Rise of the puritan classes

11th May 2012 at 01:00
Sex is worth waiting for - that's the message from campaigners promoting an abstinence-based and marriage-focused approach to relationships. Adi Bloom finds the idea is gaining ground

Like many girls her age, 15-year-old Melodie Gibson has often felt under pressure to have sex. Unlike most, however, she is clear that the pressure did not come from her classmates. It came from her teachers.

"They started talking about sex at junior school," the Eastbourne teenager says. "They used to show us some horrible videos - all cartoon-based, quite graphic. I didn't really understand it.

"They're always talking about it - kind of pressuring you to get on with it, in my view. I definitely felt, `Why haven't I yet?'"

Two years ago, however, after speaking to presenters from Challenge Team UK, an organisation that promotes the advantages of postponing sex until after marriage, Melodie realised that there was another way. "I don't think sex should be something that just happens," she says. "You should fall in love first. I think it's so important to wait for someone."

Previously, abstinence-only education has been largely a US preserve. Americans have born-again virgins and silver rings; we have slightly awkward lessons involving condoms, primary-coloured dildos and an embarrassed PE teacher. Our discussions have always been about when, how and to what degree of compulsoriness safe-sex advice should be given. Whether it should be given at all was not up for debate.

Until now. In January this year, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries proposed a bill that would require schools to offer extra sex education lessons to teenage girls. These would include mandatory advice on the benefits of abstinence. And a new lobbying body, the Relationships and Sex Education Council, has been actively welcomed by education secretary Michael Gove. Its seven members are all proponents of marriage-focused, abstinence-based education. Many of them have sidelines in anti-abortion advocacy.

"So much of the demand for abortion has come from sexual liberalisation," says Chris Richards, co-founder of Lovewise, one of the seven council members. "They have sex, and then they don't want the consequences of sex."

Speaking of fornication .

In their small office in a Newcastle suburb, Richards and his colleague Liz Jones are talking about fornication. "Have you eaten?" Jones says, proffering a plate. "Would you like a sandwich? Tea?" All smiles and unaffected openness, she talks about her early career, her grandchildren, how she thought it would be a good idea to come out on an April morning dressed only in a short-sleeved cardigan.

Richards, meanwhile, is tall, grey-haired, genially avuncular. He spent several years working as a medic on the Rwanda-Burundi border.

"We don't just march into school and say, `Save yourself for marriage,'" says Jones. "Because young people won't know what they're saving themselves for. We're giving them reasons for marriage: health, social and personal reasons."

"Many lads will be stirred by the challenge of being in a family and being a breadwinner," says Richards. "But lads in school aren't raised to those sorts of things - although they are interested.

"They begin to see that university isn't just about drinking as much as you can and sleeping with as many women as you can. It's about preparing you for that responsibility. And it's about aspirations. That contextualises their sexual desires. It's about self-control, and respecting the future."

For girls, meanwhile, the focus is different. "You keep your body for the person who's prepared to make a lifelong commitment to you, and make that publicly," says Jones.

"The cliche is: it takes two to tango," adds Richards. "If the girl says `no', then unless the man is willing to rape her, then they would wait. But boys do have to say `no', too. Otherwise they would all go off and use prostitutes."

Both paediatric doctors, Jones and Richards set up Lovewise in 2002 after treating a succession of teenage patients whose psychosomatic symptoms, they believe, were brought on by the uncertainties of their family lives. "Very bad headaches," says Richards. "Or tummy aches. You do investigations, and discover nothing wrong medically, but then you find out things are awry in the family. Usually the dad isn't around.

"Then the question was: why is this happening? There are lots of different dimensions to that question, but one is a churning of partners."

Over the past 10 years, the organisation has expanded to employ teams across the country, and its lessons are delivered in primary and secondary schools, both faith-based and secular. The training guidelines for these teams emphasise the fact that fornication is a sin, and that humans are born sinners. Sinners need no props, but handing out free contraception to teenagers will only encourage them to break the fifth commandment. (That's "honour your father and mother". Adultery comes later.)

While Jones pours the tea, Richards outlines their credo. "Safe sex, without any exaltation to right or wrong - any aspiration to fidelity in marriage - it's decontextualised," he says. "It's: `Here's the condom, here's the girl. Use it.'"

"If you want," interjects Jones.

"If you want," he echoes. "This is where our Christian understanding comes in. Marriage has been given to us. It's a design that's been given to man for the enjoyment of that exclusive intimate relationship between a man and a woman.

"But young people are having stable marriages modelled in front of them less and less. How do they learn about those things? So we started thinking about what's going on in schools."

Back to fornication. The versions promulgated in sex-ed lessons vary. Channel 4's widely used Living and Growing series involves two cartoon figures. A cartoon woman holds a hand mirror to her cartoon genitalia; a cartoon cross section shows how a cartoon man's testes connect to his penis. Later, the man and woman chase one another around a cartoon bed, wielding feathers. A BBC film shows the actual act of penetration in line- drawing form. None of the videos could be described as titillating; mostly, they deglamorise the act through their very school-video mundanity.

Mundanity, however, does not make headlines. "A late night adult show on Channel 4?" the Daily Mail wrote of Living and Growing in November last year. "An animated version of the Kama Sutra?" Cue the punchline: "Shockingly, the target audience for this film is children as young as eight."

That same month, the British National Party attracted widespread coverage for setting up pickets outside Grenoside Community Primary, in Sheffield. They were demonstrating against the decision to teach key stage 1 pupils about reproduction in mammals, and to give older children the names of different body parts. Five months earlier, parents at Clara Grant Primary, in East London, had successfully campaigned to allow children to be withdrawn from the sex education element of otherwise compulsory science lessons.

Antonia Tully, of Safe at School, helped to run the campaign. Safe at School is a subsidiary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, speaking out against "the loaded presentation of explicit sex to very young children".

"Most parents of seven-year-olds who still believe in Father Christmas and the tooth fairy would probably be shocked by the highly explicit material being shown at school," Tully says.

Context is important

She is not, she insists, anti-sex: sex education is important, and there is no advantage to keeping children in enforced ignorance. It is how it is currently done that is problematic.

First, she says, schools often teach the names of body parts: "Here's your hand, here's your foot, here's your penis, here's your vagina. All body parts, all on the same level. Then you teach them exactly how sexual intercourse is performed. Masturbation is promoted. By the time they're 11, any natural reserve they might have had has been broken down.

"It's setting them up for sex, effectively normalising sex for them. It's a significant part of the chain of events that leads to teenagers becoming pregnant and having abortions."

In 2009, following a government-backed report into sex and relationships education in schools, it seemed the subject would become compulsory in all state secondaries. But, in the run-up to the 2010 election, this was quietly dropped.

"Personally," says Sue Relf, "I think there are absolutely no advantages for young people to engage in sexual activity. None. Sex under 16 has lots of hazards: danger of young pregnancy, risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. But it's mainly the emotional aspect."

Relf founded Challenge Team UK, after hearing Challenge Team speakers during a visit to Canada. Since 2004, her team of 56 presenters have delivered sex education material to more than 100,000 teenagers in schools and youth clubs.

With little advertising budget, Relf's team relies on word-of-mouth recommendations. But, she says, however limited her efforts may be, it is vital that someone is out there, promoting the importance of marriage and monogamy. "If you begin a sexual relationship early," she says, "you're already compromising your integrity. You're using another person for your own pleasure. So the decisions made in adolescence are crucial. Adolescence is crucial."

When girls have sex, she says, their bodies generate oxytocin, the "happy" hormone also released during childbirth and breastfeeding. "A young person experiencing those love and attachment hormones can be very confused. Bonding is taking place again and again - it's why break-ups are so painful. Their ability to form long-lasting relationships is being damaged. We're there to tell them it's OK to say `no'. You can be 100 per cent safe from all risks, if you say `no'."

Safe-sex educators, she says, use terms such as "studies show" to undermine the work of abstinence advocates. "But what studies show? It's urban myths being passed on. One size doesn't fit all, so it's very difficult to say whether an abstinence programme was successful or not."

It is, nonetheless, worth looking at what some actual studies do show. In July 2007, research published in the British Medical Journal examined the results of 13 abstinence-only trials, involving almost 16,000 pupils. The researchers found that abstinence-until-marriage lessons failed to have any impact on the pupils' amount of sexual activity, condom use or rates of pregnancy or disease infection.

More significantly, a 2009 study by Harvard University researchers showed that US teenagers who took virginity pledges were 10 percentage points less likely to use contraception during (inevitably non-marital) sex than their non-pledgee peers.

That, of course, is the US, where abstinence-only lessons may be the only sex education that schools provide. In Britain, most schools would still complement Lovewise or Challenge Team presentations with lessons on safe sex. The organisations themselves, however, tend to avoid the subject.

"We're absolutely committed to abstinence, and the consistency of the message," avers Richards. "If we say, `yes, but there's a safety net' and `yes, but what kind of safety net is it and how do you use it?' then the thought of sex without consequences encourages sexual experimentation and increasing sexual partners. We would never want to undermine the message of keeping sex for marriage."

Marriage and quasi-marriage

Marriage, of course, requires defining. "We wouldn't describe civil partnerships as marriage," says Richards. "We decided to focus on what we believe is right. We believe that marriage and only marriage is the right context for sexual intimacy. That would be the historical Christian doctrine."

Meanwhile, Challenge Team educators do not consider long-term relationships or cohabitation as marriage equivalents. "Which teenager in their first relationship isn't in a long-term relationship?" says Relf. "Some are quasi-marriages, of course they are. But more and more of them break down.

"Cohabitation can be for any number of reasons - convenience, loneliness. We can't guarantee the perfect marriage, but studies show that people who wait until they're married to have sex have the best marriages and the best sex. Of course they do. You're learning and growing together."

Both Lovewise and Challenge Team presenters insist that pupils are not as sceptical about the idea of virginity until marriage as one might expect. (Language, however, is key. "The word `abstinence' has been seen more and more in a pejorative light," says Relf. "It's not a neutral word any more. I talk about `saving'.")

Jones has worked with girls who talk wistfully about their desire for a home, a family and a faithful husband. "But at the same time, they thought it would be fun to go off on holiday and have a few casual encounters," she says.

Is it not possible, though, to fornicate merrily through one's youth, only to settle down and marry as one matures? "Hmm," says Richards. "How many married people look back and say, `I wish I'd had more sexual partners before I got married'?

"And it brings a mindset of sexual opportunism. The minute your wife gets sick or pregnant, you'll think, `Well, this isn't the young chick I could be having sex with in Spain.'"

And thus teenagers become the victims of their own choices. "From the girls' point of view, once you've given yourself to someone, it's easier to give yourself to a whole lot of people," adds Jones. "Once you've given it, it isn't special any more."

This idea of first sex as a special, one-off gift that a woman (and it is, overwhelmingly, used in reference to women) has to give her husband occurs repeatedly. It suggests an almost religious veneration of virginity, its loss a ritual sacrifice to love.

This is evident when Melodie talks about her decision to save sex for marriage. "I said I wouldn't sleep around, because that's not the sort of person I am," she says. "My friends definitely respect me for that. But one friend said, `Oh, you're not going to be able to do it. You'll probably get drunk one night and it'll just happen.' But I really, really want to wait for the right person to come along. Because I wouldn't want to just waste it."

What makes marriage special, Jones says, is its public nature - a socially monitored promise of fidelity. "We look at what it means to stick with each other in sickness and in health," she says. "It might mean looking after your husband in a wheelchair, after he has an accident playing rugby.

"If a guy is prepared to wait for sex until you're married, you know he doesn't just want you for sex. It builds up trust."

Part of this trust, pro-marriage educators insist, is the knowledge that sex does not become an X-rated competitive sport, with partners privately rating each other against previous players. "Pupils do ask me about the lack of comparison," Jones says. "And I say, `That's good.' Who wants to be in a sexual relationship where you're being compared with one or two or 10 people? It just engenders anxiety."

Among some religious communities, largely in the US, the prophylactic use of marriage vows can lead to early, ill-judged marriages: couples racing through the relationship in order to gain access to a divinely sanctioned sex life.

Technically, Relf admits, this is a possibility here, too. But it is unlikely: couples are far more likely to leap into bed than into premature matrimony. "A benefit of saving sex for marriage is that you really have time to spend with the other person, finding out if you're suited," she says. "Sex is two minutes. A relationship takes longer to build."

A more common question she faces from pupils is: what if they do not ever get married? "What we say is, `Are you saying it's impossible to live a fulfilling life without sex?'" Relf says. "Our society will say no. But we don't want sex to be the be-all and end-all of life.

"Most people, statistically, who say they want to get married will get married. And, by saving sex, you give that marriage the best possible chance of success.

"But you have to be morally strong. It's really hard. Of course it is. You absolutely need firm decision-making and strength."

Her presenters, she says, are not naive or unworldly: they realise that not everyone has the determination or strength of character to see teenage commitment to marriage through to adult life. "But the more we can give them that aspiration, the longer that person will wait, and so the nearer the ideal they will get. Society's rushing them in one direction with a bulldozer, and we're going the other way with a spoon."

Melodie is very aware of this. The ultimate test of her convictions, she admits, will come when she has a serious boyfriend. So far, there has been only "silly dating".

"Yeah, it'll probably be difficult to keep my virginity," she says. "But I wouldn't want to risk something going wrong, or not being in love with them the next day.

"I know a couple of people who've had sex, and some who had babies quite young as well. And I look at them now and I think, `You probably regret it in some ways. That was something special you had, to give to someone you love, and now you're not with the person you gave it to any more. That must be horrible.'"

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