When it comes to sex education, can we ever supply too much information to teenagers?
This question is at the heart of a debate that erupted between members of the Conservative party and feminist, humanist and pro-choice groups last month.
Conservative Nadine Dorries claims that we can, and that an alternative would be to teach the benefits of ‘just saying no’, in the bill that sought to teach sexual abstinence to teenage girls in secondary schools.
Despite this bill being withdrawn just days before its second reading in Parliament, (with Sussex based Beth Granter leading the demonstration against its implementation), its initial passing implies a dissatisfaction with the current sex education guidelines, and a growing unrest concerning issues such as teenage pregnancy.
These issues can surely only be addressed in two ways: either we impose boundaries on knowledge about sex and relationships, or create within sex education an honest setting in which young people feel comfortable talking about sex in all its different forms.
The legal framework for sex and relationship education (SRE), as implicated by The Education Act 1996, currently prescribes that young people should be taught “anatomy, puberty, biological aspects of sexual reproduction and use of hormones to control and promote fertility” and, as a minimum, “information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS”.
This focus on the biological aspect of sex denies the very title of this type of education and omits any valuable guidance concerning the inevitable emotional consequences of sexual relations.
For this, adolescents are left to grapple with the conflicting influences of the media and religion, and fumble their way through (often misleading) information provided by either parents or peers. A reform may well be necessary, but Dorries’ bill, with its focus upon not having sex, would sideline the incredibly important information necessary when teenagers inevitably do start relationships.
What is terrifying about Dorries’ bill however, is the implications it has in terms of sexual stereotyping and victim blaming.
By encouraging only females to practise abstinence, we as a culture would be mutating what should be a mutual decision into one with an uncomfortable power balance.
If a girl should resist sexual relations, then she adheres to her education and begins to find power in her ‘chasteness’. Consequentially, the girl that relents to sexual pressure (the verb ‘relent’ seems suitable under these conditions) has, in contrast, abdicated that power.
More difficulties arise when you consider how the proposal denies female desire, or at the very least assumes it to be passive and even feeble compared to a dominant male masculinity.
If it is the female responsibility to prohibit sex, what happens when this refusal is denied?
In the cases of sexual assault and rape, the bill forgets the horrendous and inevitable deafness of some to that cry of ‘no’, and, by not educating boys as well, simultaneously and equally wrongly perceives all men to be capable of this deafness.
The initial success of this bill (MPs voted 67 to 61 in favour of allowing Dorries to bring it forward) was shocking, representing an uncomfortable step back in the ways in which we perceive relations between the sexes.
Shouldn’t our teenagers know and understand their right to say no without explicit permission to?
Learning about empowerment and respect has nothing to do with abstinence, a term that has inherent implications of religious motivations.
Instead of these regressive proposals, perhaps we should take inspiration from countries such as the Netherlands, where low teenage pregnancy rates are attributed to a sustained, all-encompassing and comprehensive sex education.
The withdrawal of the bill is a positive move, flagging the necessity of a continued debate on sex education rather than a marker of closure.