The Tory MP Nadine Dorries is far from my favourite person, but, though I try not to let politics consume my very being, I was intrigued by her bill to teach teenage girls ‘how to say no to sex’ in formal lessons at school. For those who haven’t read the article in full, Dorries is proposing what is referred to as ‘classes in abstinence, but only for girls aged 13 to 16′.The idea seems simple enough. Girls younger than sixteen are too young to make the informed decision to have sex, and are often pressured by boys (older or otherwise) to say nothing when they should be saying no. This is something that therefore needs to be taught, apparently in schools.
There is a huge tangle of issues here that I am going to try to dissect. The first is that young teenagers are too immature to be having sex. This is something that cannot be proved or disproved, since even teenagers are individuals, and every individual handles things differently. While I am certain that there are many fifteen-year-olds who do feel emotionally ready for sex, I also know that there are many who do not, and that this will be true wherever the arbitrary age-line is drawn. I, for one, first had sex shortly after my fifteenth birthday, when I did indeed feel comfortable and secure enough to do so, but many of my friends have waited until their twenties, and some are still waiting. Sex, especially the first time, can be an intimate, emotional experience, and though I don’t want to sound like a Sex Ed textbook, it is important to choose the right time for you. Since most girls do not hit puberty until they are twelve or thirteen, and it takes at least few years to recover and become comfortable with the changes, I agree that there is something wrong with a thirteen-year-old having sex, especially if it is with someone older. In that respect, spreading the message that it is okay to say no to sex is ultimately a good thing.
However, the beneficial effect of this is surface-level at best. Dorries claims that ‘girls are taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no to a boyfriend who insists on sexual relations’ and that some girls she had spoken to ‘do not even think they have the option of saying no to boys’. Her logic seems to be this: some young girls are not saying no to sex when they should be, so if we teach them how to do so, they will stop having sex. Also, teaching them how to have safe sex just encourages them. Speaking purely from my own experience, I remember being repeatedly told by parents, teachers and magazines that boys and men would try to demand sex from me, and that I must try to stop them. I also recall three very memorable occasions when I was not able to refuse strongly enough, and was sexually assaulted as a result. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that they are in fact linked, as I will explain below.
Dorries is right that our society is heavily sexualised, and that media and popular culture aimed at young girls does promote being sexy as a good thing, even when the girls in question are far too young for it to be appropriate. I too have seen seven-year-olds wearing ‘Hot Stuff!’ t-shirts and listening to music with sexualised lyrics – I grew up with the Spice Girls for goodness sake. Yet there is a darker, contradictory message beneath that too: girls who have sex are sluts and deserve everything they get. This message is not specific to teenagers. From rape cases dismissed because ‘she wanted it really’, to pregnant girls being expelled to protect the school’s image while the boys who impregnated them go unpunished, girls and women who have sex outside the bounds that society has deemed acceptable are heavily stigmatised. Dorries herself has proposed legislation enforcing all women seeking abortions to undergo compulsory counselling, presumably to convince them to change their minds. The reason? Women stupid enough to have sex when they do not want a baby cannot make decisions about their own bodies. After all, if they were intelligent enough to decide to have the abortion, they would not be pregnant at all.
Where do these conflicting messages leave our teenage girls? At a time which is by nature painful and confusing, they are left knowing both that they should aspire to be thought of as sexy and sexual, and that if they actually do engage in sex they will be stigmatised by the same culture which encouraged them to do so. Lessons in how to say no to sex do not solve this problem; they exacerbate it. I return to my own story, sexually assaulted three times at the age of eighteen, though I had been having consensual sex for years before that. My teachers had taught me that I should not have said yes when I did in fact want it, and as a result I deserved no respect. I did not refuse strongly enough when I needed to because I had been taught that I had lost the right to say no as soon as I said yes.
Dorries also completely ignores the role teenage boys have to play in teenaged sex. Who, exactly, does she imagine these girls are having sex with? The classes, it seems, will be specifically aimed at young girls, teaching them how to say no when pressured into sex. Where are the classes for boys teaching them how not to pressure the girls? While it may be true that girls should be taught to respect themselves, it is just as important to teach their male classmates to respect them, to ensure they are not aggressive when seeking sex and take consent seriously. Dorries’ proposal seems to imply that teenage boys cannot help themselves from coercing girls into sex, and that it is the girls’ responsibility to counter this. This is detrimental to both sexes, promoting the twin stereotypes that men are incapable of controlling themselves, and that women are helpless creatures who must be protected from them, yet are to blame if sex occurs.
I believe in teaching young girls to be self-assured and assertive. I believe that female sexuality is not covered enough at school (do any girls remember being told by anyone that sex was meant to be enjoyable?), and as a result is often ignored and sidelined far into adult life. I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen-year-old self that sex is amazing, but that I had the right to end it at any point with any person, and should have the confidence to do so. What I do not believe in is placing all the blame for teenaged sex on girls and disgracing even further those who are ready and do want to. Women who want and enjoy sex have been disregarded and defamed for centuries, and that is not a lesson which we should be taking to the classroom. We need to educate everyone, boys and girls alike, about enthusiastic informed consent, not slut-shame our teenage girls even further. Dorries’ proposal, though seemingly well-meaning, shows the same contempt and disrespect for women who engage in sex as her despicable suggestions for abortion. If it becomes law, it will be one more step backwards for women in modern Britain.