Victorian values on sex education

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 27 May 2011 in Diary
Forget a 21st century attitude towards sex – the Conservatives' worldview of sex, and women’s sexuality in particular, is steeped in 19th Century Victorian chic

I am reliably informed that sex is a Good Thing. Indeed, I’m told it’s something that has been practised by humans for generations. In fact, contrary to Conservative Party received wisdom it appears that it’s a natural urge, and not simply a means to procure children in as awkward, infrequent and swift manner as possible.

I only enquire because it would appear that Conservative thinking on sexual health has slipped into the past, where abortion should be restricted, women are, if not wholly, then at least partially responsible if they are raped and the only safe sex is no sex at all.

The problem with Conservatives in general is that they like to moralise. They see a Broken Britain where teenage pregnancy is rife, where sexually transmitted diseases are a bigger health risk than cancer and Skins isn’t an over the top drama but a goldfish bowl documentary. A world where Norman Tebbit mistakes the lyrics to the Kaiser Chiefs ‘I Predict A Riot’ as fact.

The answer, according to the Conservative world view, is to reintroduce morals: This would transform the UK into a land where all young people get married at 18, girls are taught to be chaste and wear ankle length skirts, the abortion limit is 20 weeks and good Christian values prevent the spread of HIV by the almighty’s will alone.

It is with this in mind that I can understand, though not excuse, Conservative views on sexual health – tax breaks for married couples, abstinence programs, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose and, for the Roger Helmers of this world, blaming the victim if she is exposed to ‘date’ rape or somehow led a man on but said no.

Nadine Dorries is a Conservative flag bearer. Her backbench bill to teach 14 -16 year old girls to ‘just say no’ is pure Conservative dogma in white paper form. It is especially pernicious considering her track record on marital affairs.

It’s also flawed. First because it takes two to tango – teaching girls, and just girls, abstinence isn’t going to have the desired outcome.  

Second, abstinence programs do not work. Promoting abstinence over sex education or contraceptive use was US federal and overseas aid policy under George Bush. The policy was disastrous, leaving America with the highest teenage pregnancy rate of any major economy, one in four young women infected and worsening the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

This is why the inclusion of ‘Life’, an organisation dedicated to abstinence only sex education and against abortion in all circumstances, on the Government Advisory panel for Sexual Health and HIV, troubles me. Traditional Conservative views on sex are increasingly out of touch with modern Britain, and we seem to be moving backward towards moralising, instead of educating and empowering young people to make their own choices in adulthood.

What happened to a grown up approach to talking about sex? Over the last decade teenage pregnancies and rates of infection for AIDS and other STIs have been coming down in the UK. This is because we have stopped treating sex as a taboo, and emphasised the need for good relationship advice, as well as good sexual health.

Comparisons with the Netherlands or other liberal parts of Europe, where rates of teenage pregnancy and rates of infection are far lower, are clichéd, but no less true. They didn’t achieve that by telling young girls not to have sex, or by trying to restrict a woman’s right to choose, but rather by teaching young people to be responsible in their actions. There’s a lesson in that for our lawmakers.

Tags: Abstinence, Conservative Party, Nadine dorries, Sex Education

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