Monday, 8 November 2010

Myth Busting Monday Special - so many myths, so little time

An article in The Independent newspaper today reports that Family Education Trust is circulating a pamphlet to all schools today encouraging them to promote the message that ‘In the context of a faithful, lifelong marriage, sexual intimacy is beautiful and enriching, but where a sexual relationship is pursued to express passing feelings and emotions, it is ugly and destructive and will lead to misery and regret.’

For this Myth Busting Special I look at all the myths that are explicitly stated and implicit in the pamphlet and in FET's decision to distribute to all schools.

Sex before marriage is ugly and destructive?
There are millions of people, young and old, having sex outside of, before and after, marriage all over the world. While we know that many people experience unsatisfying sex, coerced and unwanted sex, which is 'ugly and destructive', or transactional sex which may be far from 'beautiful', millions of unmarried people also enjoy the intimacy and affection and the physical sensation of sex for which human minds and bodies are so perfectly made. The human body which predates the institution of marriage by some fair margin – is made for sexual pleasure. For millions of people sexual pleasure has been the only pleasure they could come by easily in a world in which food, shelter, and other forms of basic comfort, let alone recreation, are not guaranteed. Though it pains some people to hear it, many millions of people in the world enjoy sex within a range of different relationship types from long-term and monogamous to perfunctory. For some the excitement of the one night stand outweighs the technical congruence of the long-term partnership. For others it is the safety and familiarity of the long-term relationship that enhances pleasure and enjoyment. In any kind of relationship where both partners are consenting and enthusiastic and use safer sex practices, sex outside of marriage has no demonstrable negative effect on its participants.

Sex within marriage is universally beautiful and enriching
Given the multiplicity of literature, TV programmes and replies from agony aunts on 'how to keep your flagging sex life alive' and 'how to keep your husband interested' it may be safe to assume that marriage, and the monogamy it implies, does not- in and of itself- guarantee you good sex. Married couples may experience all the same problems as unmarried ones when it comes to sex, a difference in desire and libido, different sexual needs and tastes, different energy levels, physical and psychological obstacles to fulfilling sex, infidelity and jealousy. Some of these things may even be exacerbated by lack of sexual experimentation with each other or others before marriage. While marriage may provide a safe and trusting relationship within which to explore each others sexuality, it can also normalise and cement dysfunction and violence. Good communication, equality and trust are the key ingredients for any couple's sex life and these do not come free with the marriage vows.

Regret always relates to sex outside of marriage
Some people regret that they never experimented more before they committed themselves to a monogamous married relationship.

Sex education is corrupt and corrupting unless it aims to prevent people having sex
Of course we all believe in educating people to have the tools to resist unwanted or unsatisfactory sex. Young people need to know how to make choices they'll be happy with about their sexual behaviour and partners, to better understand how to give and recognise consent, and to address power imbalances that lead to violence and bullying - this is why we advocate for comprehensive sex and relationships education, but SRE isn't just about risk avoidance, it also includes how to give and receive pleasure and feel safe. If it's going to engage young people it's got to be about increasing the proportion of sex which is wanted, safe and enjoyed, not reducing the amount of sex young people have per se.

Marriage is the best relationship within which to live and bring up children (and it's ok to tell children so)
Observing sex education lessons in a girls school in inner city Islington carried out by a group with a strong abstinence agenda, my colleague was upset that the speaker was emphasising again and again the disadvantages of being brought up by unmarried or single parents. She was pretty sure that the majority of pupils in that particular school are not brought up by two still-married parents, so how helpful, or ethical was their message? For many children these kinds of messages don't reflect their reality. Proponents of the 'marriage-only' model might as well call these children a bunch of 'bastards', because that is the logical end-point of their thesis - that all sex out of wedlock ends in misery and despair. I thought the repugnant concept of 'illegitimacy' was dead and buried, but I feel it lurking barely beneath the surface of Family Education Trust's ideas.

We also have to consider those young people who know that they are gay or are already questioning their sexuality. How do they hear these messages and what impact does it have on their sense of how valuable they are and how valued their lives and lifestyles will be as they become adults. It is discriminatory and damaging to teach children that there is only one 'right way' to live your life - and particularly vile when those most vigorously promoting marriage as the only way are also the most outspoken against gay marriage.

Most importantly, I have never seen any convincing evidence that marriage is all its cracked up to be. The studies I've seen heralding marriage as the best formula for a happy family seem to ignore confounding factors and rarely compare like with like by looking at long term committed relationships alongside marriage (I'm willing to be corrected by the army of academics out there who can tell me I'm wrong here).

Telling young people not to have sex is a good way to stop young people having sex
It's not. The evidence is everywhere and this blog post is too long already to exercise these arguments again.

Just telling young people not to have sex, and nothing else is morally acceptable
It's not. On top of any arguments about the efficacy of sex education young people have a right to know about things that effect their bodies and lives so it's not ok to ignore their rights by lying to them or withholding accurate information. In fact to do so would be morally corrupt.


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