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:
1. 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 men’s desire being uncontrollable.
2. Existing Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) 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 SRE, because they disagree with the apparently “unsavoury” content.
Therefore, if this bill passed, these schools could end up teaching only abstinence, and the biology of reproduction in science classes, i.e., not the useful bits of SRE.
3. Abstinence education on its own doesn’t work. It’s been proven not to reduce STIs or pregnancy.
A review of American sex-abstinence programmes involving more than 15,000 people by Oxford University found that they do not stop risky sexual behaviour, or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy.
4. The bill is heteronormative, assuming that the only sex likely to happen is between a male and a female.
5. Comprehensive SRE 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 women’s rights. These include 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.
First, 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 believes that abstinence education will reduce sex outside of marriage and therefore reduce unwanted pregnancies, therefore reducing abortions.
Second, 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 (heterosexual) women being stay-at-home mothers and carers whilst the husband goes out to work — that is, women providing unpaid labour.
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:
* Since 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 women’s income comes from welfare, while for men it is one tenth.
* £280 million of funding for a 10-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 average 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 more than 500 supporters and climbed to more than 2,000.
We demonstrated against the bill on 20 January outside the Houses of Parliament.
The protest was supported by many groups including the Socialist Party, the British Humanist Association, Feminist Fightback, Abortion Rights UK, Queers Against the Cuts, Parents and Carers for Sex and Relationships Education, Education for Choice, the National Secular Society, Bristol Feminist Network, Left Front Art and Liberal Conspiracy.
Dorries withdrew her Bill on the day without it even being read. We announced this at the protest to cheers, but the issues it raised are still very much with us.