MP Nadine Dorries has proposed a ten minute rule motion:
Ten minute Rule Motion SEX EDUCATION (REQUIRED CONTENT)
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes.
The evidence against using an abstinence-only approach to sex and relationships education has stacked up over the years and I don't plan to review it here. To be fair Dorries doesn’t use the term abstinence-ONLY, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she would like discussion of abstinence to be part of a wider sex and relationships education curriculum.
So what’s the problem with this motion?
Firstly, it seems bizarre to call for more sex education for girls specifically. For all those women (quite a large majority) who sometimes, often or always have sex with men, it would be quite useful if the men knew a thing or two too about positively choosing whether or not to have sex, what real consent looks like and how sex fits into a relationship. If we are (which I’m not) trying to promote abstinence, we really do have to talk to the boys too. After all it really takes two to abstain just as it takes two to tangle.
Secondly, as with so many of Dorries' bills, amendments and random proclamations – just scratch the surface and there is a dodgy premise in there. The dodgy premise is that SRE currently does not get young people to think about positively choosing not to have sex. In my experience sex educators are always talking about: a) the fact that not having sex is the best way to guarantee you won’t get pregnant b)the importance of feeling ready for sex, c) how unacceptable it is to pressure someone into sex d) how eminently sensible and reasonable it can be to choose not to have sex...etc
Thirdly, comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education – and I note her Bill does not include the word ‘relationship’ TUT TUT – is all about empowering young people to make informed decisions and one of the many they will be faced with is: do I have sex now, in this place, with this person, with/without this form of contraception? This kind of approach which eschews the obsession with virginity, purity, and a sense of once it’s gone it’s gone, is much more useful than typical abstinence education. Instead of proposing that sex in and of itself is wrong/terrifying/horrendously risky and should be avoided for as long as possible, it gives students a framework against which to consider whether each sexual opportunity should be embraced or avoided: How will it make me feel right now/later/tomorrow? How will it make him/her feel? How will it impact on our relationship? What will I gain or lose from the decision to have sex now? What are the pitfalls of sex here, now, with this person? How well protected are we against pregnancy and STIs etc...This approach allows someone to have sex once and then choose not to for months or years. Just because you’ve had sex once all is not lost. Every opportunity you have to say yes becomes an opportunity to say no, or not now, or not like that, or not here, or not without a condom.
Fourthly, ‘abstinence’ is not a fantastically useful term. It holds within it a powerful sense of deprivation - e.g. I’m going to abstain from eating chocolate until I’ve lost a stone - which surely makes chocolate seem more desirable. Abstinence is often associated with virginity – causing many young people to bypass vaginal penetrative sex for the more 'abstinence-friendly' activities such as oral and anal sex (which are sometimes considered not to count – when you’re saving yourself for marriage).
Finally, I’m baffled as to how we could make one aspect of sex education compulsory and leave the rest to the whim and whimsy of schools to deliver as and when they see fit. As it stands, Dorries' motion is strong on implication, poor on understanding of contemporary practice, and weak on practical help for young people. If Dorries truly wants to empower young people and improve their health she should join the chorus of voices crying out for delivery of comprehensive SRE to all our students in all our schools and all our communities, because only by providing that will we give our young people the power to say NO as well as YES and NOT NOW or MAYBE ANOTHER TIME.