In May 2011 I read about Tory MP Nadine Dorries’ attack on sex education via a private member’s bill. She was proposing that girls (yes, just the girls) be given “information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity” as part of their sex education. Let’s quickly outline the glaring problems with this proposal:
- Making abstinence education ‘just for girls’ positions women as the gatekeepers of sex. It positions men as having no responsibility for decision making about sex, or for understanding consent. It also supports an idea of women having no desire, and mens’ desire being uncontrollable.
- Existing Sex and Relationships Education in the UK is not statutory. That means that some schools, in particular academies, Free Schools and religious schools, are highly likely to not teach comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education, because they disagree with the apparently ‘unsavoury’ content. Therefore, if this bill passes, these schools could end up teaching only abstinence, and the biology of reproduction in science classes. I.e. not the useful bits of SRE.
- Now, abstinence education on its own doesn’t work. It’s been proven not to reduce STIs or pregnancy. A review of American sex-abstinence programs involving over 15,000 people by Oxford University found that they do not stop risky sexual behavior, or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy.
- The bill is heteronormative, assuming that the only sex likely to happen is between a male and a female.
- Comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education already advises on the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity.
The more I read about Dorries, the more I learnt about her multiple attacks on womens’ rights, such as trying to make counselling for women seeking abortion compulsory (we apparently can’t be trusted to decide for ourselves), and provided by religious anti-choice organisations, and trying repeatedly to reduce the time limit on abortions. A few days after the first reading of her abstinence education bill, Dorries went on the Vanessa Show and claimed that “if more children were taught to ‘just say no’ there would be less sexual abuse.” Seriously, she said that, on TV. This is blatant victim blaming.
Let’s examine Dorries’ motivations for a minute. It is clear to me that Dorries’ attacks are founded on her capitalist, fundamentalist Christian, ideology.
Firstly, her religion teaches her that sex outside of marriage is a sin – it’s wrong and shameful. Knowledge about sex is also dangerous. Her religion teaches her that abortion is immoral. Not only does that explain her direct and explicit attacks on abortion rights, but is relevant to this abstinence education bill, because she (wrongly) believes that abstinence education will reduce sex outside of marriage and therefore reduce unwanted pregnancies, therefore reducing abortions.
Secondly, her capitalist ideology relies heavily on the traditional idea of a nuclear family. For the ruling class, the family is a vital social and economic institution. It means married (presumed to be heterosexual) women being stay-at-home mothers and carers whilst the husband goes out to work – i.e. women providing unpaid labour. Capitalists have historically depended on the institution of marriage and the monogamy of women within the rules of marriage, to control the paternity of children for the purposes of inheritance of money and property. Dorries believes that any sex outside of marriage will lead to either abortions or single mothers on benefits. And she certainly doesn’t want the state to support either of those. A major contradiction of capitalism though, is that employers refuse to pay working class people a family living wage to one working parent as a sole breadwinner, forcing families into poverty and exploitative working conditions.
Dorries’ proposals, and the actions of her party, have nothing to do with helping women. The conservatives are responsible for pushing through cuts which disproportionately affect women:
- As women represent 65 per cent of the public sector workforce, they will bear the brunt of the estimated 400,000 public sector job losses over the next four years.
- On average women working in the public sector earn almost 40 per cent more per hour than female employees in the private sector. So even if replacement jobs were available in the private sector (which they’re not), it would represent a pay cut.
- Cuts to welfare will affect women twice as much as men because on average one fifth of womens’ income comes from welfare, whilst for men it is one tenth.
- £280 million of funding for a ten-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has been scrapped.
- While one in five women is likely to suffer rape or sexual attack during their lifetime, Government cuts to domestic violence and rape crisis services are averaging at over 40%.
- Legal aid cuts will make women in violent relationships particularly vulnerable.
- Lone parents, 90 per cent of whom are female, will be hit hardest by the spending cuts, losing 18.5 per cent of their net household income.
We must fight each and every attack on our rights or they will be taken away from us. Equality cannot be won under capitalism, but while we fight to change the system, we can’t let the ruling class destroy what rights we have won so far. So, back to Dorries and her abstinence education bill…
Not finding any focused campaign against her newest attack, back in May, I decided to set up a Facebook campaign: Stop Dorries’ abstinence for girls sex education bill. After a bit of tweeting, in two days the campaign had over 500 supporters. We’ve now got over 1,900.
We will be demonstrating against the abstinence education bill on the 20th January outside the Houses of Parliament, at 10:30am, Old Palace Yard, Westminster. The Socialist Party, Youth Fight For Jobs and Education, the British Humanist Association, Feminist Fightback, Abortion Rights UK, Queers Against The Cuts, Parents & Carers for Sex & Relationships Education, Education for Choice, The National Secular Society, Bristol Feminist Network, Left Front Art and Liberal Conspiracy are all supporting the demo. More information and the Facebook event are at http://on.fb.me/