Friday, 6 May 2011

Good Girls Don't

Nadine Dorries MP has introduced a Bill proposing that girls between 13 and 16 get extra sex education. Specifically, that they are taught to practice abstinence. Chris Bryant MP adeptly took her argument apart but she won the vote by 67 to 61.

She started the debate by blaming the 60s, which is a sure guide that someone doesn't know what they're talking about. She then said that her Bill is about 'empowering girls'.

How does she propose to do this? Firstly, by misusing statistics as evidence that sex education isn't working. She says quite rightly that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. She doesn't say that this has begun to fall. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics show teenage pregnancies are at their lowest rate since the early 1980s with the rate among under 18 year olds falling by 13.3% since 1999.

Then she switches to the tabloid-style tactic of seven year olds being taught to put condoms on bananas. Most seven years olds I know would eat the banana before the teacher had even got the condoms out. If that was actually happening, of course.

As the Sex Education Forum say: 'For children aged 3-6 years teaching is centred around issues like, ‘where do babies come from’ ‘why are girls’ and boys’ bodies different’ and ‘which parts of my body are private’. Learning about friendships, families, and changing bodies are also central to primary SRE'.

Dorries, like her friends in the tabloid press, conveniently ignores the 'and relationships' part of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)

Instead, her Bright Idea is to teach teenage girls about the joys of abstinence - despite the fact that all the evidence shows abstinence teaching doesn't work and in some cases makes things worse as it leaves teenagers unprepared when they do inevitably have sex - as I've written about before.

Dorries has close ties with the group Christian Concern for Our Nation and her politics are highly influenced by her hard-line Christian beliefs. I looked at the latest round of religious propaganda about SRE here. Not surprisingly, organisations like the Christian Legal Centre and Christian Concern support her Bill.

Her Bright Idea applies only to young women. Not only are they the 'victims' of a sexualised society, they must now be the gatekeepers of teenage boys' sexual appetites. Just because this Bill was introduced by a woman doesn't mean that it isn't sexist.

Of course plenty of Christians are not misogynistic but the hardliners' idea of empowering women is to make sure that they walk up the aisle a pure virgin and even then only have sex to make more good little Christians.

It's not only sexist, the implication is that boys are little animals who can't control themselves and shouldn't even be expected to try. This is not a million miles away from the thinking that makes women cover their entire bodies so that men aren't distracted by lust.The more resourceful boys will just come up with a list of things to do with girls that 'don't count'.

It also denies young women the opportunity to explore and enjoy their sexuality fully equipped with the information they need to make safe choices. Because nice girls shouldn't even be thinking about sex. Sex is demonized as a dark and dangerous thing, trying to scare young women away from it. Dorries ignores the fact that some girls might be lesbians or bi. How will abstinence teaching work when they can't be scared off with the Big Bogey Man of pregnancy?

Today's news that 59% of parents don't want young children taught about sex isn't surprising given the amount of misinformation in the media and people like Dorries. When parents were asked at what age it was appropriate to teach sex education to children in schools, by far the largest number of parents (48%) said 13 or older.

The Sex Education Forum points out that 'there is strong evidence that young people who have sex education that starts early and covers a broad range of topics are less likely to have sex at a young age, have fewer partners and are more likely to use contraception or condoms'. Holland, France and Germany have much lower rates of teenage pregnancy. They also start sex education earlier than we do. Education is not the only factor in reducing pregnancy rates but this fact does seriously undermine Dorries' argument.

It's true that sex education in the UK is patchy. The law currently requires only that young people are taught the biological basics, schools are allowed to teach according to their (religious) 'ethos' and parents can opt their children out. There's a long way to go but hopefully when Dorries' Bill gets its next reading, more MPs will bother to turn out to vote it down. It is, as Chris Bryant said, 'the daftest piece of legislation that I have seen'. You can see which 67 MPs thought this Bill would be a good idea here.


  1. I am quietly dismayed that this proposal has managed to scrape past the first hurdle.

    May I suggest that this blog entry be re presented as a letter to the editors of The Times, Guardian etc? A piece as well written as this ought to be read by as many people as possible, as soon as possible.:-D

  2. There's nothing wrong with abstinence education, as part of a healthy, informative, sex education programme. I was always dismayed that we'd teach 13 year olds about STDs but not about 'it's okay to say no' and 'it's okay to be a virgin'. Hence, when I was in charge of sex ed in a school my Y9 scheme of work covered all topics from
    - how to access and use contraception
    - what to do if you think you have an STD
    - It's okay to be gay
    - Virginity isn't something to lose, but something to treasure

  3. The whole concept of 'Virginity' is an outmoded and religious-based concept that gave special status to virgins and were considered to have special magical powers and were also prized by men for reasons too delicate to mention here.

    Rather than preach abstinence, why not just reinforce the choices that young people have when they may be thinking about having sex for the first, second or umpteenth time? The first time is only special because it is the first time and not because of any implied moral status that being a virgin has. The point is, that a girl or boy may say 'No' or 'Yes' regardless of whether it is the first time or even the last time.