That is a typically glib comment from the hon. Gentleman, who just does not understand and will oppose this measure. Indeed, it will be interesting to see a man stand and oppose a Bill that is about empowering young girls.
Dame Joan said that our society is saturated in sex: a typical prime-time hour on TV contains 2.6 references to intercourse, 1.2 references to prostitution and rape, and 4.7 sexual innuendoes.
Let us move on to look at some of the examples that are now available. Primark, a store that is frequented by many young girls, including my own daughters, was recently chastised for selling padded bikinis for seven-year-olds. Without going into too much detail, I am sure that everybody in the House understands why women would buy padded bikinis, but to make them available to and target them at seven-year-old girls seems to epitomise how far the sexualisation of young girls has gone within our society.
In July 2009, a Sheffield NHS trust released into secondary schools—to children from the age of 11—a pamphlet which told them that sex every day keeps the doctor away. It also said that for too long experts have concentrated on the need for “safe sex” and loving relationships. Alongside this, there was a slogan saying that
“an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”.
It also said:
“Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?”
This is a pamphlet going out to 11-year-olds at secondary modern schools in Sheffield.
We have to ask ourselves whether, in the midst of this kind of society, with the over-sexualisation of children, we have got our sex education in schools right. It is often argued that compulsory sex education and effective teaching of “safe sex” will help to tackle a high pregnancy rate among teenagers and underage children. Sadly, the evidence suggests that this is not the case. The British Medical Journal found that 93% of teenagers who became pregnant had seen a medical professional prior to the pregnancy and 71% had discussed contraception. The journal found that
“teenagers who become pregnant have higher consultation rates than peers and most of the difference is owing to consultation on contraception”.
According to data published by the Office for National Statistics in 2007, Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe, so we must be doing something wrong. That is why I am introducing this Bill.
I believe that the answer to ending our constant struggle with the incredibly high rate of teenage sexual activity and underage pregnancies lies in teaching our girls and boys about the option of abstinence—the ability to just say no as part of their compulsory sex education at school. I recently spoke to a 16-year-old who used these very disturbing words: “The thing is, if you reach the age of 18 and you’re still a virgin, and you meet somebody you’d like to be your boyfriend, he’s going to think you’re a freak.” It never enters the minds of young teenage girls, who are taught in sex education classes about “safe sex” and about making their decisions on whether to have sex based on how they feel that day or on their wishes—“feelings” and “wishes” are the key words—that they are empowered and have the ability to say no. That is not taught alongside information on making the decision based on their feelings and wishes and on “safe sex”, but it should be an equally viable option.
We have to re-examine thoroughly the content of sex education that is provided in schools, and consider whether what is currently offered is in the best interests of our children and society as a whole. Children learn about puberty and intercourse at the age of seven, and about pregnancy and contraception from the age of 11. Teaching a child of seven to apply a condom to a banana, without telling them that they do not have an obligation to go and do it, is almost like saying, “Now go and try this for yourself.” At no stage of the curriculum does the teaching cover anything about relationships and the option to say no. Girls are taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no to a boyfriend who persists in wanting a sexual relationship. They are given no guidance on that whatsoever.
In a letter to the Daily Mail, a 14-year-old, Josie Parkinson, described the sex education that she had received at her local secondary school:
“As a 14 year-old girl, I have had to attend four talks in the past nine months from a woman from a family planning clinic. I have been taught three times how to put on a condom; how easily pupils can acquire condoms free at a clinic; how to recognise sexually transmitted diseases and have them treated confidentially at a clinic; and that we do not need to tell our parents, GP, the police or anyone else in authority about being provided with contraception, or even having an abortion. There was not one mention of abstaining or any discouragement of sex.”
For a girl or boy to have sex before 16 is unlawful, but they are told in school, “It is unlawful, but it’s okay. You can have the condoms anyway.” They should be told, “It is unlawful. You can have the condoms anyway, but why don’t you consider, because it is unlawful, saying no and waiting until it is lawful?” That just is not taught to girls at school.
One factor constantly ignored by society is that peer pressure is a key contributor to early sexualised activity among the children of our country. Society is focused on sex. Our sex education teaches children how to have sex, not how to say no to sex. We ignore at our peril the fact that many girls feel pressurised into having intercourse when they are far too young, when what they actually need is their childhood.
In our sex education programmes, we need to promote the notion of abstinence and all the advantages that it brings, such as self-respect and not making relationship mistakes. It needs to be seen as a safe alternative. We need to let young girls know that to say no to sex when they are under pressure is a cool thing to do; it is as cool as learning how to apply a condom. It is as important as all the other issues that they are taught in sex education. It has to be taught alongside everything else so that young girls can say, “I have been told to say no.”