Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP in England, wants teenagers to be taught that it’s “cool” not to have sex.
Good luck with that.
She’s proposed a bill requiring that girls (and only girls) be taught about the benefits of abstinence at school – in particular, that they should learn “how to say no”.
Of course, everyone’s completely on her side. If teenage girls’ mouths and vocal cords are truly incapable of forming the phonemes of this important syllable, it is vital that schools address this problem with urgency.
Sorry. I’m being frivolous. That’s not what she means at all, and people have been vehemently disagreeing with her.
A big part of the problem lies in Dorries’s often bizarre assumptions about the current state of sex and relationships education, and of the place of sex in society more generally.
She’s worried about the impact of teaching seven-year-olds “to apply a condom on a banana“, which as far as I can tell is something that’s not actually happening anywhere. It’s not on the typical curriculum for children that age, at any rate, and people I follow on Twitter have been retweeting numerous sex educators who deny having any such thing as part of their lesson plan.
But even putting aside those times when she departs from reality in plain matters of fact, there seems to be a lack of consistency between her concerns and how she seeks to address them.
“Saying no” is a thornier subject than she assumes, for instance. Taken literally, it leaves the door open for my silly joke earlier about morphemes and syllables. Presumably it’s actually intended to refer to a more complex social relationship, in which for a girl to persistently refuse to have sex with her boyfriend is socially unacceptable.
Dorries implies as much when she describes talking to teenage girls who “do not even think they have the option of saying no to boys”. It certainly sounds like she’s describing a serious problem. If any young people are feeling socially obliged to have sex before they really want to for themselves, there might be things they could learn in school which would help them. But the simple, single, isolated fact that “you’re allowed to say no, you know” isn’t going to be much more help when it comes to sex than it has been in the war on drugs.
It leads down a dangerous road if you hold up “saying no” as the ultimate virtue, untainted by context. If the message gets through that this is the most important thing for girls to learn how to do, then whatever would they think of girls who ever dare say yes? Particularly if they actually enjoy it?
For that matter, what would they end up thinking of a boy who doesn’t make any overt sexual demands for them to say no to? What would they think must be wrong with themselves if boys aren’t even making such requests? And what would they think of themselves if they ever consent to – or even enthusiastically engage in – what seems like a good idea at the time, but has negative repercussions down the line, either physical (disease, pregnancy) or social (scandal, shame)?
Dorries also claims that peer pressure is “a key contributor to early sexual activity”. And this is no doubt the case, but pressure comes from all kinds of directions. It’s more than just boys being full of testosterone and desperate for some of the action they’ve seen on RedTube.
Playground rumours and epithets ranging from “frigid” to “slag” can surely do a good deal to influence the inclinations of any adolescent who cares about the approval of their (her) peers, regardless of their basis in reality. For boys, I suppose the equivalent would be “virgin” or… well, there doesn’t seem to be a derogatory way of describing males as overly promiscuous. It’s not possible for them to err in that direction. The more female “conquests” they achieve, the better.
But if this state of affairs continues – which Dorries’s lack of interest in talking to them about sex won’t do anything to improve – then boys are potentially in an even more awkward dilemma than girls. While some girls don’t realise they have the option of saying no, boys might not realise they have the option of wanting to say no.
And this will surely only be exacerbated if you single-mindedly encourage girls to abstain, but decline to give boys any wider understanding of the role sex can play in social relationships. It reinforces the idea that sex is something men want to do to women, and women just have to know when not to let them have it.
Sex education deserves to be about more than just biological mechanics, but if this is as shallow as the social side of the discussion is going to be, then we might be better off leaving kids to figure it out for themselves.
This is all a bit thrown together and speculative. Other things which may be worth reading on the same subject include:
Education For Choice
Jessica Shepherd and Sarah Ditum in the Guardian
Ministry Of Truth (and they’ve also done some further fact-checking)
Dr Petra Boynton
Suzanne Moore in the Daily Mail