Laurie Penny: Anti-sex propaganda doesn't work

Some still believe that decent women are incapable of sexual agency

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Anyone who has spent any time in the company of prepubescents knows that the best way to get them to do anything is to tell them it's grown-up and forbidden. This strategy has been used for centuries by unscrupulous adults to manipulate young people into consuming unwanted vegetable matter and turning off perfectly good cartoons in favour of whatever boring box set their older siblings want to watch. It seems logical, therefore, that telling children not to have sex because it's only for grown-ups would be a recipe for outbreaks of infection and exploding teenage pregnancy rates.

The facts bear out that logic. In the US, where abstinence-only sex education enjoyed a renaissance under George W Bush, the rate of teenage pregnancy is the highest in the developed world. Logic, however, has never really been factored into the moral tubthumping of the Christian right. Accordingly, Nadine Dorries MP's 10-minute rule bill proposing that girls, and only girls, are taught "the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity" in their SRE lessons, will have its second reading in the House of Commons today.

This bill makes clear the link between the anti-abortion legislation that Dorries and her sympathisers have been pursuing and the so-called movement against the "sexualisation of young girls". It's part of a cultural backlash against female sexual freedom that incorporates attacks on abortion, contraception and sexual education across Britain and the US, where at least one candidate in favour of outlawing contraception is considered a serious contender in the Republican race.

The bill is unlikely to pass into law this time – but the really sinister effect of proposals like this is they move the boundaries of what is considered culturally acceptable. They make abstinence education for girls a serious topic for political debate rather than a reactionary, misogynist affront to half a century's worth of struggle by women's rights campaigners around the globe.

The fact that this venal little piece of legislative indoctrination is supposed to apply only to girls betrays the prejudices of the conservative cultural lobby, large parts of which still believe that decent women are incapable of sexual agency. The reasoning involved imagines a world where women are always sexual objects and men are always sexual predators – a world where sex is a thing that men do to women, and good girls resist having it done to them for as long as possible.

If fortune ever puts me in charge of the upbringing of a little girl, I plan to teach her that sex can be wonderful, as long as you do it safely and consensually, when you feel ready. Until then, I will join hundreds of feminists and allies in fighting for a society where young women are not taught to fear their sexuality before they are old enough to understand it.

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