In the last hour the hated Dorries girls only abstinence sex education bill has been dropped for debate (for now). It wasn’t a serious contender for any kind of legislation but for many, the issue that educating girls only on the benefits of sexual abstinence was even being discussed at this level is deeply troubling.
A lot of the bill rested on Dorries usual style of unfalsifiable anecdata. Sex education is not aimed at encouraging underage sex, and children and young people are of course given information about relationships – not enough about sexual violence in my opinion, though that’s a different matter – with not a banana in sight.
If we are going to look at this purely from the point of view of effectiveness, there is no strong evidence to suggest abstinence education leads to less teenage sex. What it is linked to is less informed teenage sex, higher rates of pregnancy, stds etc. Some have argued that abstinence education adds to the appeal for many teenagers by giving sex the edge of temptation rather than the more rational route of choice.
Dorries wants to remove the pressure put on teenage girls to have sex. There are a few issues here – she is framing female sexuality as a passive response, something which is done to you, rather than something which you do. However, it is difficult to deny that whatever the pressures are relating to sex for young people (of any gender), girls are in this country socialised into viewing their sexual worth (erotic capital as it was described last year) as a big part of their identity and this has a knock on effect for self-esteem. I think for many teenage girls, the pressure of looking the part, to be desired, vastly over-eclipses the pressure to have sex itself. You only need to read the latest badly spelt twitter hashtag to find out that young people today love to shame a slut as much as anyone. It is probably fair to say that for young women there is quite a bit of conflicting information from all aspects of society, including the peer group, about whether they should be having sex or not. Abstinence education just adds to the mix – it doesn’t empower girls to make choices about their sexual activity, it just reinforces the tired old madonna/whore binary.
I think that in her own way, Dorries is right to worry about the pressures faced by young people, and certainly right that for young women their induction into a sexualised adulthood can be a tough experience. However, this sexualised adulthood ready-prepared for them, these pressures, have got nothing to do with sitting in a musky science lab listening to Mr Jenkins talking about the dangers of chlamydia, and everything to do with the messages from that adult world. Which is what feminists look at, and if she is that worried, she should join us.