I was horrified to hear that Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has tabled a motion for abstinence-only sex education for girls aged 13-16, which has passed its first vote in the House of Commons.
Why does this even happen? In 2011, why do we have adults, members of parliament even, proposing a return to a model of sex-education which is based on shame and fear and which has been proven over and over not to work?
In the bad old days before Feminism, there was a double-standard of sexual morality whose real purpose was to control women and ensure the continued dominance of men. In this double-standard an unmarried woman’s entire value rested with her virginity, and if she got caught having sex she lost all social status, lost the chance to marry in future, and was outcast by her family and friends. In short, her life was ruined. By contrast a man who committed the exact same infraction was considered to have behaved somewhat badly, but did not face any real consequences.
In the days of the double-standard very little distinction was made between consensual sex and rape. Men were considered to be incapable of restraining their sexual urges, and thus the entire responsibility for preventing both sex and rape lay with women. Women who were raped were often blamed for it and punished just the same as if they had had consensual sex. The distinction between sex and rape was further blurred by the fact that women were not supposed to enjoy sex; married women were supposed to see sex as a duty which they were required to perform for their husbands. Women who did enjoy sex were considered to be morally deviant, and had shame and hatred piled upon them.
The consequences of the double-standard were dire: women’s lives were ruined for no good reason, women were denied opportunities for education, women got sick or died as a result of unsafe abortions, all for doing something that men could do anytime they wanted, consequence-free. Women were continually told to feel ashamed of their sexuality, while heterosexual men were taught that their sexuality was healthy and normal, and even a source of pride.
To most people today the ideology of the sexual double-standard sounds laughably old-fashioned. Most people think that women and men should be treated equally, that it is normal to have sex outside of marriage, and that it is normal and desirable for both women and men to enjoy sex. But there are still a few right-wing extremists around who want to bring back the double-standard. They know that their ideas would sound either ludicrous or dangerous to most people if stated baldly, so tone down their message to make it sound more reasonable.
I’m going to quote Dorries’ blog post:
“I am not seeking to diminish sex education as taught at present, but to include the empowering option that young girls can just say no. In school, children are taught to base the decision whether or not to have sex on their feelings and wishes. I don’t believe young girls under the age of 16 have consistent feelings and that they can change from day to day. My bill was about making boys wait being an empowering and cool thing for girls to do and that it should be taught as a viable, if not preferable option for girls aged 16 and under – especially as sex at that age is unlawful.”
This all sounds very reasonable, but the premise is false. She is strongly implying that modern, comprehensive sex-ed doesn’t include “the empowering option that young girls can just say no”, but in fact this is the option that is most stressed in all sex-ed courses.
“…making boys wait being an empowering and cool thing for girls to do and that it should be taught as a viable, if not preferable option for girls aged 16 and under”
This is an eminently reasonable idea that practically anyone would agree with, including, I imagine, most girls under 16. But this very reasonable idea is already being taught in modern courses of comprehensive sex education. It is not a unique innovation being introduced by Dorries, as she seems to imply. Furthermore the use of the words “empowering” and “option” here is dishonest. Giving young people comprehensive sex-ed is “empowering” and gives people “options”. Abstinence-only sex-ed does not “empower” or provide “options”, rather it tells young people that they are only allowed to do one thing. The clue is in the name.
Abstinence-only education is about giving girls fewer choices and less information, and making it harder for them to make their own decisions about relationships, sex, and sexual health. If you read between the lines, it is about telling girls that they should be ashamed of their sexuality. Furthermore, sex-ed aimed at girls only sends the toxic message that boys do not need to learn to make responsible decisions regarding sex, birth control, and contraception.
Teenagers need more comprehensive sex education, not less. They also need access to a variety of methods of birth control and contraception, and high-quality medical care, including abortion. They need to be taught to ask for consent, and to treat their partners with respect. They don’t need to be used as pawns to further a sexist and misogynistic ideology that was already looking dated 100 years ago.
There is a great write-up about this at Abortion Rights.