Teaching girls to say “yes”

In May this year a bill proposed by Nadine Dorries was narrowly passed which required that schools provided girls (only girls mind) with sex education which extorted the benefits of abstinence. Quoted in the Guardian, she states that she had spoken to many teenage girls “do not even think they have the option of saying “no” to boys”.    And that is a telling statement.

Girls are considered the gatekeepers of precious resource which they should carefully guard, while boys are extorted not to steal. The concept of sex as pleasurable intimacy is lost amongst a sea of warnings – some from the classroom and some from the playground – of disease, unwanted pregnancy and wrecked life chances. It is here that slutshaming starts, as sexually active teenage girls are envied and derided in equal measure. Respectable girls, those who value themselves, say “no”.

Sex education in schools is already woefully inadequate. While reproduction, common contraceptive methods, sexually transmitted infections and childbirth are covered in the Scottish Guidelines on Sex Education and the existence (although not the mechanics) of homosexuality is covered, the concept of consent is not mentioned. Responsibility on the other hand is heavily emphasised.

Earlier this week a report was published suggesting that up to 10,000 children are being sexually exploited by gangs. Chillingly the author of the report suggested that some young people don’t even understand what rape is. That while they describe events which comprise a rape, they dont consider it rape.

The point is illustrated by a quote from a 14 year old.

I was 14. I was having sex with my boyfriend and some other boys came into the room and he looked like he was expecting them to come and I went to get dressed and they wouldn’t let me. I didn’t do anything to stop them. They sort of raped me.

There’s no sortof there. What she described is gang-rape of a minor facilitated and colluded in by her boyfriend. So why does she consider it only “sortof rape”. The answer is in the third sentence “I didnt do anything to stop them”.

As long as we teach girls to say no; that it is their duty and responsibility to say no; that if they dont say no then they deserve all that they get; that sexual abuse or rape is a consequence of a lack of saying no, or of not saying no strongly enough, then we teach them that if you don’t say no then you mean yes.

This is of course consistent with our legal system, where women exist in a state of permanent consent. It is for the prosecution in a rape case to establish the non-consent of the victim in the face of that legal fact. Prior sexual history, dress, behaviour and subsequent demeanour are all used to undermine any attempts of the prosecution to establish that the woman did not consent. Consent is a given, it is for the prosecution to show its lack.

Raising very explicitly the concept of consent – that permission for intimacy is required and that any sexual intimacy without such permission is a breach of boundaries – is critical in any sex education. Dismissing the notion that sex is shameful and disease ridden, for it is only when those boundaries are broken that it becomes so.

Extolling the virtues of abstinence for abstinence’s sake is to to abdicate responsibility for proper comprehensive sex education and in its place demand young women deny their sexuality while leaving them to fend off the attentions of young men who have never been taught the rules around consent either.

It muddies tracts for young people. A young woman taught to say no, follows the rules constantly saying no to her boyfriend’s advances, while actually rather liking the sensations. Her boyfriend, not taught the same messages and with less restrictions placed on his sexuality is getting mixed signals from her response. Eventually he is likely to stop asking permission, as when he does so her responsibility to “say no” kicks in. These early experiences of not asking in case of refusal have dangerous consequences.

Teaching girls to say “yes” on the other hand: teaching girls about orgasms, about sexual desire, about vuval anatomy and its capacity for pleasure raises expectations of sexual intimacy. Raising expectations and concentrating on the ambitions that young women should have for their sexuality, will do far more to ensure healthy sexual relationships than an emphasis on dangers, risks and fears which women should congratulate themselves on if they avoid.

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