This article was originally published on The Yorker.
No one I have ever met had great sex education. I, for one, was given the ubiquitous condom-on-a-banana lesson from a teacher sporting glow-in-the-dark penis earrings. The lesson culminated in a mysterious box, which had been passed roughly around the class, opening to reveal an ominously broken egg. “That’s like your virginity,” the teacher announced. “Once it’s broken, you can’t put it back together again.”
So, having been subjected to sex education based loosely on the fable of Humpty Dumpty, I am totally supportive of efforts to improve the lessons young adults and teenagers are being given on sex and relationships. Sadly, a regressive bill recently proposed by Nadine Dorries MP managed to gain 67 votes to 61, suggesting that Parliament’s views about how to encourage safe and healthy sex amongst teens is retreating a few decades.
The bill proposes that “girls” aged 13-16 must be given “additional sex education [that] must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity”. Seemingly innocuous, yes? But there are several problems with Dorries’ stance. First of all, giving girls this advice and not their male counterparts expresses a very clear attitude to whose responsibility it is to have safe sex. Yes, girls are the ones who might end up getting pregnant from unprotected sex, but that shouldn’t mean that they are the ones who will, or ought to, care more about the decision to abstain. Contrary to Dorries’ opinion that this will “empower” young girls, the gendering of this issue will create further disparity between the ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour of men and women. Imagine the kids comparing notes: the girls have been told to just say no, whilst the boys were handed the banana.
The abstinence route is not a sure-fire way of reducing teenage pregnancy (America has the highest rate in the Western world). We’ve known this for a while. However, abstinence in itself is certainly a choice which should not be stigmatised, and young people of either gender should feel supported in such a decision, by their partner, friend or teacher. Dorries, however, has a far too narrow view of young people’s choices: “Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: now go and try this for yourself.” So she would rather say: “don’t have sex” and leave it at that?
There is a problem in viewing things the way Dorries does. Yes, showing kids how to wear condoms presents them with one idea of sex and sexuality; pornographic images and sexualised media presents them with a different one. It is not enough to deny them all contact with sex and the issues around it; rather, we should be focusing on the positives and showing them that sex can be fun, safe, loving, exhilarating, and utlimately a experience to embark on when (or if) they feel ready. And, most importantly, your gender affects none of this, despite what Dorries might say.