Monday, 20 July 2009

Too Much Too Soon - Fear and Loathing in Sex Education

Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust has written a guidance document for parents about the Government's proposed plans for sex education - now called PSHE - and has whipped up a predictable reaction in The TelegraphThe Mail and The Express.

The FET's website makes no overt mention of religion, it promotes 'family values'. But reading between the lines, it is clear where these values come from. Wells writes that sex is not intended to be just about the joining of two bodies together, but the joining of two lives. In the context of faithful, lifelong marriage, sexual intimacy expresses the total self-giving of a husband and wife to each other.

If sex is intended to be anything, who is doing the intending? Once the hand of God becomes clear, what follows is pretty inevitable.

Alongside the propaganda, there are a lot of factual inaccuracies, many of which appear to have been directly copied from the Christian Medical Forum's submission to BCAP that I wrote about recently (and also here). They both claim, for example, that there is no good evidence against abstinence, that condoms are not 100% effective and therefore should not be promoted at all, and that STIs and teen pregnancy are rising therefore sex education doesn't work. One of the FET trustees is Stammers - who wrote one of the papers the CMF cited in its submission.

It is true that STIs and teen pregnancy are a serious problem (although pregnancy is not as much of a problem as certain groups make out, as I mentioned in the previous link). It's also true that sex education is far from what it could be and that parents need to be much more involved and supported. This is hardly a new issue - anyone remember The Specials' Too Much Too Young

However. And it's a big however.

Wells' guidance is dangerously misleading. Its main target is not just the Government's plans for PSHE, it is sex itself. The usual mix of fear and loathing that has infected hard-line Christians since St Paul is in full flow here. Early on he says that behind plausible-sounding arguments and innocuous-sounding words there is a specific agenda at work to undermine the role of parents and to tear down traditional moral standards. Sex education is an ideological battlefield on which a war is being waged for the hearts and minds of our children.

This emotionally over-wrought opening sets the tone for the whole guidance. As if he doesn't have his own agenda. Frequent use of the word 'children' rather than 'teenagers' ups the emotional ante too.

Wells' three main points are:
  1. Parents should teach children about sex
  2. Sex should only ever happen within marriage
  3. Anyone who suggests otherwise (including the Government) is destroying the moral fabric of society.
His concern is that making PSHE statutory in the curriculum would inevitably reduce the influence of parents over what is taught. His modus operandi is to scare parents that the Government (who let's face it, most Telegraph, Express and Mail readers did not vote for) is going to turn their children into rabbits - pregnant, infected rabbits merrily having abortions with the schools colluding to keep parents in ignorance until society comes crashing down around us. I am not exaggerating.

It is a parent's right, he maintains, to teach children about sex in accordance with their religious beliefs. That's the parent's beliefs, not the child's. They should have the right to take children out of PSHE classes.

Parents should speak about sexual matters with modesty and restraint.  If the child's entire education consists of the parent saying 'no sex before marriage' then that is all they will learn. Any misinformation the parent gives, knowingly or not, will be all the child has to go on. Presumably there will be some additional information on the wedding night about what goes where.

There is no need even to teach children the correct names for body parts because all parents talk to their children about their bodies when they wash and dress them from their earliest days and are well able to decide whether to use the proper biological terms or other names for their private parts. So it's fine for a child to grow up thinking it has a woo-woo? Or that 'down there' is something no nice child ever talks about, let alone looks at or - heaven forfend - touches?

Many parents do not feel confident or comfortable talking about sex and schools need to give them full support. However, the religious position is that this support comes from faith, not the classroom - unless schools are free to peddle the religious line too. Wells' main reason for wanting sex education to come from God (via the parent) is that this will instil morality, not facts. He rails against the Government outlines: there is no recognition of moral absolutes and... young people are not to be given any clear moral direction... there is no such thing as objective right and wrong

Well, that's because there isn't. Only the most religious believe that there are divinely handed-down moral absolutes. And what are these moral values? Homophobia is quite clearly one of them; it is casually strewn throughout the guidance as PSHE will, he claims, equate marriage with same-sex civil partnerships and ... assume that both types of relationships are of equal benefit and stability... it is almost certain that homosexuality will be presented as a normal and natural lifestyle choice.

So what should young people be taught?

Wells does not want them given any information they could use because it is not informed choices we should be aiming for, but wise, moral and lawful choices.  It's the old argument that if you tell them about it, they will rush out and do it. Even mentioning the word 'gay' will of course instantly turn a child from the straight and narrow.

Wells is so anti-choice it's not funny. Contrary to the prevalent view among sex educators, young people do not need to learn about a wide range of 'sexualities' and sexual behaviours; they do not need detailed information about the full range of contraceptive methods; and they do not need to be presented with a menu of sexual options from which they can make 'informed choices' when they feel they are 'ready' to become sexually active. Modern sex education is characterised by a lack of honesty, a lack of modesty, a lack of any moral framework worthy of the name, and a lack of respect for marriage as the proper context for sexual expression.

A lack of honesty? Is keeping young people in ignorance honest? Not only does it risk their health, it also means that they are likely to pick up what sex knowledge they do get in the playground or through experimentation.

He continues: Teenagers need to be taught that reproduction is one of the primary functions of sexual intercourse and sex should therefore be set in the context of a faithful, lifelong relationship (ie marriage), which provides the most stable environment in which to raise children

Wells believes that if parents teach about sex in a (Christian) moral, modest and respectful way, this will prompt young people to save themselves until marriage (that word 'saved' again). Abstinence is the only way. This stance is woefully ignorant of human nature and teenage nature in particular. A bit of a moral lecture, maybe some praying and some vague information about the mechanics of sex (if they're lucky) is hardly going to quench teenage hormones. And is terrifying them with the wrath of God really going to produce mature, healthy and responsible adults?

My particular favourite part of the guidance is there are some sexual practices that it may be better not to know anything about at all, at any age. Sadly, he does not go into any further details.

There is much more to say about this pernicious document. The excellent Dr Petra Boynton will be analysing it in her blog.

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