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Saturday, 7 January 2012

Why I believe in abstinence... from Nadine Dorries

By Megan Down

On January 20th, Nadine Dorries' Sex Education (Required Content) Bill will receive it's second reading in the House of Commons. Unbelievably, this bill which requires abstinence only sex education to be provided – only to girls – passed it's first reading by 67 to 61. 61 MPs bought Dorries' claims that teaching girls and young women abstinence will empower them to say no and not only reduce teenage pregnancies and STI rates, but also reduce rates of sexual abuse. Because, as everyone knows, child abuse and sexual violence wouldn't happen if only all those victims had known how to say no. I cannot describe the rage that bubbles up when I hear an MP – and a female MP at that – suggest that if only I'd been taught how to say no, I would have been safe. Presumably, this magical education would have included how to say no with a hand over my mouth. Right, Nadine?

This bill is utter nonsense on so many levels. The ridiculous views of women held by Dorries and her collaborators are woven throughout everything she's said on the matter. The idea that victims of childhood sexual abuse might have saved themselves by saying no leaves a bitter taste of a “she was asking for it” attitude. The concept of making abstinence-only sex education compulsory only for females makes it very clear with whom she places the responsibility for Britain's high teenage pregnancy and STI rates – with those girls who just can't say no. Incidentally, she apparently also claimed that it would be a disgrace for Labour MP Chris Bryant to speak on the subject of her Bill because he is a gay man so can't have an opinion on teenage sex education, which says volumes about her heteronormative bias. It's not like there are any major public health issues for which comprehensive sex education for young gay men is vital, is it? Oh, wait...

Aside from the stupidly sexist nature of the Bill, it is also completely without evidential support. The sex education that we provide for young people is likely to have a massive impact on their first experiences of sex and relationships which may stay with them for the rest of their lives, and we have a duty to make decisions on the best possible evidence available. That evidence tells us that – shock horror – telling young people about safe sex doesn't increase their sexual activity, and often delays the initiation of sexual intercourse and reduces the number of sexual partners young people have. Abstinence only education, meanwhile, has far less success in delaying first time sex, reducing the number or frequency of sex, or increasing condom use.

The potential implementation of this Bill takes an even more sinister turn when looked at in the context of massive cuts to the youth and health services that teenagers turn to for advice and education about sex. The way we are going, our young women will soon be facing an out of touch, sex-shaming just say no approach in their classrooms, and turn to other services for advice only to find that their local NHS sexual health service has closed, their local teenage pregnancy co-ordinator has been made redundant, and even if there is a youth centre open in their area, it can't afford a trained youth worker to give sexual health advice. If the government genuinely cared about the sexual and emotional wellbeing of young people, they would be ring fencing funding for these absolutely essential services. If Nadine Dorries genuinely wants to improve sex education, she could do a lot worse than campaigning against the cuts being imposed by her own party.

Of course, we should be teaching our children and teenagers that they never have to do anything they don't want to do or don't feel ready for, and that they have every right to say no to any sexual experience that they aren't comfortable with. Teaching abstinence is not, however, the way to do that. Young people don't need to be taught how to say no, they need to be empowered to do so, and providing them with all of the information they need – and yes, that includes how to put on a condom – is the way to do that. By giving young people all of the facts, we put them in the best possible position to make the right decision for them about sex. And by the way, if, with all that information to hand, they decide that having safe, consensual sex is the right thing for them – that's awesome. Sex is not the enemy, and teaching young people that it is does no favours for our society.

(If you think this is as wrong as I do, you can show your opposition by attending the Just Say No to Dorries protest happening outside parliament on the day of the reading, or email your MP to tell them why you think they should oppose the Bill using this handy form from the British Humanist Society).

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