Posts Tagged ‘sex education’

So over on Tumblr (yes, that’s still a thing that’s happening), ozymandias271 explained what “condoms are 98% effective” actually means in a recent post and it’s kinda made my brain explode.

I’ve been hearing that statistic (or other similar ones) for ages, and never concerned myself with it too closely. Given how little casual (or any kind of) sex I’ve generally been having, it wasn’t of much personal importance, and while I advocate strongly for comprehensive sex and relationships education, it should definitely be someone better-informed than me doing it. But I knew enough to know that condoms are good, and knowing how they work is also good, and if I needed more detailed data than that I’d surely be able to do the research.

But 98% always seemed oddly low. I wasn’t sure how much it was affected by issues like compliance or user error – is that remaining 2% at least partly explained by people just applying them wrong? – but taken on its face that’s actually quite a high-sounding failure rate. Do you really only have to have fifty sexual encounters involving a condom before you’ve statistically had one for which it might as well not have been there and you’re facing all the risks of unprotected sex? Given how much sex straight people on TV seem to be having, this makes it sound like unplanned pregnancies due to contraceptive ineffectiveness would be cropping up pretty regularly, and just something to be accepted as par for the course.

Anyway it turns out that’s totally not what “98% effective” means. Taking the outcome of unplanned pregnancy specifically, here’s how one website describes the effectiveness of condoms:

In one year, only two of every 100 couples who use condoms consistently and correctly will experience an unintended pregnancy—two pregnancies arising from an estimated 8,300 acts of sexual intercourse, for a 0.02 percent per-condom pregnancy rate.

98% effective doesn’t mean a condom is only doing its job in 98% of sexual encounters. It means that 98% of people using condoms for a year will avoid unplanned pregnancies in that year.

Or, assuming you’re using them correctly and having sex about as often as these statisticians imagine, the length of time the average person would have to keep having regular safe sex before encountering a condom failure isn’t fifty sexual encounters, but fifty years.

I have been massively misunderstanding this for YEARS because of what seems like REALLY UNCLEAR COMMUNICATION AND UNHELPFULLY OBSCURE PHRASING, GUYS. Seriously, I can’t be the only one who finds that a totally counter-intuitive interpretation of the “98% effective” line. Did everybody but me already have this figured out? I mean, it’s less important that I understand this than almost anyone else, but still.

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A comedy skit about sex education, put together by a comedian and a small team of writers and researchers for a weekly half-hour comedy show, is way, way more informative, more helpful, more humane, and more truthful about sex, than what millions of American kids are being told by a national education system run by the government.

As much as this clip is great, it was preceded in the show by a horrifying summary of what passes for sex education in the States at the moment, including examples of what many school districts are currently showing to young people, which are virtually indistinguishable from that Mean Girls clip in terms of parodic levels of misinformation and scaremongering.

John Oliver continues to be one of the most important and worthwhile people on TV. I can’t think of anyone doing a better job of highlighting important and appalling things going on of genuine national importance and creating one of very few sources of investigative journalism actually worthy of the name.

Someone who’s pretty close though: David Wong on the Cracked podcast.

I’ve been pretty consistently impressed with that show for a while now, and with David Wong (aka Jason Pargin) in particular. For someone who describes himself as coming from a family with a big background in law enforcement and naturally inclined to lean toward supporting the police for that reason, I just listened to him talk for most of an hour-and-a-half episode, going into great detail and with statistical citations, on everything that is terrifyingly wrong with the US criminal justice system, and the kinds of things research has repeatedly proven it should be doing if it wanted to not be utterly abhorrent.

Okay, obviously I’m exaggerating a little there. He only had an hour and a half, he’d barely got started on how totally fucked up the system is. But it was a pretty damn impressive start.

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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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Yes, what Holly said. Relationships Ed.

She’s talked in previous posts about how relationships can often hold more potential pitfalls for young people than sex itself. Understanding your feelings and those of other people is certainly tied in with the physical safety side of sex ed, and I’ve tended to support them both under the same general educational heading. But maybe it deserves a separate category of its own.

I’m not sure how far it would go. I don’t think it’s entirely the place of schools to be drilling their charges with a fixed schedule of Interacting With Other Humans 101. I wouldn’t trust them with that any more than I’d trust most stupid kids to figure things out on their own eventually. But if it was done well, and not too rigid, and focused on the right things, and had enough flexibility to allow for an inevitable variation of opinions, then some sort of class like this might do a lot to combat the general screwed-up-ness of people.

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I’ve not written about this at length before, but not kept my views exactly secret either. Basically, what Marsh said.

Having said that, I think much of the anti-circumcision camp can sometimes get bogged down with slightly weaker arguments that they really don’t need to worry about. In particular, when they counter claims about the perils of foreskin ownership with ways in which this particular area of skin can be beneficial.

It doesn’t need to be useful, or to actively promote good health, or to have anything particularly wonderful going for it. All you have to do is point out that the default course of action is not to cut bits off other people.

In religious arguments, the burden of proof with regard to God is on the person making the positive claims about him. And in arguments where one side is saying “I think surgically removing a bit of this newborn child is a good thing to do”, it’s very much up to them to justify that.

For instance, don’t respond to studies saying that sex is better without a foreskin, by pointing to other studies which indicate the opposite. Well, if you have good reason to think that your studies really are the only sound ones, I guess you could do that. But you should primarily be asking why such a ridiculous argument is being made for slicing a chunk off your baby’s genitalia in the first place.

The implication is that a significant number of uncircumcised men aren’t enjoying their sex life as much as they could be, and are seething with frustration at this damnable yoke of a foreskin they’ve been cursed to carry around with them. And that this is such a huge problem for these poor men, that it’s worth taking a knife to every new-born boy’s junk pre-emptively so that it can be avoided.

This is a serious mishandling of priorities. Most of these men’s sexual experiences would benefit far more from an open and honest conversation with their partner, a little creativity and research, and maybe a shopping spree at Lovehoney, than from having had their foreskin removed years ago. And in those cases where the foreskin really is the problem, there are various medical or surgical interventions which can be employed down the line, once there’s actually a problem that requires it, and once they’re in a position to understand and consent to the proposed fate of their dangliest of bits.

Other arguments intended to justify and support this mass emasculation, in brief:


Fuck off.

Seriously. If the best you can say for it is “We’ve been doing it for years”, isn’t it maybe time you stopped and asked why you’ve been doing it for years?

Lots of things are traditional. Some are good, some are bad. If it’s a good idea, it should stand up on its own merits. The sole fact that it’s an idea with tenacity has no predictive power either way.

As it happens, if circumcision wasn’t already a long-standing cultural tradition, and was a new thing that people were just starting to do now, my guess is that most people would be appalled by it, and far less impressed by the usual justifications offered.


Fuck RIGHT off, you insensitive, superficial, thoughtless lacerater of children.


To quote a wise and handsome man:

Saying “because it’s my religion”, as a legal justification for something, or in any similar circumstances, should carry exactly equivalent weight to saying “because I really, really want to”.

In other words, nobody’s obliged to care if you consider something a religious obligation if it’s a flat-out terrible thing to do.

You’re welcome to exercise your own freedoms to the full extent of your capabilities, up to the point where they adversely affect other people. They can be religious, or not. Doesn’t matter. Knock yourself out. But beyond that point, you don’t get to snip off the tip of someone’s dick for the same reasons you don’t get to poke out their eye or hack off their clitoris, regardless of what you think God wants.

It’s superfluous

There is plenty of my body that’s technically superfluous. I’m not convinced my middle toe on either foot has ever done anything for me. Its neighbours on either side have the balance thing taken care of. But they’re not exactly in the way, and I’m rather glad they were left there when they weren’t causing any trouble, and I was allowed to decide what to do with them myself.

Health benefits

Here the evidence is murky at best. But however much the data might inch things onto the pro-circ side here, it’s not enough to merit such an intrusive and widespread intervention as some people suggest.

At least, not in the developed world it’s not. In Africa, where a good deal of research has been done, it does seem that HIV infections are being prevented by circumcisions, and that there is a significant percentage reduction in other infections.

In Uganda, for instance, circumcision might be an understandable route to take, and is certainly some way removed from being a monstrous act of barbarism. But the developed world has certain advantages we take for granted which Ugandans don’t have, such as widely available contraception and sexual health information.

There might be worthwhile benefits to circumcising 1.2 million American babies a year, if it was a given that they would all be having unsafe hetero intercourse and not looking after their sexual health in any other ways. This might be a fine opportunity for another jab at abstinence-only education, but I’ll hold back on that for once. Americans aren’t like that.

The health benefits of cleaving millions of babies’ penises are easily surpassed by those of educating them in basic cleanliness and sexual health later in life. It’s just not necessary.

Seriously, there should be a much higher bar than many people seem willing to set, before we start cavalierly perforating our children’s manhoods. Think of it this way: What percentage reduction in HIV transmission, in penile-vaginal sex, would justify female circumcision? How much infection would it have to prevent before you supported cutting off every clitoris at birth as a preventative measure?

Which I suppose I should touch on at least briefly before closing. This process involving the excision of the clitoris in young girls, which is alarmingly prevalent in parts of Africa, is utterly terrible. It is more deserving of the name “genital mutilation” than male circumcision (though I’m not getting into that semantic argument here), and is certainly more likely to cause problems and be resented by the victims later in life than removal of the foreskin. On an individual level, it seems safe to say that girls have it worse.

But it’s not a competition, and it doesn’t just have to be considered on an individual level. What concerns people about male circumcision is how widespread it is in developed countries like the United States, where it goes on all the time as if it were perfectly okay.

They’re both serious issues worth addressing. But only one is the primary subject of this particular blog post, and only one is something that many of your neighbours and work colleagues might boast proudly about doing to their own children.

The title of this post might seem a bit laboured, but I’m sure the spoonerism is as dear as clay.

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Maryam Namazie gave a much-lauded talk at the recent World Atheist Conference in Dublin, about the rise of extremist Islam. The full text on her blog is worth a read.

– I’ve had quite enough of a headache as it is lately without trying to get my head around the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. This big supposedly important government report was released a couple of days ago. Among the best discussions I’ve seen on what the report is, what it says, and what’s wrong with it, come from Dr Petra and Nelson Jones.

Oh, Sarah Palin. The war on reality continues.

– Have you ever organised or attended an event where, on average, the guest speakers had more penises than you might expect? Wait, I don’t mean they each had more penises than expected, I mean… If you compared the number of penises to the number of people, would the ratio be… Okay, never mind. If you’ve had trouble finding female speakers for stuff, they’re making it very easy for you now.

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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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Bish bash boff

I’m overworked and tired today, so just read this article in the Guardian about sex and relationships education, and pretend that I said all that just after the author did.

It makes the point well which I’ve tried to go on about before: “sex education” does not equal explicit anatomical details being explained to young children. The people who design these curricula know how important it is that lessons be tailored to the particular age groups at which they’re being directed. The anti-education scaremongers are arguing against a nonsensical phantom.

The only thing on their side is entirely fictional nonsense about schools showing porn to children. You have to be an idiot and/or to have believed a newspaper to think that any proposed sex education plans are quite this unsubtle and inappropriate.

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My Christian friend Jessica makes a lot of sense. About sexual health and education, anyway. I’m less on board with the Jesus stuff.

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