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To abstain or not to abstain? That is the question

Posted in: Sexual Health 24 Jan, 2012

With a constant barrage of angry voices arguing – understandably - the effects of sexualisation on the perhaps not-so unsuspecting youth of today, it is hardly a surprise to see the proposal of an abstinence bill finding its way into the current political, social and cultural sphere. Therefore, if ever there was a time to put forward such a suggestion, I suppose there’s no time like the present. Even though it has failed to be passed, it brings to light some interesting perceptions.

The bill, set forth by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, has promoted controversy by its very nature, regardless of its author, and has caused an uproar in all corners and amongst anyone who has an opinion on and who is affected by the education of sex. Everyone, basically.

In an age where female sexual freedom receives greater credible recognition, feminists, humanists and uncountable others (especially those in need of a suitably informative sexual education) are on a mission to fight the absurdity that appears to defy such natural, inevitable, human progression.

It’s a girls world

What seems to be the most baffling of all is the bill’s focus on teaching abstinence purely to girls. Yes, I am sure there are a million and one fathers out there vigorously and seriously nodding their heads in agreement, in the unlikely, unfulfilled hope that their daughters will remain little girls forever, but surely even they can accept the inevitable. They grew up, didn’t they? Yes, they did. They met girls; were curious about the facts of life; found a partner; had children. This is hardly abnormal behaviour.

The point is that girls and boys should be offered sex education as equals, as one would expect, in the hope that mutual regard and respect can be achieved, with as little embarrassment and as much perception as possible. It is a huge assumption to hold that boys are the ones responsible for premature sexual experiences. Sexual interest works both ways.

Get real

As suggested by the British Humanist Association (BHA), the bill appears to represent “unevidenced ideologically motivated policymaking”,  the result of which would promote restrictive ideals of the circumstances in which young people choose to explore sexuality. In terms of sexual intercourse, the bill supposes that the young people in question are straightforwardly heterosexual. Considering those in question, perhaps this is easy to assume; yet, by no means should it imply normality. Alienating teenagers is a worrying thought indeed.

Of course, sexual education classes should be given and, of course, they should explain the consequences of irresponsible sexual activity, but telling children to abstain from sex altogether is as far removed from reality as the act of putting forward the bill itself. At present, "the only sex education required by English law is basic anatomy and the biology of reproduction. Schools are therefore already able to teach abstinence-only education, and many unfortunately do", says Richy Thompson, Campaign Officer for the BHA.

With all the facts, informed decisions can be made by those involved, and those only.

Feeling the fear

The pressure to say ‘no’ to sex, in a typical circumstance, is difficult enough for young people, but when educators close in on the act of abstention the situation is all the worse for it. It may well be cool and noble to say ‘no’ when one isn’t ready to give consent or feels the time isn’t right, but they won’t be saying ‘no’ forever. Abstaining because you have made an informed decision is cool - not because you are naive and lack the appropriate information to feel prepared.

Girls are apparently especially placed in the role of vulnerability, and such a proposal as Ms Dorries’s does not help them out of this. Why is it that they are more or less being led to fear their natural curiosities? As The Independent’s Laurie Penny questions, what is society telling us that? What is this “cultural backlash against female sexual freedom?” Where is the logic?

Reaching an understanding

Really, it’s all about common sense.  Having safe sex is common sense; striving for good sexual health is common sense. It should be valued and understood that when sexual experiences come naturally and treated with consideration, they can be great experiences.

A well-rounded, age-appropriate education can be informative without being explicit; but it cannot be importantly delivered if absolute abstinence encourages fear of or rebellious curiosity in sex.

So, what needs to happen? Sex Ed needs to provide information on the benefits and suitability of abstinence, as well as the use of safe contraception (of which they are many options available, for both male and female – joint responsibility!) Parents should also be aware of the positive effects their guidance, in addition to school teaching, could have on their children. There’s no good in being embarrassed about it!

And, don’t forget, young people have each other. What a young person might be afraid to ask an adult they may not be so reserved about to ask their friends. Let’s hope, then, that they seek to support one another in a helpful, responsible way.

For all the unexpected teenage pregnancies and stupidly-contracted STIs, there are so many young people who endeavour to take good sexual advice on board – ready to use it when the time is right.

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