When Nadine Dorries proposed the motion to teach girls aged 13-16 ‘the benefits of abstinence’ she claimed that young people are ‘taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no’. Is this really the case?
The argument put forward by those who back abstinence-based sex and relationships education is often based on the misconception that SRE in schools is focused purely on teaching young people how to have sex, with no reference whatsoever to delaying or refraining from sexual activity. One member of the new abstinence-heavy SRE Council, Challenge Team UK claims:
‘By giving information about condoms and showing teens how to use them, adults who are the authority figures in teens' lives may be giving them, unintentionally, permission to have sex’.
In fact, good SRE is NOT about encouraging young people to have sex as soon as possible. Good SRE will always acknowledge the importance of having sex only when the time is right for you (and your partner/s). Good SRE will make clear that ‘sex’ isn’t necessarily just about male/female penetration and that there are many other ways (sexual and non-sexual) of showing someone affection and feeling pleasure. Good SRE will note that the legal age of consent for young people is 16, but that the age at which people feel ready for sex, or start to have sexual relationships can be different for everyone. Good SRE will of course stress the importance of only having the kind of sex you want to have at a time which feels right for you. And yes, good SRE will encourage the use of condoms (alongside other contraceptive methods) should this situation arise, as a way to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy and STI transmission. Good SRE will cover communication and relationships alongside consent – how to say yes, no, and ‘not now’!
Sex Educators aren’t telling young people about safer sex because they want them all to be having sex as early as possible. But because they live in the real world, where yes, some young people may already be having sex and need to know where they can access accurate information and advice. And because, well, the vast majority of young people they speak to in a school or youth centre will, at some point in their lives have sex. Just as with other aspects of education, we teach young people life skills which may not be relevant to them at this very moment but will almost certainly be relevant for their futures.