The Philosopher's Eye

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A Lesson in Abstinence

Allegory of Chastity, by Hans Memling (1475, oil on wood)

Early Wednesday afternoon, when Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, moved to introduce a Bill to ‘require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes’, she set alight to the feminist blogosphere (See here, here, here, and here, for examples).

Central to the feminist criticism is the clear gender asymmetry contained in the proposal, as immediately pointed out by her detractor Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda (a transcription of the debate is to be found here). ‘For a start, the Bill is just about girls,’ complained Bryant, ‘I am not an expert, but it seems axiomatic to me that if we want to tackle teenage pregnancy, we have to talk to the boys and the girls.’

Writing on her blog, Dorries accepts that her Bill was designed to target girls, but rejects this as a point of criticism. She justifies her decision to single out girls with a litany of social problems:

It’s girls who get pregnant, girls who lose their education, girls who are left to bring up a child on benefits, girls who reach old age in poverty, girls who are subjected to a string of guesting fathers as they throw in the towel in a life of welfare misery, girls who seek abortion, girls who suffer the consequences of abortion, girls who are subjected to the increased medical risks of giving birth at a young age, girls who have little control over condom use, girls who are pressurised, girls who are targeted by lad mag marketing, it’s seven year old girls Primark made alluring padded bikinis for, girls who are targeted by paedophiles…….

What Dorries appears to fail to realise is that, even if (implausibly) these broad social issues could be treated to a significant extent by the teaching of abstinence to young girls, there is much that is potently implicit in her judgement that this particular solution would be the fair and reasonable one. That is, given that there are other possible solutions to the problems Dorries lists – such as the teaching to both girls and boys, if abstinence must be included in the plan at all – what would be the implied conditions under which Dorries might think that her selection is the correct one? One may be that it is girls who are to blame for the over-sexualisation of women in culture, for the ‘string of guesting fathers’, etc, because of their inability just to say ‘No’. Or that it is the job of girls and women to put aright the skewed social reality they find themselves in, even if the creation of it was through no fault of their own. Once made explicit, these assumptions cannot reasonably be endorsed, even by Dorries herself one would hope.

One might also ask, what kind of ideal is abstinence anyway? Even if the gender imbalance were to be removed from Dorries’s suggestion, even if abstinence were taught to boys as well as to girls, as efficacious as that might be on the high rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and STIs (rejecting that it could cure so many social ills as Dorries wildly implies, the direction of causation more likely to be the reverse) if such an education proved effective, at what cost would this be gained? In the wise words of Augustine, ‘Many indeed with more ease practise abstinence, so as not to use, than practise temperance, so as to use well.’

Related Philosophy Compass Articles:

Unity and Diversity in Feminist Legal Theory

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 2, Issue 4, July 2007, Pages: 650–664, Margaret Davies

A Field Guide to Social Construction

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages: 93–108, Ron Mallon

About David Woods

David is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton. His main research interest is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, optimism and pessimism, and post-Marxian critical philosophy.

2 comments on “A Lesson in Abstinence

  1. debramoolenaar
    May 7, 2011

    I’m really sorry – but is abstinence from sexual activity so much to ask from kids who don’t even have the life experience to deal with the consequences? I’m not really that old-fashioned – but I think the MORAL (an amazingly underused word these days) answer is NO.

  2. David Woods
    May 7, 2011

    Many thanks for your comment.

    It was my intention towards the end of this post to indicate that a higher ideal to pass on may be to use sexual activity well, rather than simply to promote abstaining from it. I ought to have pointed out that abstaining may or may not be included in the pursuit of this ideal, depending on the person, but would not be the ideal itself. Canvasing abstinence, particularly as a moral ideal, is to make sex look bad and immoral, whereas what I used Augustine to call ‘temperance’ at least leaves room for the idea that there is a correct and good way to go about it for each of us. This way young people would be encouraged to make good decisions for themselves, which is a important virtue to cultivate.

    I would also point out that, if the concern which you express is to protect young people from certain consequences of sex, then I feel the answer would at most be a practical one, not a moral one.

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