Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Abstinence-based education: why we don’t need a chastity crusade

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has tabled a 10 Minute Rule motion calling for the introduction of abstinence-based sex education for girls, which is due to be heard in the House of Commons today (04.05.11).

The full text of the motion 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.”

The move comes as opposition builds to amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill tabled by Dorries and Frank Field MP requiring GPs to provide women seeking abortion with ‘independent advice and counselling’, and calling for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to be stripped of its role in setting clinical guidelines for the care of women requesting abortion.

This most recent intervention from Ms Dorries in the ongoing public debate around sexual health and abortion is problematic on several fronts. Most glaringly, it fails to address the fact that the UK currently lacks legislation requiring comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for young people, male or female. 

Professionals in the field of education and sexual health have long lobbied for mandatory, universal SRE to be made available in schools nationwide. Abortion Rights, too, strongly supports such a provision as a vital means of both reducing rates of unintended pregnancy among young people and empowering them to make informed choices about their sexual and emotional lives.

It is also important to highlight the wealth of evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of abstinence-based sex education, largely accumulated in the United States following the Bush administration’s commitment to this approach. Put succinctly, by the American Academy of Paediatrics:

“Abstinence-only programs are not only ineffective but may cause harm by providing inadequate and inaccurate information and resulting in participants’ failure to use safer sex practices once intercourse is initiated.”

However, as Education for Choice points out, those involved in the delivery of SRE do already consider discussion of reasons not to have sex an integral part of high-quality education on the issue, but it is placed in the context of young people’s choices and well-being and does not seek to make value judgements about those choices.

And this gets to the heart of the matter. By referring specifically to sexual abstinence, primarily for girls, this proposal most certainly does imply a value judgement about sexual activity, specifically female sexual activity. At it’s most basic it peddles the notion that it is the responsibility of girls to keep themselves ‘nice’, to keep themselves unsullied for the delectation of their future spouse. 

It’s a sentiment that is so deeply misogynistic and so explicitly tied to conservative Christianity that it seems laughable that a British politician, who claims so earnestly to be ‘moderate’ and neither ‘pro-life’ nor pro-choice but simply pro-woman, would seek to advance it.

But then, maybe it’s not actually so surprising. Here’s Ms Dorries take on the causes of Broken Britain:

“The problem is the churches have withdrawn. Where I grew up the priest was king. We were scared of priests – the same with the vicars. The Church played a very important role. The Church set boundaries. So did schools, doctors, district nurses. But the Church withdrew, the state became anonymous and society went into freefall. One of the things about the Big Society is to try to put those boundaries back. But the Church has to step up to the plate….I’m talking about priests working with communities and admitting to a level of authority they used to.”

Yes, what Britain, especially the parts of it aged between 13 and 16 who have the misfortune to be female, needs is a good old dose of Biblical morality, as enforced by your local parish priest. 

Or alternatively we could live in the 21st century and agree that young people have a right to comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education and decent access to contraception and leave the rest up to them.