“I’m just a girl who just says no”: Guides to Keeping Your Legs crossed- Abstinence Only Sex Education for Girls

Whilst I am always happy to see critical discussion on the role of sex and relationship education in schools and youth centres, worryingly, this week saw a new amendment narrowly passed in the UK Commons.

Nadine Dorries’ (MP), amendment calls for extra abstinence-only sex education for girls aged 13-16. The amendment passed its first reading in the Commons on 4th May.

The amendment reads:

‘Sex Education (Required Content): That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes.’

In her blog, Dorries locates the amendment’s rationale in relation to women’s empowerment- in that early motherhood destroys girls’ lives and succumbs many to lifelong poverty with an array of ‘guest’ fathers.

I feel a growing unease that conservative forces are actively mobilizing progressive feminist rhetoric to control and ‘educate’ girls’ on sex and desire – yet boys remain curiously absent- and perhaps sexually unaccountable (or uncontrollable – who knows?).  Within Dorries’ rationale it is the bodies of girls as prematurely sexualized (by Primark bras for kids and lads’ mags no less). Yet this reactionary proposal again blames young women and makes girls the guardians of both their own and their boyfriends’ (hetero)sexual desire. The amendment also makes no mention of relationships, rather than sex, (or gender equity) more broadly. Previous scholarly and practice based work has highlighted the need for comprehensive and critical sex AND relationship education for all pupils (including boys!) throughout their education. The enduring focus in public discourse on regulating youthful bodies, and teen girls’ sexuality as a site of political intervention pathologises young mothers, and is yet another attack on (and a potential denial of) young women’s sexual agency.

In addition, much work on SRE has challenged the notion that abstinence education prevents either teen pregnancy or STI’s. As Sex Education Forum’s (2010) response states:

There is also extensive evidence that a ‘just say no’ or ‘abstinence only’ approach combined with no information (or incorrect information) about contraception is not effective.”

Interestingly, on a side note, whilst advocating special extra abstinence lessons for girls, Dorries is also trying to limit access to abortion services.  Unfortunately, as the UK-based Sex Education Forum state much present sex education in the UK is ‘inadequate’ – as it limited, too late, remains patchy, too biological in orientation, and insufficiently shaped by young people’s needs.

Comprehensive and critical SRE and access to good, youth-friendly local sexual health services (in their communities, at their youth centres, via their schools, via provision such as Brooks) are essential for all young people- regardless of their gender and/or sexual orientation. Designing and legislating sex education around the vulnerability of (over) sexualized teen girls’ risks undermining the excellent sexual health and SRE provision already in existence.  As Education for Choice argues:

‘As it stands, Dorries’ motion is strong on implication, poor on understanding of contemporary practice, and weak on practical help for young people. If Dorries truly wants to empower young people and improve their health she should join the chorus of voices crying out for delivery of comprehensive SRE to all our students in all our  schools and all our communities…’

(Fin Cullen, GEA Executive)

Useful reading: Alldred, P & David, M (2007) Get Real About Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education, Open University Press; Allen, L. (2010) Young People and Sexuality Education: Rethinking Key Debates. Houndmills: Palgrave.

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