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This article is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject of abstinence-only sex ed, and is a fantastic display of Cracked’s power as a force for awesome in the world.

Rather than attempt to summarise or make any of my own points, I’m just going to quote some highlights and urge you to go revel in the full fury of Luke McKinney’s sexy wrath.

Abstinence-only education starts with the idea that teenagers listen to adults and manages to get even stupider.

Abstinence-only education doesn’t work, doesn’t work, lies, doesn’t work and doesn’t work.

If trying to restrain your sexual urges means thinking of a squad of burly rugby players, you are one important revelation away from cutting the legs off your jeans and being much happier.

People buying pewter collectibles warning against sex are like a nuclear submarine crew warning against sunburn: They’ve already gone to a dark place beyond such problems, and for the sake of all humanity, we pray they never get the chance to deploy their payloads.

When you won’t even refer to genitals without infant talk like “no-no square,” you may be ill-equipped in a battle against boning. There are aliens with a better understanding of hu-man mating ports because they found the Pioneer plaque and know “triangle” would be better.

Recommending that teenagers shouldn’t have sex until they know what the hell they’re doing is a great idea. Refusing to teach them about the cheap, widely available products that can prevent them from ruining their lives when they do something hormonally stupid — which is a teenager’s entire biological function — is generational manslaughter.

This is how you write a fucking article.

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I wrote a whole post for tonight on some head-scratching moral analysing of questionable situations, then realised I’d been really boring.

So here’s another thing. I liked this quote from Dr Marty Klein in a recent post on abstinence-only education:

We know how we would describe a parent who’s uncomfortable about his own teeth, and therefore refuses to teach his kids about brushing, flossing, and soda. Imagine that this parent also prevents his kids from learning anything about oral hygiene, and forbids them from going to the dentist.

We’d call this parent neglectful. I’d add irresponsible and unforgiveable. And if this parent got in the way of my kid learning about toothpaste, I’d say he’s dangerous. That perfectly describes adults who desperately need to live in a world without teen sexuality – and selfishly fantasize that they can.

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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
Heresy Corner
Ministry Of Truth (and they’ve also done some further fact-checking)
Dr Petra Boynton
Suzanne Moore in the Daily Mail

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The Liberal Conspiracy website has a better-informed and more thorough discussion of Project Prevention than I managed a few days ago. It’s increasingly clear that this is an organisation driven by a specific ideology, which doesn’t care to examine its own workings enough to question whether what it’s doing is really in its clients’ best interests. This line was especially revealing, referring to the organisation’s founder, Barbara Harris:

Harris’ interest isn’t in the long-term outcomes for the women she works with or the areas they live in. There’s no subsequent monitoring programme and no requirement that addicts sign up for treatment – Project Prevention’s involvement with these women begins and ends with their fertility.

The stated “main objective” of Project Prevention is “to reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero”, and their approach with this goal in mind is unhelpfully single-minded. The plight of infants born to substance-addicted mothers is no doubt awful, but Barbara Harris is fixated on this one solution, to the exclusion of an overall picture of providing treatment and care as best they can, based on what people need, whatever that might involve in any specific case.

No doubt a lot of people with drug problems would benefit from some of the forms of contraception and birth control that Project Prevention can provide, but they’re not looking at it in terms of providing the best and most appropriate care for their clients. As far as they’re concerned, the fertility issue is the beginning and the end.

I hadn’t picked up on the issue of the complete lack of aftercare before, but thinking about it now, this is insane. In the substance misuse centre I work at, there are constant discussions about where clients are going to move onto once their treatment with us is complete, whether medication will be prescribed from somewhere else, whether they have support in the community, whether we could look to arranging housing, whether they’re registered with a local mental health or psychological team to follow them up sporadically in the coming weeks and months.

These are all a big and necessary part of treating anyone for drug addiction, but none of it seems to be on Project Prevention’s radar. It kinda seems like it should be, if you’re going to be performing major operations on people with serious addiction problems.

Oh, and the founder of the organisation, Barbara Harris, has made her Twitter feed private, after some people started tweeting questions about her methods at her. Now, there’s no problem with having a private feed, if you only want your personal friends to be able to follow the thoughts you share on there – a lot of people go that way. But it still purports to be Project Prevention’s official feed, so this doesn’t speak well to Barbara’s approach to openness and outreach.

I hope nobody questioning her was hostile or unpleasant, and made her feel like there was no point listening to people simply being obnoxious. But @DrPetra was among those asking sensible questions of Barbara – whether she wouldn’t try integrating with existing services, for instance – and got accused of condoning child abuse for her trouble.

Speaking of Dr Petra, she just tweeted a link to a report that Canada’s teen birth and abortion rates have plummeted following better sex education and wider access to contraception throughout that country. There’s been more than a one-third decline in ten years, as a direct result of doing exactly the opposite of what the abstinence-only puritans say is best. Just thought that was worth a mention too.

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It’s so nice when your self-righteousness dictates that the facts ought to be a certain way, and then science proves you were right all along.

Abstinence-only sex education is “actively unhelpful” in decreasing sexual activity in adolescents.

Can we please stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars on not teaching teenagers how to use a condom now?

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SEX!!

Now that I’ve got your attention: sex.

This particular spleen-venting is adapted from two previous essays, and is intended to encapsulate many of my (largely tragically uninformed) opinions on sex. So prepare to loosen your collars, people – this is gonna be hawt.

(Quick disclaimer: all statistics quoted below were plucked from the air to represent my memory of what I think I heard, and are not intended to accurately convey reality.)

There have been a few documentaries on TV in recent years about abstinence groups, mostly in America, who promote the exciting and alluring world of not having sex, and/or support the teaching of abstinence-only sex education in schools. One of these, titled American Virgin, was about the organisation Silver Ring Thing, whose members wear a ring on their finger to remind them of their pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, and plan to hand this ring over to their partner on their wedding night (while also offering, less metaphorically, themselves).

They didn’t come across as nearly so much of a sinister or cultish hive-mind as my cynical side had rather hoped. Although they all obviously tended to agree on the main theme, there were a lot of contrasting opinions between them. They’re a Christian-based organisation, but for many of the members religion had little or nothing to do with it. Some people were just interested in their own health, and chose to err on the side of caution. Others had some strange ideas about wanting to be emotionally committed to somebody before sleeping with them. None of this can possibly be objected to – whatever reasons you might have for not wanting to have much sex (and I surely have my own), the harshest criticism anyone can really lay on you for it is that you’re foolishly missing out on some fun.

The criticisms get harsher when people start scaremongering and spreading misinformation about the damnable horrors of contraceptives. Actually, they get pretty merciless rather sooner than that, such as when religious organisations try to shut other people up entirely on the subject of safe sex, and enforce a system of “education” which deliberately serves to do as little educating as possible.

One of the regulars on this documentary, and somebody the organisation seemed keen to sell as one of their predominant spokespeople, was a 16-year-old girl, who we first saw on the set of a promotional video she was making.

“Hi, my name is Nikki,” she introduced herself, and something about her made a part of my brain complete the sentence with, “and welcome to Wet ‘N’ Wild Teens on Spring Break!” Disappointingly, she started talking about how great it is not shagging anyone instead, and how sad it was that the government apparently allows some schools to teach kids about possible methods to avoid the possible negative consequences should they decide to, you know, “do it”.

She asked us at one point, “Safe sex? What is that? And safer than what?” Clearly this was meant to be rhetorical, but isn’t it just begging a sensible answer? Couldn’t you think of quite a lengthy and reasonable response off the top of your head? Safe sex involves making some preparation before the event itself, so that if you decide, as many millions of people regularly do, that abstinence is actually quite boring, you can have sex, quite possibly within a loving and committed relationship, while dramatically reducing the dangers of any negative side effects occurring.

And the dangers will be dramatically reduced, if you know what constitutes “safe”, and how to use condoms effectively, and so on – if, say, someone’s been allowed to teach you about these things without having to worry about breaking the law. Safer than what? Well, a hell of a lot safer than being one of the many uncertain teenage girls who decides to try having sex, but thinks that they can’t get pregnant on their first time, or that a shaken-up can of coke can wash away sperm. You know, the kind of misconceptions that arise when you deliberately don’t teach people anything.

Another highlight of this gathering was the moment while Nikki was talking about her own decision to save herself till marriage, when two guys in the audience nudged each other, nodded towards her, shared a look, and grinned. Now, maybe I misinterpreted this gesture – maybe it was taken out of context by the makers of the documentary with precisely this misinterpretation in mind – but it highlights the flaws in the idea that everyone signing up to this chastity lark is a pure and special snowflake and will remain thus until happily ever after.

In the history of fucking, I’m willing to bet that more vows of chastity have been broken than condoms. Obviously the most effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and infection is not to have any sexual contact at all, but nobody’s arguing that we shouldn’t tell people that. The apparent controversy is over whether teachers should clam up before getting any further with the purported sex education than “Don’t have sex”, or whether the availability and effectiveness of some of the alternatives might also be worth mentioning. There are safe alternatives out there, and it’s not unthinkable that even that epitome of irresponsible recklessness, “the adolescent”, might be able to go about things in an intelligent and informed way – finding out about their partner’s sexual history, getting themselves tested – if, that is, anyone’s legally allowed to inform them.

There were definitely some abstinence advocates capable of intelligent thought, but many really didn’t have any good reasons for what they believed. Don’t get me wrong, nobody owes me a damn word of an explanation for what they want to do with their own lives and bodies. Personally, I don’t consider adultery to apply retroactively, but if you want to view any pre-marital sex as cheating on your future spouse, as some of these people did, then you go ahead and remain faithful to someone you haven’t met yet. My hackles only rise (and you know I hate when you people do that to my hackles) when you start telling other people that what they’re doing is wrong. So, to all you people trying to suppress the distribution of information in schools, here’s why what you’re doing is wrong.

– Don’t compare a detailed sex education, which includes instruction in the use of contraception, to a lesson in how to safely shoot up on heroin. Personally, I think the latter could also be a damn good idea, but leaving that aside for now, a potentially beautiful expression of love can’t be so easily equated to the potentially lethal consumption of illegal narcotics.

– Don’t claim that America is facing an AIDS epidemic comparable to the kind of thing that terrorists might hope to achieve by launching a particularly virulent disease into the general public. If the most devastating biological warfare our enemies can wage on us is something we need to insert body parts into each other to spread, and which can be made 98% less contagious by the application of a small, cheap, and easily-acquired piece of plastic, then I think there are more pressing concerns in protecting the integrity of western civilisation. C’mon, smallpox might be tricky to get hold of, but even the ‘flu can be passed on by just sneezing in someone’s general direction.

– Don’t give me Biblical lectures on purity and expect this to have an impact on the running of state-sponsored education. He’s your god, they’re your rules, you live by ‘em. And honestly, who on the planet has spent a single pure day in their lives, going by what that book says? Though I wouldn’t put it past some fundies to genuinely make sure that they always bathe themselves and make the appropriate burnt offerings after every time they touch the skin of a pig, or sit in a chair previously occupied by a woman who “have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood”. Yes, apparently that’s the actual Biblical term for menstruation.

– Don’t tell me, “Anything you cover up, you cover up for a reason.” Yes, the reason is unhealthy and outdated sexual repression.

The abstinence-only crowd fail to acknowledge the vital, simple, and universal truth that kids don’t bloody listen. No, really. Have you met any teenagers lately? They’re always causing absolute mayhem, the way they insist on acting and thinking independently, making their own decisions without slavishly adhering to every joyless command their buzzkill elders hand down. It’s a nightmare. But also, surprisingly often, they’re not idiots. Anyone who actually understands what can result from careless sex, and how to prevent it, isn’t going to keep doing it – or if they are, chances are they’re not going to be the kind of person who’d go a bundle for total abstinence either.

They’re also quite capable of doing their own research, and if they don’t have somebody more informed around, to help them sift the useful information from the fiction, then they’re potentially screwed, and not in a good way. Condoms are hardly a national secret, and teenagers are going to find out about them, however much you try and hide away this terrible secret. But their proper usage and true rates of effectiveness are the kind of info that might pass a casual user by.

A lot of this is illustrated in the other programme that got me ranting on this theme. More recently, Davina McCall, ubiquitous television personality and host of that great moral bastion of purity and virtue, the game show Big Brother, embarked on a campaign for more and better sex education in Britain’s schools. Apparently it was a fairly brief campaign, not lasting noticeably longer than the hour-long documentary on Channel 4 last year detailing her adventures. She’s said she hopes to do for sex education what Jamie Oliver, popular TV chef and mockney restaurateur type, has done for school dinners.

Now, Jamie Oliver still has a lingering reputation, from his early, Naked Chef days, as an annoying, slack-tongued halfwit – you may recall that series of film posters which were photoshopped to refer to him as a cunt in a variety of amusing ways. However, he has actually managed to change a few things over the course of his own crusade, and I’m not sure Davina is quite going to have his credibility or gravitas. (I might hesitate to use words like “credibility” and “gravitas” to describe Jamie Oliver, if I had any credibility of my own to worry about, but fortunately I am not so hampered.) And, indeed, nobody seems to have paid her any attention since then, despite the importance of her cause.

A class of 16-year-olds and their headmaster were participating in the programme. They came from some secondary school which currently doesn’t have a great deal of sex education, beyond the standard hour on reproduction in biology lessons, but the head would like to introduce a much more detailed, consistent syllabus. The show started out by giving a written, multiple-choice exam to the kids, their parents, the school’s teachers, and Davina, in which some qualified sexpert declared that everyone really ought to score at least 80%, if they’re not woefully uninformed about all things carnal.

I’m not sure there was a single person in the room who scored that high, and the kids averaged somewhere in the 30s. I knew most of the example questions we were given, but I was flummoxed by whatever it was they wanted to know about the Fallopian tubes, and if questioned further on the details of all the mechanical jiggery-pokery (pardon the technical jargon) my ignorance would no doubt be swiftly proven. To the shock and amazement of nobody, it seems that sex is a subject on which many people in this country, children in particular, are deeply ignorant.

Davina then went with this class to the Netherlands to sit in on some lessons there, and talk to some of the local teachers, parents, and students about their thoughts on sex education, in a country with teen pregnancy and STD rates less than 25% of our own. They sat in on a class of (I think) 12-year-olds, and were almost universally shocked and appalled by the graphic nature of the videos they were being shown. It was a fairly simplistic animation, but it depicted two little cartoon people having penetrative sex, and the British teenagers were generally agreed that kids this young should not be exposed to this kind of thing.

But, to broach the obvious but often unspoken question, why the fuck not? At their age, most kids are charging rapidly toward learning plenty about sex anyway, if not from practical experience, then certainly from far less academic study than they’d get in a classroom, be it in playground rumours, stories from older siblings, or the good ol’ interwebs. Every time a kid takes a bath, the discovery of one set of genitalia right there in front of them is going to be hard to avoid; after a decade of this, does anyone really think they’re not going to start asking a few innocently curious questions about it, and listening to whatever answers they’re given by anyone who doesn’t just tell them they’ll understand when they’re older?

What the Dutch seem to have figured out is that if you establish a subject in kids’ minds as something which can be talked about, learned about, and discussed maturely and reasonably, before it becomes relevant to their lives, then you save yourself a whole lot of hassle trying to straighten them out once the damage has already been done. This might be even truer for the social side of sex than for the purely biological discussion.

We also saw a class of six-year-olds, discussing with their teacher things like different types of love, the very basics of how people make new people, and even introducing concepts like homosexuality. There was a fair bit of giggling going on, because it’s a classroom full of six-year-olds, but they were learning things, things that they’ll remember and understand later on in life, and they were managing it without visibly being disgusted, or offended, or having their purity and innocence twisted and destroyed.

The parents who wrote to complain to this headmaster about his plans (a very small minority, encouragingly, but still quite capable of kicking up a major fuss) blathered predominantly on the theme of “destroying our children’s innocence”, but I think I’ve hit upon the fundamental misunderstanding here. People are confusing the concepts of innocence and ignorance.

What’s happening to these Dutch kids is called education, which is about making people more knowledgeable, and less ignorant. But while they’re learning about sex, their innocence remains unaffected; they sit around the classroom, idly chewing crayons and being told that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, then scamper off as soon as the bell rings to run around, climb trees, trade Pokémon cards, or whatever the hell six-year-olds do for fun these days. They’re no less innocent for the lesson they’ve just had, because their world is still just as much about having childish fun as it was yesterday. 13-year-olds in Britain, on the other hand, are throwing their innocence aside at alarming rates and with little care, in no small part because their ignorance about sex tends to remain more or less intact throughout their education.

I am firmly convinced that devoting much more time to an intelligent, mature, regular timetable of sex education is absolutely the right thing to do, and would accomplish much in nurturing a better-informed, healthier, and generally less screwed-up society. The problem, of course, as is often the case, is that you can’t get there from here. If the system were to be suddenly overhauled, and hordes of parents had to start having awkward and embarrassing conversations about what their precious darlings had learnt in school today, the ensuing outcry might just bring the country to a standstill.

I’m less convinced that we’re quite ready for such a dangerously liberal policy being applied universally, all at once; some of us are still struggling with the idea of women wearing long trousers and children being kept out of chimneys and coal mines. But surely we can do better than this. We’re being pwned by the Dutch, for fuck’s sake.

(I’ve got no beef with the Dutch really. That’s just the way the rhetoric seemed to be going.)

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