Sex and freedom

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


Before the end of last year, the UK government admitted that it was dismally failing to meet its targets for reducing teenage pregnancy. The target in 1999 was to halve the rate by 2010, yet new figures show that the rate as dropped by only about 11%, while the total number of teenage pregnancies has actually increased.

(Note – Depending on who you listen to, about a third to about half of teenage pregnancies in the UK end in abortion. Many pregnancies are carried to term simply because they are not identified or reported early enough – a problem that will only worsen if anti-choice campaigners succeed in reducing the time limit for abortions.)

The reaction has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, to point the finger at the way that young people are taught about sex in schools. However, instead of berating our schools for failing to teach young people enough about sex and protection, the line most often taken seems to be that schools are teaching children too much.

The argument is that sex education strategies, and in particular the safe sex message combined with improved access to contraception, have “backfired” by encouraging teenagers to have more sex, rather than encouraging them to have sex more safely. The safe sex message isn’t working, critics say – because when a teacher says “if you decide to have sex you should use a condom”, the pupils apparently just hear “decide to have sex” and filter out the rest. Because kids, as we know, are too hormonally charged (read, thick) to hear more than what abstinence-only advocates believe they can hear. Therefore, apparently, we should stop teaching children about safe sex.

Well, here are two interesting facts.

One is that, while lambasting the UK for having a teenage pregnancy rate six times that of the Netherlands, most of these commentators completely fail to mention that the Netherlands has achieved this by giving its students more and better education about sex and sexual life – not by lecturing them to keep their pants on.

(See here, for a rare exception – in the Telegraph, Laura Donnelly summarises the Dutch approach – “Liberal campaigners in [the UK] point to Holland’s permissive health policies, including compulsory sex education in schools from the age of five, as being key to its success… Dutch campaigners say Britain’s schools tick the box for sex education by providing biology lessons and free condoms, without arming teenage girls with the confidence to say no to unwanted advances, or to care for their sexual health.“)

The second interesting fact is that the UK’s much complained about “liberal” sex education curriculum is not actually compulsory. Parents can opt their children out. Whole schools can and do (especially in the case of faith schools, especially in the case of Catholic schools) opt out of teaching their pupils anything at all about sex beyond the mandatory biology lesson covering human reproduction. Nobody knows how many parents or schools actually do this because it is one of the few remaining areas of life where the Government does not collect and record statistics.

Polly Toynbee reports on this issue here, in the Guardian. She describes a recent survey of young people which showed that many of them get no or very little sex education at all – 40% rated the sex education they had received as “poor or very poor” and more than half had never been shown how to use a condom or told where to find their local sexual health clinic.

In conclusion, teen pregnancies are going up and it’s because we are teaching our children too much about sex. Even though in the Netherlands where teenage pregnancies are far less frequent the sex education given to children starts earlier and covers more ground. Even though about half of our young people never actually receive any real sex education at school. But lala we’re not listening because we know it’s all the fault of our freakishly liberal sex education policy. So there.

(Other sources: Press Association, Telegraph, The Sun, DoH 2007 annual report, DoH 2006 abortion statistics)

Our second wave mothers called for sexual liberty, sexual independence, and reproductive freedom. They didn’t get it. What they got was contraception and abortion, and the freedom to wear ever skimpier clothes. Don’t get me wrong, these were important gains, and they must not be lost in some chastity=self-respect backlash: but all the same they were gains dictated by the pornography industry and the consequences for women have not, so far, been especially good.

Indeed, ever since the pornography industry hijacked the sexual revolution of the 1960s for its own commercial ends, feminism doesn’t seem to have had much of a look in. Pornographers took the idealistic clamour for sexual freedom, hand-picked the issues and solutions that benefited pornographers (by making it easier for them to make and sell pornography), and rode the second wave all the way to the bank.

Now that we have access to contraception and abortion, and have the option to control our fertility without abstaining from sex, we are expected to do so. We are expected to be sexually available. It is still our responsibility to avoid and “deal with” unwanted pregnancy as much as it ever was, but the sexual revolution has added insult to that continuing injury, because the choice of abstinence is no longer realistically open to our daughters, who are under enormous pressure to have sex at ever earlier ages.

Now that we have greater freedom to display our bodies (some freedom, huh, the freedom to display ourselves to the general public, like so much meat in a butcher’s shop) and to be open about our sexuality and sexual identity, we are expected to do so. We are expected to be sexually available. It is still our responsibility to avoid and “deal with” rape as much as it ever was, but the sexual revolution has added insult to that continuing injury, because our daughters are under enormous pressure to look and act in ways that always have been and still are treated as “asking for it”.

Was the sexual revolution all wrong?

Hell, no. We still want the liberation that the second wave feminists wanted. We still want sexual liberty, sexual independence, and reproductive freedom. We want not just the state, not just the church, but now also the massive pornography industry (and its sidekick, the beauty industry) to get out of our bedrooms, to get out of the way of our individual paths to sexual happiness. We want women and men to have the liberty to do what makes us happy, subject only to the harm principle. We want women and men to have the independence we need to discover for ourselves what it is that makes us happy, free from the constraints and pressures under which we presently labour. We want our reproductive freedoms to continue and improve.

The sexual revolution did not achieve all these things for us in the 1960s. The work of our mothers is not yet finished.

I write this post after reading various articles or blog posts by (primarily) self-described third wave feminists calling for a new sexual revolution or suggesting that the 1960s revolution has failed. Although I want to mention this fact because it is what inspired me to write this post right here today, I’m actually not going to link to any specific article or post because I haven’t seen one that happens to suit me. Some seem to struggle between a desire to be “sex-positive” and confusion about what that means in terms of pornography and prostitution. I’m also not sure whether we should be discarding the work of our mothers in this way, starting afresh – instead I hope we can learn from their efforts (and mistakes), build on their gains and continue their interrupted revolution.


I wrote some time ago about the need for the Third Wave to call for bodily independence, and I suggested what that might mean. An exceprt:

  • Not being raped or abused or otherwise physically attacked.
  • Not having to wear makeup, shave our hairy bits, spend a fortune on our clothes and hair, have our bodies surgically altered – all in the name of an artificial social construct of “beauty”.
  • Having better access to good sex education and to safe and effective contraception.
  • Being trusted to know when an abortion is the right choice.
  • Being allowed to dress up or down, to sparkle or not, without it being a political statement.
  • Having the freedom to be the size and shape that nature intended.
  • Not being objectified as sex toys for men.
  • Being allowed to menstruate, gestate, parturate, lactate and climacterate as part of a celebration of life, rather than as something difficult requiring medical intervention.
  • Loving our bodies.
  • Knowing our bodies.
  • Living inside our bodies.
  • Being at one with our bodies.

I still believe in all those things, and I am still totally hyped by the word climacterate (which may not even be a real word) but more to the point I feel that a time has come for there to be some clearer focus for me in what I am going to do with my feminism.

For 2008, what I am going to do with my feminism is this: support and promote the right of all people, especially young people, to really great sex/body education. To me, this feels like the single biggest tool that we have for re-starting the sexual revolution and giving young women and men the skills and information and support they need to really find out what bodily independence means.


What do I mean by really great sex/body education?

I mean that people need to have the opportunity to learn about their own bodies and how they work. In detail. With awe.

I mean that people need to learn what a body is: that each person’s body belongs exclusively to that person, that our bodies are an essential part of our selves, and that every body is valuable and different.

To this end, really great sex/body education will include both a course in human biology and lessons in critical thinking, together with access to unbiased information and a range of perspectives on the following specific areas:

  • What sexual behaviour is appropriate. This needs to include an understanding of (1) the harm principle (2) the need for valid consent to any sexual behaviour (including what consent means and how to find out whether the behaviour is wanted) and (3) any legal or other necessary constraints on sexual behaviour.
  • Avoiding unwanted pregnancies – including information about contraception, non-penetrative sex, masturbation and abstinence.
  • Avoiding, recognising and getting treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
  • Abortion rights, including information on how to access abortion if it is wanted.
  • For both sexes: Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and menopause (also, some boy stuff – although this isn’t necessarily my priority since ewww boys are icky).
  • LGBTQ issues: sexuality, sexual identity, gender, and sexual confusion. Thinking about discrimination and prejudice relating to the above.
  • How media and cultural influences can affect our sexuality, our sexual preferences and our attitudes to our own and other people’s bodies. This will involve developing skills of critical analysis, including an understanding of marketing techniques, and how/why advertising works.
  • Self-love and self-hatred- actively developing self love; and understanding, avoiding, recognising and getting treatment for problems that can spring from self-hatred including eating disorders, depression and self-harm.

Let’s make a generation of people who can tell the difference between freedom and oppression, ideas and propaganda, liberty and constraint, choice and compulsion, sex and rape. Let’s at least try.