Thoughts on Nadine Dorries' abstinence crusade

Saturday, 7 May 2011

This week, Nadine Dorries tabled her Ten Minute Rule Bill, entitled 'Sex Education (Required Content). 67 MPs voted in favour of the proposal, with 61 voting against. A narrow victory, but it meant that the bill passed its first reading. I don't think there's much need for us to go into all-out panic mode. The level of interest shown by MPs on Wednesday was low and it doesn't have much chance of becoming law. Dorries herself is spectacularly untrustworthy as an MP. But you can't deny she's on a bit of a mission and that she's not going to give up.

There's her connections with self-described Christian fundamentalist Andrea Minichiello Williams, the director of the Christian Legal Centre who wants to see abortion made completely illegal and is somewhat partial to hate speech. There's her ongoing attempts to limit access to abortion services using dodgy 'research' and promotion of so-called 'non-aligned' advice services which have turned out be anything but.

And now, she's pushing the intriguing view that it's teenage girls - not boys - who need to be given abstinence education. There's no point in me rehashing other blog posts from earlier this week, so here's a link to a post explaining exactly what her plans are. And here's one debunking the 'facts' which Dorries detailed in the Commons this week. It's laughable, really that she's in the business of believing that seven-year-olds are learning about STIs and using condoms as part of the school curriculum. There may have been a lot of noise, in recent years, from certain tabloids about what sort of sex education children are getting, but the fact is that seven-year olds are being taught about the differences between male and female bodies, families and self esteem. No-one's teaching them how to use contraception or how to avoid chlamydia and she should know better than to believe Daily Mail scaremongering.

When people hear the word 'abstinence', they think of the deplorable state of affairs which emerged in schools across the US during the 90s, continuing during George W Bush's presidency. Schools banned from giving students any information about safe sex, STIs, what to do if they found themselves pregnant. Around a third of schools using 'abstinence-only' education. A focus on shaming young people, outdated gender roles and misinformation. Promoting victim-blaming, likening young people who have been sexually active to half-eaten cakes or used and discarded chewing gum. As I mention in my post on the subject, a 2004 report from Representative Henry Waxman found that over 80 per cent of federally funded abstinence programs contained false or misleading information about sex and reproductive health.

It wasn't the right way to go about things and this has been proved. As everyone knows, a lot of teens will ignore the advice of abstinence-only sex ed. Unfortunately, it's left them without the knowledge they need of they are going to be sexually active. Or it's left them with the view that it's okay, it doesn't count as sex if it's 'just' oral or anal sex. Or it's left them with the view that they should feel ashamed of any sexual activity they do take part in. What happens if they later become the victim of rape or assault? This post over at Sociological Images shows where they are in the US with teen pregnancy, with STI rates, compared to some countries in Europe which are renowned for their more 'liberal' sex education policy. And it's not looking good.

Thankfully, Nadine Dorries hasn't used the term 'abstinence-only'. A lot of what she talked about on Wednesday seemed to be related to the fact she wants schools to tell girls it's 'okay to say no'. She mentioned this repeatedly. That girls should be 'empowered to say no'. And she talked about it as if it's something which doesn't already happen. Now I know sex education in schools is patchy and invariably dodgy. It desperately needs sorting out. But I do know that young people are, in general, given 'saying no' as an option that's open to them and an option which they absolutely should consider if they don't want to engage in sexual activity. It's also an option echoed by teen magazines and sexual health educators. As Lisa from Education for Choice said in a blog post last month:

"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."

This has been backed up by teachers and I know it was also the case with the (limited, patchy and ineffective) sex education classes I had as a teenager. So Dorries to be primarily concerned with something which already happens - and preoccupied with only telling half of all young people about it.

Some people have pointed out that her focus on teaching girls about abstinence is down to the fact that it's girls who will be the ones who might end up pregnant. But there's very little point giving out particular messages to one gender - when boys, who will certainly be participating in any sexual activity with these girls, will receive different messages.

"Girls are taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no to a boyfriend who insists on sexual relations," she said on Wednesday.

In this case, shouldn't we also be telling boys that they should not 'insist on sexual relations'? It's not long since the publication of the landmark NSPCC report which documented the prevalence of violence and abuse in teen relationships. The report told of how a third of teenage girls have been forced into sexual acts by their boyfriends and that a quarter had faced violence. In recent months I've had several conversations with sexual health and sexual violence workers who have spoken of confusion and acceptance about this sort of behaviour from teens. They feel it's just a normal part of being in a relationship. Or that it 'shows that he cares'.

It's been said since that Dorries is focusing too much on making girls the 'gatekeepers' when it comes to relationships and this is an attitude which desperately needs to be confined to the past. When girls are the 'gatekeepers' they're the ones who get the blame for any consequences. They're the ones who get branded as 'dirty' or 'slags' or 'go and get themselves pregnant' while people shrug their shoulders and make noises about 'what boys are like'. The onus should be on boys as much as girls to show respect, not to pressurize or to force and not to see responsibility as lying with one partner. Whatever Dorries wants, this doesn't seem to come into it.

Abstinence is a completely valid choice and there's nothing wrong with telling young people that they can make this choice. But it needs to be taught as part of comprehensive sex education involving both boys and girls. I sometimes think, that as a Christian (and actually, as someone who has practiced abstinence), comprehensive sex education gets a really bad rap among 'people like me'. It's the worry that education is tantamount to encouragement and the fear of it being 'at odds' with Biblical teaching.

But when I look at what happened in the US and what the people who Nadine Dorries associates with want for this country, I'm very happy to not toe the party line. It's up to parents, youth leaders and churches it they want to promote a specific stance on sex and relationships, but a teacher's duty should be to educate accurately and responsibly. The majority of teenagers don't live in the 'church bubble', with the support of parents and youth leaders and they shouldn't have to suffer because of it. Dorries has spoken in the past of the fact she wants more church leaders and Christians to get behind her and give her support. Unless she's about to start acting with integrity as a politician, I really do think we shouldn't.

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