risk of STIs, and more likely to report that condoms never protect against HIV.

So, abstinence-only education not only fails to successfully promote abstinence but, when its run by religiously motivated organisations, as has often been the case in the United States, it frequently fosters dangerous levels of ignorance in relation to very basic practices which are proven to reduce the risk of STI transmission, i.e. condom use. There is even speculation that the Academies Act in the UK could open the door for Academies to have such control over their curriculum, to the extent that sex education could be taught in overtly-religious, pro-life classes alone.

What’s most important in contravening Dorries’ accusations, is that explicit and comprehensive sex education has not been shown to increase sexual activity in young people or affect the age at which kids start having sex. If we are not exposed to facts about sex from a young age, we are bound to develop our own personal fictions. Children engage in sexual play and exploration long before they know what sex is. It is both normal and natural for kids to explore their own bodies. It is also normal and natural for them to experience sexual urges, even before puberty.

Sex is not evil. Sex is not shameful; it is not to be feared. A sex-positive education is absolutely needed to empower young women and continue tackling issues of reproductive health. It is not about saying “no”; it is about learning what it means to genuinely and enthusiastically consent to sex. The truth is, sex does not always lead to pregnancy or disease. Not when the appropriate measures are taken to prevent them, like condoms, birth control pills, and perhaps the most important oral contraceptive of all: communication. Let’s not let that British stiff upper lip ruin our last half-century of sexual emancipation.

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