Learning and education

The Guardian recently published an article, which I linked to and excerpted here, by George Monbiot claiming a clear link between sex education and contraception use (two of the things that Catholics say they hate) and a reduction in abortion rates (another thing that Catholics say they hate double extra bad), thereby arguing that the Catholic church in opposing contraception and sex education are directly contributing to increases in abortion rates.

Today, Michaela Aston (a spokesperson for Life) is given the opportunity to respond.

This is her first line of attack:

Monbiot is particularly misinformed when he quotes a study which reported that “Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence” – over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives. The journal Obstetrics and Gynecology recently published a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, concluding: “To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.”

What Monbiot actually said: “But, as a study published in the journal International Family Planning Perspectives shows, once the birth rate stabilises, contraceptive use continues to increase and the abortion rate falls. In this case one trend causes the other: ‘Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence.’ The rate of abortion falls once 80% of the population is using effective contraception.

Aston does nothing here to demonstrate that the study Monbiot cited was wrong. She does not examine or critique the study at all. She seems merely to claim that the statistics she cited contradict its conclusions. But they don’t!

First, “over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives” – but even taking that on trust*, it takes nothing away from the assertion made in Monbiot’s study. The fact that 60% of women who decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy ended up pregnant because of a contraceptive failure – perhaps due to ignorant or lazy or careless (rather than “effective”) use of contraception, which is a trap many of us have fallen into – doesn’t say anything at all about the validity of Monbiot’s assertion unless you also study the rates of effective contraception use in the population generally and the overall abortion rates – the manner in which women having abortions got pregnant has little to do with it.

(* And I don’t think we should. Women seeking to persuade a doctor that they “deserve” or “need” an abortion are quite likely to say that they were using contraception and that it failed, either out of simple shame / embarrassment, or in a deliberate attempt to seem like a more suitable candidate. I know I did, even though in reality the problem was that I used contraception carelessly, not that it failed. So even if 60% of women seeking an abortion do blame contraceptive failure, a massive grain of salt is needed.)

Second, “a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, [concluded]: ‘To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.'” And your point is? For one thing, without knowing whether any study was adequately designed to demonstrate the effect of increased access to this type of contraception, the fact that no study has shown any particular effect is fairly meaningless. In any case, Monbiot’s study was not making any claims about the effect of unspecified increases in access to a particular type of contraception* on abortion rates – the claim was that abortion rates decline when 80% of the population is using contraception effectively. That is a totally different claim and the evidence cited by Aston can have no bearing upon it.

(* And after-the-event contraception is probably the worst type to select as representative of contraception generally, since “effective contraception use” ordinarily involves effective use at the time of having sex, with morning-after pills being strictly for situations where this didn’t happen or where it becomes clear that the contraception used at the time failed, e.g. burst condom.)

The next criticism is this:

Monbiot claims there is “a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy”. There is not. Most papers (including the one in the British Medical Journal that Monbiot cites) find that sex education programmes have little or no impact on rates of teenage pregnancy or abortion. Sweden’s programmes in sex education, and promotion of contraceptives, have been an admired model – yet total abortion rates* there are now higher than ours.

(*Unfortunately Aston does not explain what she means by “total abortion rates” or where she gets her figures. More on this below.)

What Monbiot actually said: “There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world’s lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by ‘the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception’. By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world’s highest teenage pregnancy rates, ‘contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a ‘closed’ atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy’.”

Sweden does appear to have a good programme of sex education which includes contraception. This appears to have a very beneficial effect comapred with the UK in terms of teenage pregnancies, although abortion rates are still more or less equivalent to ours. Some facts:

  • Sweden’s abortion rate for the last many years has been in the region of 30,000 to 35,000 or so in a population which has now just reached 9 million (as a total rate that is about 20-25% of total pregnancies, varying from year to year). (Source.)
  • At the same time abortions in England & Wales run at about 185,000 to 195,000 or so in a population of about 50-odd million – for 2006 that translated to 18.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 . (Source.)
  • According to my sums, the rate of abortion in Sweden is more or less the same as the rate in the UK. I couldn’t find any direct comparison, and Aston did not say what method of comparison she was using or provide a source. However, when calculating the crude abortion rate (abortions per capita), the results are consistently pretty similar, coming out either a little higher or a little lower depending on the approach I took.

It seems to follow from the above that, despite their better programme of sex education, the Swedish abortion rate is indeed still about the same. Why?

Well, let’s look at those teenage pregnancies that Aston chose to ignore. (Source.)

  • In the mid-1990s (and I suspect things haven’t changed significantly since then) Sweden had a teenage (aged 15 to 19) pregnancy rate of 25 per thousand leading to 17.2 abortions and 7.8 births per thousand.
  • Meanwhile, Great Britain had a teenage pregnancy rate of 46.7, leading to 18.4 abortions and 28.3 births per thousand.

Evidently, although the total number of teenage abortions in Sweden and Britain may have been similar, the total number of pregnancies and births for teenaged women was *much* higher in Britain. The programme of sex education is therefore leading to far fewer pregnancies (and therefore presumably far more effective contraceptive use) and the issue is merely that in Sweden 69% of teenage pregnancies led to abortion, while in the UK only 39% of teenage pregnancies ended in abortion.

My reading of this would therefore be not that widely available sex education makes no difference – my reading would be that widely available sex education leads to better contraceptive choices and fewer teenage pregnancies, so that even when a high proportion of teenage pregnancies end in abortion the overall rate is still comparable with other countries that have rubbish sex education. My reading of this would be that even more and even better sex education is needed to improve contraceptive practices (including abstention!) further, to reduce rates of unwanted pregnancy yet further. There is only so much higher that the proportion of unwanted pregnancies ending in abortion can climb, yet I would suggest that there is still even in Sweden plenty of scope for reduction in the number of teenaged women who become pregnant by mistake.

(In this regard, for US readers, it is worth noting that in the US only 35% of the 83.6 teenage pregnancies per thousand ended in abortion, although because of the higher rate of teenage pregnancy this still resulted in the highest overall rate of abortion at 29.2 abortions per thousand teenaged women.)

So one thing that we can conclude from this analysis is that a simple look at sex education programmes compared with abortion rates is too simple. A comparison of the UK abortion rate with the rate in Sweden – where a very secular and no-nonsense approach to abortion, allowing abortion for free on request, means that it is a more popular and less stigmatised option – is unfair and decidedly does not show that sex education has little or no impact on abortion rates. There are too many confounding factors which, when explored, seem to suggest instead that Sweden are indeed on the right track – their programme has clearly been effective in reducing teenage pregnancies, even if the incidence of abortion has yet to follow suit. The point is that their programme as a whole is also effective in making abortion easily available, with the result that when accidental pregnancy does occur it is a significantly more popular choice there than here.

In any case, Monbiot points not to Sweden as his model but to the Netherlands, where the sex education programme is also extremely comprehensive. In the Netherlands in 2002, the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 was – compared with the UK rate for 2006 of 18.3 – a mere 8.7. In the same year, the rate of abortions as a percentage of all pregnancies was – compared with 20-25% in Sweden – just 12.7%. And, apparently, these figures include abortions performed on foreign women having an abortion in the Netherlands – we can reasonably speculate that the rate for Dutch women, who have been through the Dutch sex ed programme, is likely to be even lower. (Source.)

Clearly, sex education is working in the Netherlands even if, as we have seen, the picture is more complex in Sweden. It isn’t because the Netherlands has a more restrictive approach to abortion, because they don’t. Could it be that the Netherlands has better rates because it has even better sex education and even lower rates of unwanted pregnancy than Sweden has managed to date? This article states (according to Google’s extract – I don’t have access to the full article) that unwanted pregnancies are rare, although when they do happen they are (as in Sweden) likely to end in abortion; and that the rate of teenage pregnancy in the 1990s – when Sweden and the UK had respective rates of 25 and 46.3 pregnancies per 1000 teenaged women – the rate in the Netherlands was just 9.2. Can Aston answer that? She can’t.

Next, she tries this approach:

In contrast, there is clear evidence that even modest legal restrictions can help to cut abortion rates. Some US states now require parental notification before minors can get abortions. This has led to lower underage abortion rates without necessarily increasing underage births.

Firstly, this doesn’t in fact contrast with or even follow from the previous paragraph, where we weren’t actually talking about about whether legal restrictions affect underage abortion rates. However, Monbiot does talk about this, as it happens, and says: “Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion.”

Without more details of either piece of evidence it is difficult to comment further, but I can say a couple of things. Monbiot cites an actual academic paper showing that there is no relationship between legalisation and abortion rates. He might also have cited the WHO study referred to in this article, which reached the same conclusion. Meanwhile, Aston makes some vague claim that there is, somewhere, possibly, some evidence showing that fewer underage girls get abortions if they have to tell their parents about it, coupled with the vague assertion that this doesn’t necessarily (but, by implication, it may) result in more underage births. Again, reasoning from dubious evidence about one specific aspect of abortion to a general claim about abortion in the round. I know which I find more convincing.

What’s next?

Referring to a Lancet article, Monbiot says: “When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies.” The big problem with Monbiot’s argument is that the abortion rates from more religious countries are generally based on conjectural estimates of illegal abortions, and there is a long history of pro-abortion groups deliberately inflating such estimates. The case of Mexico provides a good example. Monbiot cites an estimate of 25 abortions per 1,000 women for Central America. Applying this figure to Mexico suggests about three quarters of a million abortions each year. In fact we now have real data for this country – due to the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City last year – which makes it highly unlikely that there were more than 70,000 illegal abortions a year. This equates to 2.1 per 1,000 women – one tenth of that quoted by Monbiot and far less than in countries where abortion is legal.

In Ireland abortion is illegal and contraception has (at least until recently) been much harder to access than in the UK. Based on the numbers of Irish women having abortions in the UK, their abortion rate is about one third that of England, and there is no evidence of significant numbers of illegal abortions.

Aston is fair to point out that estimates of illegal abortions can only ever be estimates, and that the figures for illegal abortions are less reliable than the figures for legal abortions. It may also be fair to point out that some pro-choicers have in the past been guilty of inflating estimates to make things look worse than they are (at least, I have heard about examples of this) – just as some anti-choicers have been guilty of making unfair estimates or manipulating the available information in support of their own position. Indeed, I suspect that this is something Aston is in fact doing in this article when she discusses the cited rate of illegal abortion in Central America.

This comprehensive resource* published in International Family Planning Perspectives (link courtesy of the Guttmacher Institute) gives some statistics for Mexico, the particular country that Aston has chosen to highlight as a good example (presumably good in the sense that it best supports her own position). The figures given are total abortions of about 500,000 (tolerance 300,000 to 750,000) which works out at a rate of 25.1 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 or 17.1% of total pregnancies. This is clearly a perfectly plausible estimate – it is in very much the same ballpark as the figures for Sweden and the UK, discussed above.

(* Reliability. These figures are based on a “special study” given the acknowledged difficulties of collecting reliable data on illegal activities. Although there are copious footnotes I couldn’t be bothered to wade through them to get a specific cite for the methodology or authors of the study – and I’m actually quite happy to take the figures on trust as being from a reputable, peer-reviewed source and so likely to be at least half way reliable in the absence of any convincing evidence to the contrary.)

Aston suggests that applying the rate of 25 abortions per thousand women leads to about 750,000 abortions per year – that is the highest end of the estimates given in the resource cited above, but it is worth noting that the rate of 25.1 abortions per thousand was in fact based there on a total number closer to 500,000. So it looks like Aston has got her sums wrong on that one (let’s be charitable). In any case, mentioning a raw figure is fairly meaningless without noting the total population for the country. Mexico has a total population of over 100 million, so those figures are far from astonishing, given than Sweden has 30,000+ abortions for a population of under 10 million and we have around 200,000 abortions for a population of about 60 million.

Aston also suggests that post-legalisation figures for the rate of legal abortion in Mexico, at 70,000 rather than the “750,000” she quotes as the amount allegedly put forward by pro-choicers, show just how completely bonkers the estimates of illegal abortion really were. Firstly, of course, her inflation of the estimates of illegal abortion make the position seem more extreme than it really is. Moreover, her suggestion that 70,000 is a more realistic figure given the experience since legalisation is shockingly misleading. Abortion in Mexico has only been legal since April last year and even now it is only legal for the first three months for people who live in or can travel to Mexico City. There is no suggestion that abortion is to be subsidised by the state, so presumably it will still be out of reach for the majority of women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion. All this means that there are going to be many, many illegal abortions in Mexico even now – those who cannot afford to pay, those who cannot travel to Mexico City, and to a lesser extent those who require an abortion after the three month deadline. As such it is difficult to see how statistics on the rate of legal abortion in Mexico City in the months since legalisation could possibly give us any real indication of the total numbers of abortion throughout Mexico. If Aston’s offered estimates aren’t misleading, I don’t know what is! Monbiot’s figures are much more credible.

Finally, I just wanted to comment briefly on the comparison that Aston makes between Ireland and the UK. She guesstimates that the rate of abortion in Ireland is about a third the UK rate, based on the number of women who travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion. I haven’t investigated that claim thoroughly, so I’m going to take her at her word (although I would like to ask her more about the rate of illegal abortions in Ireland or how many women travel to other countries for abortion).

But in any case there is one totally obvious reason why it doesn’t help her case even if her claim is more or less fair, that the rate of abortions in Ireland is actually lower. For that to be in some way relevant to the question whether legalisation affects abortion rates, she would also have to claim that “if legalisation made no difference, abortion rates would be the same in all countries irrespective of legal restrictions”. However, that is clearly not the case. Abortion rates are dependent on a huge number of variables including the rates of unwanted pregnancy, cultural attitudes to abortion and the availability of good sex education and affordable contraception. Nobody suggests that abortion rates do not vary between countries or that there is a consistent pattern whereby *all* countries were abortion is illegal have higher rates than *all* countries where abortion is legal. Indeed, Monbiot expressly points out that the UK is a blip with a much higher rate than those of its European neighbours who have legalised abortion. For these reasons, pointing out that Ireland, where abortion is illegal, may have a lower rate of abortions than the UK, where abortion is legal, is completely meaningless.

Moving on, Aston criticises Monbiot’s claim that women are “condemned to death” by the outlawing of abortion. This is where her distortion becomes actually laughable.

She says:

Monbiot claims that, with his stance against abortion, the Pope “condemns women to death”. In the same Lancet issue he referred to earlier, another article gives the latest estimates of maternal mortality rates. Ireland comes out best in the world with a rate of 1 death per 100,000, vastly superior to countries where abortion is legal such as the US (11 per 100,000) and the UK (8 per 100,000).

She suggests that because Ireland has better mortality rates for pregnant women than other developed countries, this puts the lie to Monbiot’s claim that criminalising abortion increases the use of unsafe illegal abortion and hence increases the risk of pregnant women dying, as a result of unsafe abortions. This is absurd, and here’s why.

Firstly, Monbiot specifically makes clear that the women who are “condemned to death” are not, in general, those in developed countries like Ireland. He says: “But the suffering [the Catholic] church causes in the rich nations doesn’t compare to the misery inflicted on the poor… Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world’s abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications.” [My emphasis.]

Second, even if Monbiot had not said this then it should have been completely obvious to Aston that Ireland was not going to be a fair comparator. For one thing, she has already claimed that there is a relatively low rate of abortion generally among Irish women, and no evidence of significant illegal abortions in Ireland, since most women who need an abortion are able to travel to UK or elsewhere. On that basis alone it is hardly surprising if there are few or even no maternal deaths in Ireland as a result of illegal abortions. Secondly, even to the extent that there is illegal abortion in Ireland, is it really likely to involve the dangerous methods described by Monbiot? Ireland where women have access to health information, the internet, mail order abortion drugs, and quite possibly clandestine but nevertheless fairly hygienic abortion clinics is hardly the typical setting for dangerous illegal abortions, is it?

All in all, the fact that criminalisation makes no difference to maternal mortality in that particular jurisdiction (even if its small population didn’t make it a statistically less significant country in the first place) is, actually, very unsurprising. And that takes nothing away from the evidence of maternal mortality in other countries. Irish women are protected by the fact that they are part of a developed world that generally has a more liberal approach than their own country; not as Aston would like us to believe, by the very restrictions they face in their own country.

Oh, and in case you missed it the first time, I will repeat Monbiot’s cited statistics on maternal mortality: The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. In the face of those statistics, if the only way you can persuade yourself that illegal abortion is unproblematic is to look at one small country with a developed healthcare system and access to legal abortion in a neighbouring jurisdiction then, Aston, you have a problem.

This article in the TES discusses the phenomenon of Playboy branded goods that are aimed at children and brought into schools as stationery or clothing / accessories to be used or worn in the classroom.

The writer agonises over how this thorny issue should be dealt with. Do we ignore it because it is too hard to deal with? Or do we bin the bunny?

A local headteacher told me: “We can’t address the issue because the whole problem with it is that it creates an association between children and an entirely adult phenomenon. It is hard to explain things to children without exposing them to what we are trying to protect them from.”

It will surprise no-one that my preferred solution is – bin the damn bunny. Merchandise that is associated with the porn industry is not suitable for children to be using or playing with or wearing. And even if their parents can turn a blind eye and go along with the “oh what a cute bunny” story, the school does not have to.

Schools in the UK have banned Harry Potter; braided hair; the song “Imagine”; Christmas cards; Pokemon – remember that? I do…; and (nearly) chips. To name but a few. How much more sensible would it be for a primary school to ban porn-branded merchandise?

As for the explaining, well that isn’t hard.

You write a note to parents – schools are good at writing notes to parents – and you say that exposing children to pornography brands is not appropriate, and then request that they do not allow their children to bring Playboy items to school.


And if your school is too wet for that, you can always try explaining it to the children. Contrary to the suggestion in the article, it is surely NOT hard to do this in a way that avoids “exposing” children to sex or pornography.

You don’t have to show someone pornography in order to explain that it is Not Cool. And, if you are dealing with pre-sex-ed* children where even mentioning sex is tricky, you don’t even have to do that either!

[* Note, come the revolution, when I rule the world, there will be no such thing. Sex education starts early in our house.]

For example, when a little girl asks you with furrowed brow: “Is Playboy rude?” you could just say “Yes, it is.” If pressed further you say that Playboy is a company that makes pictures and films which many people think are Not Cool even for grownups, never mind for children (a bit like smoking). If pressed to explain why these pictures and films are Not Cool, you explain that they show people doing adults things and they are often shown acting in ways that are not very realistic and not very loving or respectful, which is something that many people find upsetting and confusing.


This afternoon, we were doing a puzzle and in the background was a particularly odious interview with Martin Amis (to whom I took an intense and unexpected personal dislike, the self-satisfied smugness of him, ugh!) on the World Service about Islamism and the brown menace.

If it will aid your understanding, you can picture Ariel wearing her Father Christmas costume: this is what she selected this morning after I had vetoed the summer dress.

Anyway, all of a sudden, in the midst of trying to fit Dora the Explorer’s elbow onto her backside, she hit me with:

HER: Mummy, what’s a Muslim?

So this is pretty much the way the conversation went…

[Disclaimer: I am going to paraphrase some of my answers, because in reality I was struggling to answer all the questions in terms a 3-year-old can understand, and there was an amount of unming and ahhing and backtracking. Also, it was a pretty long conversation which didn’t necessarily flow in the logical order that adults seem to need, so I will probably have misremembered some parts or the order in which they went. There were several parts when we went through people she knew – and some she didn’t, like Oliver Dunkley and Dora the Explorer – and decided that some of them were, might be, probably weren’t, or definitely weren’t Muslims; I couldn’t be bothered to reproduce that bit since it was somewhat repetitive. Anyway. Here it is, worth recording even in slightly butchered form… 🙂 ]

ME: A Muslim is someone who believes in a religion called Islam. Muslims believe that there is a god who is called Allah and they have a book called the Koran which helps them decide how to live and what sort of things they should do.
HER: What things do they do?
ME: The Koran says that you should treat people kindly and with respect. There are some special rules as well, like not eating food that comes from pigs.
HER: Are we Muslims?
ME: No.
HER: Is Oliver Dunkley a Muslim?
ME: I don’t know.
HER: Who is a Muslim?
ME: Some of your friends at nursery are Muslim. I’m pretty sure that Amal is.
HER: But she might not be?
ME: Well I haven’t asked her, so I don’t know for sure. But you know that she wears a scarf on her head?
HER: Yes
ME: Well one of the things that Muslim women sometimes do is to wear a scarf on their head, so quite often women who have a scarf on like Amal’s are Muslims.
HER: And she has Eid. Like we have Christmas.
ME: That’s right. Eid is a Muslim festival. And there are lots of other religions as well, which have their own festivals and celebrations. Hindus have Diwali, and Pagans have Yule. You remember we went to a Yule party?
HER: Yes and we made candles for Diwali at nursery.
ME: Yes – look there’s the candle holder you made.
HER: Why aren’t you a Muslim?
ME: When I was growing up I was taught a different religion. And I don’t believe all the things that Muslims believe.
HER: What are you then?
ME: I’m still trying to work that one out. There are lots of big questions about why we are all here and what it all means and where everything came from – as you get older you’ll find out what different people believe about these things and then when you are ready you will be able to decide what you believe.
HER: What do you believe, mummy?
ME: You know what? I think that’s something we can talk about another day.
HER: I believe in Father Christmas.
ME: Father Christmas?
HER: Yes, he came to our house with some presents.

Today, the so-called boy crisis* rears its ugly head once more. Reports in The Times, and of course the Daily Hell which never fails to capitalise on these stories, focus on a new book by one Dr Leonard Sax, long-time advocate of single sex schooling and founder in the USA of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (NB in the USA public schools means state schools.)

[* By which we mean that educational achievement for white middle class boys appears to be improving at a slightly lower rate than that for white middle class girls, both of which continue to be way ahead of poor children and/or children of colour who are almost always neglected in discussions of the boy crisis.]

Sax’s argument focuses on research suggesting that boys have less good hearing than girls, and respond in slightly different ways to visual stimuli. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers think they are not paying attention when the real problem is that they cannot hear what the teacher is saying. Thus, he says, boys suffer because teachers tell them off for drawing a picture of a horrid car crash instead of a nice still life like the one that teacher’s pet Emily drew. Oh, yeah, there’s also a lot of stuff about how boys are biologically less able to sit still or be quiet than their swotty female peers. Therefore, single-sex education is the answer! Apparently.

This article by Sara Mead is comprehensive and refreshing. Mead takes apart the statistics (based on evidence of achievement in the USA over the last few decades) to chart how well boys and girls have done in various subjects and where differences have arisen. Her conclusion is that overall boys have improved, certainly in the elementary years that so interest Sax, but that girls have improved faster in many areas so that they have caught up or pulled ahead of boys. So when you look at actual evidence, the picture that emerges is not of boys doing badly or failing or in crisis – but of boys doing well, and girls doing a bit better in some areas – but still doing slightly worse in others.

Mead goes on to consider the various claims made by some individuals and widely publicised by the media that boys genuinely are in crisis. She criticises not only their exaggeration of the significance of gender differences but also the dearth of evidence to support any of their assertions, never mind their various and often conflicting ideas about how to solve the so-called crisis. She says (among other things, I just picked the quote that summed it up for me):

A number of con­serva­tive authors, think tanks, and journals have published articles arguing that progressive educational pedagogy and misguided feminism are hurting boys. According to these critics, misguided feminists have lavished resources on female students at the expense of males and demonized typical boy behaviors such as rowdy play. At the same time, progressive educational pedagogy is harming boys by replacing strict discipline with permissiveness, teacher-led direct instruction with student-led collaborative learning, and academic content with a focus on developing students’ self-esteem. The boy crisis offers an attractive way for con­serva­tive pundits to get in some knocks against feminism and progressive education and also provides another argument for educational policies—such as stricter discipline, more traditional curriculum, increased testing and competition, and single-sex schooling—that con­serva­tives have long supported…. Few of these commentators have anything new to say—the boy crisis has just given them a new opportunity to promote their old messages.

So with all this in mind, what do we make of Sax?

I found an incisive series of posts by one Mark Liberman on Language Log in which he analyses various claims made (by Sax and others) about natural sex differences. I quote a few below – there’s more, but you will get the picture just from this.

Are men emotional children?

Liberman investigates Sax’s use of a very limited study of a very small number of children to draw sweeping conclusions about how boys’ and girls’ ability to articulate their emotions develops with age.

Among other things, Sax claimed that there is little point asking a 7-yr-old why they feel sad or distressed because they do not have the right brain connections to understand why they feel that way – that as they mature girls brains develop so that they can understand and articulate the reasosns for feeling sad etc whereas boys develop their brains differently so that they are never able to fully connect with their feelings of sadness. Liberman shows that this is utterly unsupported by the research evidence cited by Sax to prove his claim. Indeed, a 3 year old could prove him wrong – and mine frequently does because she (unlike Sax’s standard issue seven year old) has very little difficulty in understanding or articulating why she feels sad or upset!

Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes

This post is primarily about someone else (Louann Brizendine), but is interesting because it discusses what is known about hearing / sex differences.

Quote: “If you pick a man and a women (or a boy and a girl) at random, the chances are about 6 in 10 that the girl’s hearing will be more sensitive — but about 4 in 10 that the boy’s hearing will be more sensitive. Not only that, but the expected value of the sensitivity difference is extremely small… So if boys are really less attentive to their mothers than girls are, the difference is not very likely to be due to differences in hearing sensitivity.”

Of rats and (wo)men

Liberman tracks down another couple of pieces of research that Sax relies upon – and demonstrates that “facts” put forward by Sax about differences in the way that boys see (from which he extrapolates much of his theory e.g. about boys being primarily interested in motion and action while girls are primarily interested in things and people) are just false. They are based on studies done on rats. They do not apply to humans: studies on humans show completely different results, yet Sax did not cite the human studies – only the rat studies.

Leonard Sax on hearing

A further exposé on Lax Sax and his terrible abuse of science – a look at the studies supposedly supporting Sax’s claim for a significant difference in hearing between school age children finds that they do nothing of the kind.

Quote: “My conclusion from all this is that Leonard Sax has no serious interest in the science of sex differences. He’s a politician, making a political argument. For all I know, his political goal — single-sex education — might be a good thing. But he should stop pretending that he’s got science on his side, or else he should start paying some minimal attention to what the science actually says.”

That’s my conclusion too.

Yesterday, Discovery on the BBC World Service was a documentary by Claudia Hammond on disgust – its natural purpose in helping us to steer clear of disease risks, how we learn disgust, its possible role in moral judgment, and even a possible link between disgust sensitivity and political opinions.

As for how we learn disgust, I was pretty unconvinced by the section on this.

One theory (Freud, hey-ho) is that we learn to be disgusted by poo when toilet training takes place. That one is clearly wrong because, Reason Number Blatantly Obvious 1, even in cultures where toilets and nappies are unknown and so there is no transition between the two, people are disgusted by poo. Also, Reason Number Blatantly Obvious 2, as anyone who knows any actual children (other than the Standard Issue Child that scientists seem to use when theorising about how we learn stuff) will tell you, children learn different things including disgust at different stages.

I know people whose children were, or at least seemed, disgusted by the contents of their nappy long before they were able to use a toilet or potty reliably.

And I know at least one child (mine) who is not disgusted by the contents of the toilet when she has done a poo. She knows, because she has been taught, that poo is dirty, that you shouldn’t touch it if you can help it, and that you certainly shouldn’t eat it. But she isn’t disgusted by it. She is if anything curious about it, comparing sizes and shapes and colours with Other Poos We Have Seen. “Look mummy I done a big one and a little one and the big one looks like a sausage. But we don’t eat poo because its horrible. But we do eat sausages because I like sausages and they are yummy.” – does that sound like disgust?

Another theory is that children are hard-wired to be disgusted by certain things, and this just sort of kicks in at, coincidentally, the same time as Western children are often learning to use a toilet and – more importantly in evolutionary terms – Stoneage children are starting to gather and select their own food. That one has a ring of plausibility but must also fail, because in different cultures people are disgusted by different things. OK, pretty much everybody is disgusted by some core items (like poo), but clearly disgust is learned to some extent or why would some poeple find the idea of eating snails or rats disgusting while others think it perfectly acceptable?

Clearly children do learn disgust at some point – or at least they learn at some point what is disgusting. That’s pretty much my theory anyway. That children may be hard-wired to start feeling disgust at some stage, quite possibly at about the time they start making their own food choices while out and about in the wild; but that what disgusts them is learned from their carers.

What ought we to teach our children to find disgusting?

When it comes to disgust that comes from potential disease risks (rotten food, unidentified bugs, bodily wastes, other people’s suppurating pores) I make an effort with Ariel to model not disgust but curiosity mixed with common sense – we want to know what things are but we know it isn’t always sensible to touch or eat them because we know that some things aren’t good for you or don’t taste very nice. This is quite deliberate. I don’t want to teach Ariel to be viscerally disgusted by everyday things, because I don’t see disgust as a very helpful response to most situations. If she decides later in life to work in healthcare, strong reactions of disgust to bodily waste are not going to be helpful to her. If she finds herself in a jungle with nothing to eat but grubs and snakes, disgust will not be a useful tool for her. Armed with common sense and a little knowledge about the world, she doesn’t need disgust.

With luck, the only use Ariel will have for disgust is moral disgust: and that’s a whole nother story. See Part 2.

A survey out yesterday, courtesy of the National AIDS Trust, has shown shocking levels of ignorance among old people and young on the subject of AIDS and HIV. About a fifth of the adult population could not identify “sex without a condom” (man/woman or man/man) as a way of getting HIV or AIDS. About a third could not identify that “sharing a syringe” might lead to infection. Only a handful (mostly women) knew that a breastfeeding mother could pass infection to her child.

Almost all the figures were worse than the last surveys in 2000 and 2005. Scarily, the group that seemed least clued up is the group in my age range, those who were subjected to relentless awareness campaigning back in the 1980s and early 1990s when people actually seemed to give a damn and Tom Hanks was in Philadelphia and everything. This is the group who are now raising their own children.

Why is sexual health awareness going backwards? How did we get so ignorant? How did so many of the children I went to school with just forget what was drummed into us all those years ago? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I want to know. This shouldn’t be happening. It is the stuff of despair.


Having said that, it is not surprising if some people are getting confused when sloppy reporting results in misinformation.

Take the Metro. Oh, how I despise the Metro. Today, they report that “the four main ways” that HIV is spread are: “unprotected sex, blood transfusions, shared needles and via breast-feeding” (my emphasis).

That is just wrong.

The NAT survey and press release did NOT suggest that breastfeeding is one of “the four main ways” that HIV is spread. What the survey did was to list possible transmission routes (e.g. “Blood transfusions”, “Spitting”) and participants had to say which were correct and which were false. Although the survey report did suggest that the four transmission routes mentioned were “key” and could itself have been clearer, it certainly did not say that these were the main ways of passing on HIV.

And anyone with any knowledge about this area – let’s face it, someone working as a health correspondent on a national daily newspaper ought to have some background knowledge – knows that breastfeeding is not a main way of catching HIV.

Breastfeeding can in some cases be a transmission route* , but it isn’t either fair or accurate to say it is among the top four risks.

[* Especially if appropriate precautions are not taken e.g. ensuring that breastfeeding is exclusive for six months, and that breast problems such as sore nipples or mastitis are treated promptly.]

For one thing (according to UNICEF) breastfeeding only accounts for about a third of parent to child infections – which is less than the number that occur during delivery (about half), so that right there is one way of spreading HIV that is more significant than breastfeeding.

More to the point, the problems of sexual transmission / infected needles / infected blood are much much bigger than parent to child transmission. Breastfeeding isn’t even in the same ballpark.

In fact, the dangers of denying breastmilk to children can be so serious, especially in developing countries where access to clean water and adequate supplies of formula is just not readily available, that they significantly outweigh the risks of infection.

One study in Africa showed that (a) the risk of a mother passing on HIV to her breastfed child is as low as 4% if the child is breastfed exclusively for six months and also (b) the mortality rate for exclusively breastfed infants was much lower than for exclusively formula fed infants: Fifteen percent of babies with HIV infected mothers who did not breast feed them died by age three months. Only six percent of babies who were only breast fed died at age three months.


Incidentally, when I visited the NAT site they had a survey: “Do you think Gordon Brown should make sex and relationships education compulsory in schools?” I think you can guess how I voted. 91% agreed.

Stick-up tree

[Image: Immense towering many-pronged phallus. Seen on Crickley Hill, where all the Catholic bishops walk their dogs.]

The UK Catholic church wants to get a firmer grip on Catholic schools, and to control the curriculum and materials to which children have access by preventing them from seeing or hearing about anything that does not accord with Catholic beliefs.

Take the Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donohoe. He has recently issued a long document to all Catholic schools in his diocese. Remember, while reading the following list of his requirements and instructions, that these schools are primarily state-funded: almost all the funding that these schools receive comes from taxpayer’s money.

So, here are the headlines from Patrick’s list of requirements (for which he has since had the full backing of the Vatican):

  • Stop safe-sex education, which is “dangerous and immoral”.
  • Only mention sex within the “sacrament of marriage”.
  • Insist that contraception is wrong and emphasise natural family planning.
  • Place crucifixes in all classrooms.
  • Cease all support for charities or other organisations that promote or fund pro-choice policies, however peripheral this may be to their central aims (e.g. Red Nose Day or Amnesty International).
  • Use science to teach about “the truths of the faith”. (WTF?)
  • Remove any anti-Catholic polemics from school libraries i.e. remove any books that criticise or critique the Catholic faith.
  • And, finally, silence any other possible dissenting opinion: ‘Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals.’

Which translates as: keep children ignorant about sex and certainly do not teach them how to protect themselves from harm; teach children that the rights of the unborn trump political prisoners or children who are starving in the developing world; use pseudo-science to support unscientific religious claims (and don’t let the children develop any skills of critical thinking, whatever you do!); censor all opposing voices (the final nail in the coffin for critical thinking).

Imagine an Islamic school that prohibited all criticism or debate about Islam, that insisted on lying to its pupils using pseudo-science, that insisted on promoting its own strict view of acceptable gender roles and allowed no “dangerous and immoral” contrary viewpoints to be expressed… Do you think that such a school would be permitted and celebrated? No, thought not.

And these men are so churlish and petty. When Barry Sheerman, chairman of the parliamentary cross-party committee on children, tried to meet up with Arthur Roche, the Bishop of Leeds, to talk about setting up a proposed inter-faith school he was stalled and stalled. Eventually, a meeting was agreed but before it could even take place, Arthur had a letter read out in every church in Kirklees and Calderdale accusing politicians of undermining Catholic education. Churlish? Petty? Surely not.

Meanwhile, back in 2005, when Scotland unveiled its new, anaemic sex education policy, in which abstinence was to be the first principle, and sex education was to be optional in its entirety anyway, Scottish Catholics leapt for joy – especially Cardinal O’Brien, a rabid anti-education campaigner who fought the idea of a more comprehensive policy tooth and nail.

So where next?

The good news is that the government is apparently stepping away from the strategy of those twin Catholics, Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, which was to heavily promote the idea of more faith schools being brought within the state sector.

The bad news is that there are seven thousand faith schools already being funded by the state in England alone (all of which will continue to exist with state funding) – the vast majority of these are Christian schools and over two thousand are Catholic schools.

Oh, and PS – To the Telegraph – please don’t conveniently forget to mention when reporting about the Government’s decision not to promote faith schools that the fundamentalist Christians, especially the Catholics it seems, are just as bad as if not worse than the fundamentalist Muslims who you like to blame for everything.

And where is it all going to take us?

With a bit of luck, we might be able to engineer a bit of a backlash and advance the cause of, say, compulsory sex education, at least in state-funded schools. I’m not generally a great believer in compulsory anything education. But we just can’t allow these zealots to ruin the lives of young women for whom they have accepted educational responsibility: they want to keep young people in the dark about sex and then they will wash their hands of it all when young women get pregnant as a result. It’s not on.

Something has to give and, unless someone has a better idea, I’m for compulsory sex ed.


Guardian, 14 Nov 2001
Guardian, 30 August 2004
BBC Scotland, 30 August 2004
Guardian, 20 Mar 2005
Guardian, 30 Dec 2007
Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 4 Jan 2008
Telegraph, 7 Jan 2008
Telegraph, 11 Jan 2008
Independent, 17 Jan 2008

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