Alongside the controversies over Nadine Dorries’ expenses and bogus allegations of stalking (see here), the MP is also currently at the centre of a storm over her stated wish to promote “abstinence education” to schoolgirls. Commenting on Dorries’ pronouncements on this subject is a crowded field, but there are a few points of clarification worth making.
First, the prevalence of sex in society:
I am sure that many Members will be aware of the broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell. I always had the impression that she and I were on separate sides of the political divide, but I was intrigued a year ago to read something that she had written in the Radio Times and in the newspapers, in which she said that Mary Whitehouse, who campaigned against declining moral standards on television, was right to fear that sexual liberation in the 1960s would damage society…
“The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked. The Pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely. Then everything came to be about money—so now sex is about money, too. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels full of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff?”
…Dame Joan said that our society is saturated in sex: a typical prime-time hour on TV contains 2.6 references to intercourse, 1.2 references to prostitution and rape, and 4.7 sexual innuendoes.
The article by Joan Bakewell was published in the Radio Times for 5-11 June 2010 (pp. 122-3). Although it was entitled “I agree with Mary Whitehouse”, Bakewell in fact argued that Whitehouse for the most part had been wrong-headed, and that it was a good thing that TV is now able to portray and discuss sexual matters more freely. Bakewell only agreed with her on the issue of commercialization leading to exploitation.
The statistics cited by Dorries do not appear anywhere in Bakewell’s article: as I blogged here, their actual source is obscure, although they are at least 20 years old and refer to the USA. They, have, though, been cited repeatedly in conservative Christian media. This suggests that Dorries has been given talking-points by a group such as Christian Concern (with which she has links), and that she sloppily mangled these when raising the matter in Parliament. What could have been a reasonable point – that there is recognition across the political spectrum that sex has been commercialized and that this is corrosive – was unnecessarily obscured.
Second, the issue of “abstinence”:
I beg to move,
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.
…I believe that the answer to ending our constant struggle with the incredibly high rate of teenage sexual activity and underage pregnancies lies in teaching our girls and boys about the option of abstinence—the ability to just say no as part of their compulsory sex education at school.
…In our sex education programmes, we need to promote the notion of abstinence and all the advantages that it brings, such as self-respect and not making relationship mistakes.
This was misreported as suggesting that Dorries wishes to advance “abstinence only” education, along lines seen in parts of the USA and parts of Africa. Dorries didn’t help herself, though, by going on to attack sex education as it is currently delivered (or rather, as she believes it is currently delivered; Unity at Ministry of Truth has shown that she was misinformed on a number of points). She’s also gone on to trumpet a pseudo-survey which suggests most parents do not want schools to teach sex education – why do that, if she only wants “additional” education?
Further, what “additional sex education” materials on abstinence are there, besides those published by conservative Christian educators? Speaking on the Vanessa Show on 16 May, Dorries now says that she didn’t like the word “abstinence”, but that she had been obliged to use it in Parliament as a piece of “legalese” – although what expression she would have preferred instead remains unclear.
Again, though, there is a reasonable point in there somewhere: it seems sensible that in teaching young people how to navigate the sexual world, educators ought to include advice on how to resist media messages and peer pressure, and perhaps to raise awareness of saying no as an option.
Third, Dorries become the focus of particular opprobrium for linking abstinence with the subject of sex abuse while on the Vanessa Show:
If a stronger ‘just say no’ message was given to children, there might be an impact on sex abuse. A lot of girls, when abuse takes place, don’t realise until later that that was wrong because sex is so common in society.
This has been interpreted as implying that sex abuse victims who didn’t “just say no” are to some extent responsible for their own abuse, and has caused distress to some victims. I don’t think she meant that: rather, it seemed to her that linking her campaign to efforts against sex abuse would generate more support, and so she simply blurted out a typically unthought-through utterance. A more substantive objection to what she meant to convey would be that sex abusers have more often taken advantage of a child’s general ignorance about sex, or of a climate in which the discussion of sexual matters was tinged with shame and taboo. Her claim is based on some vague “evidence” that she “heard”.
There is now a clarification on Dorries’ blog, although – yet again typically - it is embedded in an abusive screed against one of her critics, and she airily dismisses victims who have objected to her statement as using “their tragedies to score political points”.
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