Abstinence-based sex ed will leave young women vulnerable

Teenagers school uniform

I vaguely remember the only sex education class I was ever given in school. Our biology teacher slapped a condom on a banana and quickly reeled off some contraceptive methods in a flat tone, before declaring that abstinence was the best and only foolproof option for avoiding pregnancy and STIs.

Nevermind sexual exploration, discovery, or your own pleasure. And the word ‘consent’ wasn’t even uttered once.

In the first update to sex and relationships education (SRE) in the UK since 2000, workshops on consent, the impacts of peer pressure, and navigating the digital space will be included from next year. Lessons will also cover laws surrounding sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as how to navigate healthy, consensual sexual relationships.

Though there’s still strides to be made in delivering sensitive, suitable, and sex-positive SRE to teenagers in the UK, the new guidelines mark a turning point where important issues will be part of rounded teaching plans that enable young people to advocate for themselves.

Yet, Nadine Dorries’ recent appointment as junior health minister sends out the opposite message. She’s a staunch supporter of abstinence-based sex ed in schools and has campaigned for the abortion time limit to be lowered, as well as for abortion clinics to be stripped of their duty to provide counselling services. In 2006, she attempted to introduce a 10 day cooling off period after a woman confirms she wants to go ahead with an abortion — it was swiftly rejected. In 2012, she launched a bill that would see all teenage girls given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence. It was duly withdrawn last minute.

Not only does the message that abstinence is best within sex education create shame around sexuality, it leaves young women vulnerable because they then don’t have the right tools to make informed decisions about their own bodies

Amelia Jenkinson, director and co-founder at Sexplain, an independent, sex positive provider of SRE in UK schools, describes Dorries’ appointment as “worrisome”.

“We have a year before SRE according to the new guidelines becomes compulsory in most schools,” she says. “The resources, initiatives, and funding that will support schools with making this happen — in a way that’s effective and aligns with sex positivity, LGBT inclusivity, reproductive rights and empowerment, providing young people with medically accurate information — needs government support.

“I hope the momentum that has been built up over the last few years, and the government guidance up until now will be strong enough to push through with this next stage.”

While not explicitly so, abstinence has been at the core of sex education in the UK for decades. However, studies have shown that this approach doesn’t generally reduce sexual activity among teenagers.1 Sexual exploration and expression is a natural and normal part of coming of age. Not only does the message that abstinence is best within sex education create shame around sexuality, it leaves young women vulnerable because they then don’t have the right tools to make informed decisions about their own bodies.

Parents are able to opt for their children to be removed from sex ed-specific classes up until the age of 16. Amelia says that while parental rights deserve to be upheld, she stresses that “parental rights are currently overshadowing young people’s rights to knowledge and education around their own bodily safety.”

Protect young women by giving them agency

The new sex ed guidelines will only become compulsory from September next year. Currently, schools maintained by local authorities are obliged to include some form of SRE from the age of 11 that follows current guidelines, which were last updated in 2000. Free schools and academies are under no obligation to provide SRE at all, though if they do, they must follow the current guidelines, too.

Free schools and academies make up much of the UK’s education system, and are often sought out over other types of schools. This means it’s likely some young people aren’t being taught the right ways to navigate sexual relationships, or to communicate effectively about them at all.

A survey by the Family Planning Association (FPA) found that less than half of those who participated believed it was okay to withdraw consent if they were “already naked”.2 This statistic dropped to only 39% for people aged 14-17.3

Amelia points out that the word ‘pleasure’ isn’t mentioned once in the new SRE guidelines. While we are beginning to come to terms with how important conversations around consent and LGBT inclusivity are, it seems we aren’t quite ready to completely drop the stigma around actually enjoying sex.

Women, and young women in particular, are taught that sex isn’t about them: it’s for a man’s pleasure and it ends when he comes

“We would see pleasure as absolutely vital in a sexual setting,” she says. “Sex and consent should be spoken about in a way that makes it clear that it should be good and fun for everyone involved. There’s currently a crisis around consent, so young people need to be taught about the verbal and non-verbal cues that constitute consent, or the lack of it.

“The responsibility to make sure consent is given is not just about the other person’s willingness to participate, but actually also about them enjoying themselves.”

Women, and young women in particular, are taught that sex isn’t about them: it’s for a man’s pleasure and it ends when he comes. Teaching girls that the best way to have sex is by not having it completely obscures the importance of them enjoying it as part of their consent.

Sex education workshop facilitator Nathaniel Cole says he approaches the topic of sex in a secondary educational setting as something that is about “enjoyment and exploring physical and emotional feelings.”

He says that “abstinence goes against this”, with its focus on marriage and man-and-woman relationships overshadowing the importance of consent, pleasure, STI prevention, and contraception, in both real life and online spaces.

“We should be giving young people the right tools to ensure they respect and understand verbal and non-verbal cues, to avoid the violation of others, and to know when their own boundaries or comfort aren’t being respected,” he says. “I use the three Cs, which focuses on consent, contraception, and communication as three equally important, integral pillars when navigating a sexual situation.

“Young people need to know that these are their options, and that sex is not just about procreation, with pleasure as a secondary component.”

He stresses that teaching abstinence doesn’t deter most young people from becoming sexually active, but it does leave them with a gap in their knowledge of how to act, respond, and communicate in these settings.

“People who have grown up with abstinence instilled in them have still gone on to have sex. For me, abstinence pushes the topic of sex aside and ignores the conversation that needs to be had — that’s not a healthy way to approach sex.”

“We are in a weird climate at the moment where some young men think they are being taught consent so they don’t ‘accidentally’ rape someone”

Some schools are already taking action with lessons that tackle the issues surrounding sending nudes on social media platforms or by text. But Amelia doesn’t think that simply telling young people not to take or send them is realistic or particularly effective.

“We wouldn’t put the topic of nudes in a framework of ‘just don’t send them’,” she says. “We’d put them in a framework of consent and respectability. We present exploration with enthusiastic consent as something that can be part of healthy sexual development, where choices are made freely, without pressure.

“The rhetoric around simply abstaining from sending nudes creates a shame-based culture, where if these nudes are leaked [illegally], young women think it’s their fault, and they often don’t report because of this.”

Nathaniel adds that it’s important to let students mull over reasons why obtaining consent is important, with a focus on respect, comfortability, the agency of the other person, and pleasure for both people involved.

“We are in a weird climate at the moment where some young men think they are being taught consent so they don’t ‘accidentally’ rape someone,” he says. “This line of thought is problematic. Consent is an integral part of healthy sexual relationships and communication that should come naturally. And making sure that young men and women understand consent as a whole is a more pressing issue than teaching young people about abstinence, which is unethical.

“It’s often school governors or a member of parliament deciding what young people should be taught about sex and relationships. Nobody is asking young people what they want or need in regards to this.”

Abstinence focused SRE is non-inclusive

Amelia points out that it’s often the parents, rather than educators themselves, that express concern once a school sends them an email to inform them that Sexplain will be teaching a class.

“They sometimes want to make sure we won’t be encouraging masturbation, for example,’ she says, even though self-pleasure is natural and entirely okay.

While the new guidelines have yet to come into play, Amelia and her team have always taken a thorough, rounded approach where the importance of communication and consent are integral, with LGBT inclusion at the forefront.

“Abstinence is a religious value, that tends to only be spoken about in a heterosexual way”

“Introducing LGBT SRE is highlighted in the new guidelines as something that should be introduced in a ‘timely manner’, but this isn’t really in line with our fully integrated approach,” she says.

She points out that it isn’t clear what constitutes a ‘timely manner’, and this just leaves room for maneuver around what school years are given LGBT SRE. This can leave LGBT individuals feeling unheard and excluded.

Amelia also says that abstinence-focused SRE has traditionally excluded LGBT relationships, as practices such as ‘abstaining from sex until marriage’ wouldn’t have been possible for LGBT individuals until 2014.

Nathaniel echoes this sentiment, pointing out that, “abstinence is a religious value, that tends to only be spoken about in a heterosexual way.

“It’s unethical for abstinence to be presented as the best option for young people. Marriage isn’t an option for everyone, and sex doesn’t have to have this strict relationship with marriage, either.”

When asked what forms of contraception and STI prevention they are already aware of, abstinence is a common answer from secondary school pupils, explains Nathaniel. This could imply that societally, teenagers are already conditioned to believe that abstaining from sex is the ‘correct’ option before they even start receiving SRE.

“It does tend to be the younger age groups that give simply not having sex as an answer when we ask about contraception and STI prevention, which is expected”, he says. “Older age groups that are more likely to be sexually active already tend not to mention it.

“There is sometimes some pushback from teachers that don’t feel it’s appropriate to be discussing sexting or nudes, or they say things like ‘they don’t need to know that yet’.”

While abstinence as a personal choice is absolutely fine, it should be a choice made with full knowledge of the alternatives, where all options are presented clearly and without shame, judgement, or peer pressure.

Amelia says many of the negative feelings young women feel around confidence, sexual health, and mental health are exacerbated by abstinence-based messages, because they are ultimately restrictive.

“Someone at an event told me they felt an enormous amount of shame around masturbation because of the culture of abstinence they grew up in”

“Prioritising abstaining from sex until marriage is hugely problematic and very unethical,” she says. “The feelings of shame these sorts of messages create can have a lasting impact throughout someone’s life.

“Someone at an event told me they felt an enormous amount of shame around masturbation because of the culture of abstinence they grew up in. People can end up having a lot of resentment towards the people who instilled these misguided values in them as a result.

“If you don’t feel empowered to take ownership of your sexuality and sexual choices, that will discourage you from seeking help when you need to, and maybe make it difficult to articulate and seek out information to safeguard your own physical health.”

For more information on sex positive and LGBT inclusive sex ed workshops for schools, visit brook.org.uk or sexplain.org.uk

The featured black and white image is of three teenagers walking to school, some parts have been left in colour for artistic effect

References

  1. Santelli, J., Kantor, L., Grilo, S., Speizer, I., Lindberg, L., Heitel, J., & Schalet, A. et al. (2017). Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61/3: 273-280.
  2. FPA, Less than half of people think it’s OK to withdraw sexual consent if they’re already naked, Sep 18, [online], https://www.fpa.org.uk/news/less-half-people-think-it’s-ok-withdraw-sexual-consent-if-theyre-already-naked, (accessed 12 Aug 2019)
  3. ibid

Rachel Mantock

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

A feature writer who started out in lifestyle and wellness, Rachel joined The Femedic after becoming frustrated with the way women’s bodies and intimate health were being reported on. She wanted to talk about the good, the bad, the ‘ugly’ and the ‘really ugly’, with no topic too taboo to investigate. From conversations with the women she meets everyday to speaking with doctors, she’s constantly surprised by the amount of misinformation and lack of research around women’s health issues. She’s determined to raise awareness of the female health issues that are prominent in minority groups and to get more women talking shamelessly about their bodies and experiences.

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