Abstinence and abuse

Nadine Dorries has come in for an unprecedented amount of criticism in the last few weeks, firstly for her ten-minute bill proposed in Parliament suggesting that the benefits of abstinence should be put on the PSHE curriculum for girls aged 13-16 and yesterday for making the following remarks regarding abstinence on a TV show.

“A lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don’t realise until later that that was a wrong thing to do … Society is so over-sexualised that I don’t think people realise that if we did empower this message into girls, imbued this message in schools, we’d probably have less sex abuse.”

Taken at face value these remarks are incredibly distressing, anyone who has ever been party to any sort of sexual assault, will be painfully aware that what occurred was wrong and that being empowered to say no, would have made absolutely no difference to the assaults that took place. I can understand only too vividly why many people, were distressed by the implication that a simple ‘no’ would have prevented the abuse. If this is Dorries’ position, it is indefensible and crass to say the very least.

The problem is that Nadine Dorries seems to be incapable of conveying any sort of nuance in her utterances and failed to recognise the loaded nature of the phrase “sexual abuse”, which is associated with pedophilia, rape and the grooming of children and adolescents. The reality is that sexual abuse can take many forms, being the improper sexual treatment of one individual by another and is not solely restricted to adult/child relationships. It also needs to be remembered that, unpalatable though it may seem to many, sexual abuse can be consensual and comprises an element of BDSM relationships.

The term encompasses many meanings. It is not stretching the bounds of imagination to state that pre-teens and adolescents under the age of legal consent, may often have sex due to a mixture of sexual persuasion and societal and peer expectation, later regret it and subsequently feel abused. A study released by the NSPCC last year suggested that a quarter of girls aged 13-17 had experienced physical violence from a boyfriend and a third had been pressured into sexual acts that they did not want. The children’s charity said it was alarmed by the number of young people who viewed abuse in relationships as normal. Another UK study suggested that 1 in 5, 14 year-old girls has had sex with an average of 3 partners and that half of the sexually active girls regretted the experience while 70% of girls wanted more advice. Interestingly, “the majority of girls questioned held traditional views on marriage and tradition.Almost all (94%) said they wanted to get married by the time they were 25, and 89% said they wanted to get married before they had children.”

So viewed in the light of the above information, perhaps Dorries’ comments were not quite so ridiculous after all? If teenage girls were taught about the benefits of abstinence then perhaps these statistics would be reduced. However what Nadine Dorries desperately needs to do is clarify what she meant by her comments and also apologise to any victims of sexual abuse whom she may have offended. There have been many calls for her resignation, which seem to be off the mark. The electorate needs to be the judge of whether or not she is fit to be an MP, she is not the first MP to make controversial remarks which have caused unwitting offence, and no doubt she will not be the last. If every single MP who came out with crass, insensitive or potentially offensive remarks was asked to resign, then the country would be experiencing by-elections on a weekly basis. Nadine has not incited hate-speech, she has merely been ill-judged and clumsy in her remarks, clearly she is not the master of rhetoric or the handy political sound-bite, in fact quite the opposite. She is her own worst enemy.

I suspect however, that an apology and clarification will not be enough for the vehement anti-Dorries brigade, who attempt to paint her as some kind of heinous misogynist. It is not only this perceived misogyny that brings the opprobrium, but her proposals which are broadly based upon Christian values which are the cause of so much hatred, vitriol and derision.

Why is promoting the benefits of abstinence such a terrible and dreadful thing to be teaching impressionable young people. What is abstinence? It is merely the refraining from sexual intercourse until such time that one feels that it is appropriate. What is getting everybody’s gander up, is the religious undertones. What Nadine Dorries is suggesting is not an “abstinence only” approach, but an “abstinence plus” whereby the virtues of abstinence are taught alongside the various methods of contraception. Abstinence is not saying sex is dirty, sex should be avoided, indulge in it and all sorts of terrible things will happen to you and its all your own fault – quite the opposite. Abstinence is all about waiting until the appropriate time to have sex. From a Catholic or Christian viewpoint, sex is viewed as a positive, wonderful thing, it’s not dirty, it’s a gift from God, something that we are meant to enjoy, in fact it’s so special, so intimate it should be reserved for the context of a lifelong committed relationship.

But Dorries is not advocating that abstinence is taught from a Christian perspective or anything like it. What she is saying is that sex undoubtedly has consequences: not least pregnancy and STDS and therefore should not be undertaken without due forethought. She also correctly observes that by and large that it is girls who suffer the ill-effects of sexual activity; teenage pregnancy, STDs have the potential to affect female fertility and the developing female body is not yet able to handle either the wear and tear of repeated intercourse or premature pregnancy. It is an undisputed fact that there is a direct correlation between the amount of sexual partners one has and female sexual health, the fewer partners one has, the less likely one is prone to various conditions. Just as schools attempt to promote moderation and health in other areas of life, such as diet and underage drinking, it seems logical that they should also promote this in terms of sex education, instead of what seems to be a current risk management/defeatist approach, which seems to say “well kids are going to do it, we might as well show them how to do it properly and safely”.

Teaching teenagers the health and emotional benefits of abstinence seems to be an eminently sensible approach. The current approach which has been in place for almost thirty years now, has had minimal impact on the teenage pregnancy rates. The government pledged in 1999 to halve the teenage pregnancy rates, but the latest figures in 2010, showed that they were were still nowhere near this target, despite the £260 million allocated to reducing these figures and the extra £20.6 million announced by Ed Balls in 2009, for funding contraception resources. The notion that teenagers don’t know about contraception is verging on the absurd.

I fail to see what is quite so wrong about teaching about the benefits of abstinence, alongside contraception. Nadine Dorries seems to have been willfully misunderstood on this issue, what can be more empowering than teaching a girl that she is in control of her own sexuality, that sex is too special to be ruined by some grubby panting encounter, with a sweaty spotty grunting teen under the pile of anoraks in the spare room at the party. I have heard an enormous amount of guff spouted regarding underage sex in recent months, how young people need to be taught that sex is an essential part of any loving relationship and that there is nothing inherently wrong with two 15 year olds indulging in a loving, caring sexual relationship and they need to be taught how do this responsibly. This is a saccharine idealised view. Most teenagers lack the emotional maturity to be able to conduct an adult physical relationship and there something more than a little bit obscene and stomach churning about 2 underage people, learning about the finer details of erotic pleasure, at a time when they should be focussing on their schoolwork. If we’re honest about this, most teenage sex consists of distinctly unerotic and unsatisfactory fumblings, most teenagers are clueless when it comes to sophisticated sexual pleasures, which develop over time and involve the psychological as much as the physical and sensual. Sex is a learning process, in which one grows in deeper intimacy with one’s partner and which tends, like good wine, to improve with age, something which is beyond the understanding of teenagers caught up in today’s culture of instant gratification.

The teaching of abstinence is never going to stop all inexperienced teenage tumbles, however it might prove an effective tool against the pervasive culture of sexuality. which doesn’t empower women, but encourages them to collude and consent to their own objectification. I fail to understand the vehemence directed towards Dorries’ for advocating that children might be taught that there is another way of remaining sexually safe. Given that in the above survey 94% of girls said that they wanted to get married before the age of 25 and 89% wanted to be married before having children, is it really so bad to teach children that sexual intimacy might be worth saving for their life partners? That’s not shameful or nor does it create stigma, but might in fact be maximising their chances of a successful marriage. The problem for opponents of abstinence is the perennial one of today’s moral relativists, in that for them, the promotion of abstinence as the ideal, doesn’t validate the choices of sexually active teenagers and as in all teaching now, the idea that we might promote a certain method as being the ideal is discriminatory and unfair on those who might do otherwise. Actually life is all about choices, there are some lifestyle choices that are wiser than others, such as, for example not taking drugs, therefore to advise that abstinence is a wise teenage choice is simply guidance, it is another option or choice not an imposition of morality.

Where Dorries has gone wrong is to limit abstinence teaching to girls, which has the potential to switch all the emphasis and responsibility for sexual activity onto girls. I fail to see why boys should be excluded, although I understand why she might think that given girls are the ones who will disproportionately suffer, they should be the main recipients of her teaching. Why can’t boys be taught about love, respect and responsibility, in short to behave like gentlemen? (The clue is in the word). Surely it is as important for boys, as it is girls to understand that sex is not without consequences, contraceptives fail and if they do not want the responsibility of become a teenage father, then by the far the best way is not to engage in sex. Or are we implying that all boys are incapable of controlling their sexual urges. Because this is ultimately what seems to be at the root of the opposition to abstinence, that sexual desire is something that controls us, something that compels us and something over which we have no choice. All consensual sexual activities involve an element of choice, no-one compels or forces one person to have sex with another. Before pausing to pull on that condom, isn’t it better to use that pause to think “is this really advisable”? Or is it wise to attempt to pull-back way before then? We are not animals, we should all be capable of self-control or is the teenage boy, as Dorries seems to imply, a feral grunting gorilla, able only to drag his knuckles across the floor, speak in monosyllables for whom finding a pair of clean matching socks is something of an achievement?

And abstinence, is not an irreversible or permanent state of affairs. It is simply asking oneself whether one is really in a position to engage in sexual activity and whether or not one is prepared to cope with the consequences. I always say to teens “have you discussed whether or not you want to have a baby with this person”. At which point they usually blush and look rather embarassed and say “well it’s too soon, I don’t really know him well enough to be talking about that”. To which my response is always “well, you don’t know him well enough to be able to talk about whether or not you want to have a baby, but you do know him well enough to strip off, get naked and intimate and exchange bodily fluids”?! Go figure. The issue of teenage sex will never be resolved, teens will always want to experiment, to rebel, to prove their adulthood and indulge in danger. How else do you explain the recent findings of Professor Paton of Nottingham University who discovered that in areas where the morning-after pill was freely available to teens, there was a sharp spike in the teenage STD rates? They didn’t know about contraceptive options, or decided to throw caution to the wind, knowing that any pregnancy could be resolved?

Problem is Dorries is now something of a Baldrick figure, well-meaning, but without the intellectual gravitas to back up her cunning plans. Her enthusiasm and passion for pro-life and sex education issues cannot be faulted. Her PR skills certainly can. We should not let her verbal clumsiness or personal reputation detract from the issue. Abstinence will not prevent pedophilia, rape or sexual exploitation (an increasing amount seems to occur between female school teachers and young schoolboys these days). Mrs Dorries needs to clarify and apologise for any distress her remarks may have caused in this area.

It cannot be denied that abstinence may however, prevent young teenagers from getting into situations that they later bitterly regret. The American Centre for Disease Control has reported a drop in teen pregnancy and sexual activity with 39 births per 1,000, the lowest rate in 70 years, a success attributed to abstinence programmes. 68% of boys and 67% of girls aged 15-17, have never had sexual intercourse, with 53% boys and 58% girls never having any sexual contact in the years 2006-2008, a distinct improvement from the rates of 2002, whereby 46% boys and 49% girls reported no sexual contact. If it’s worked there, it could work here and it’s an infinitely more holistic option than chucking a condom at a boy, pumping artificial hormones into a girl and crossing fingers that it works.

Dorries has a point.

One thought on “Abstinence and abuse

  1. I think the problem is that her approach is about teaching GIRLS abstinence. Nothing wrong with that except that It takes two to tango and while the girls are being taught this, what are boys being taught? It presupposes that girls should be the ones taking responsibility and that boys are assumed not to be capable of taking responsibility.

    Still Dorries would have been another unknown bankbencher without this, so it’s probably had a beneficial effect on her political career. Which raises the question, are politicians really the most appropropriate people to tell me how I and the school I send the girls to how best to deal with relationships. If the conservatives are going to roll back the public sector then I think they should be starting with the realisation that there is a fine line between interference in private lives which is unwarranted and a warranted intrusion based on the premise that as social animals we protect our vulnerable and weakest and also that an increase in sexual activity among teens increases the burden on the NHS and state generally (consequence of increase in STDs, pregnancies etc)

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