Wordbusting in Sex Ed debates! - Little words

There has been an increasing level of organisation and activity in the UK from politicians and pressure groups who are against comprehensive sex education, even lobbying against the basics like teaching body parts to primary school children and ever more increasingly speaking about abstinence. The tactics are versions of what US sex educators have been battling against for a while.

Recently, Nadine Dorries, the member of parliament who represents my area of the UK, has become a main figurehead for the trend, and has come across relatively successfully on TV debates given how extreme the implications of the policies she proposes really are.

What really got my attention was how familiar to me the language she uses was to me. She spoke about sexualisation, empowerment, focusing more on relationships, and of course abstinence and so on, which apart from the word abstinence itself sounded very much like plenty of feminists and pro-sex activists. So I've begun to think about what these words really mean when different people say them which also helps to interrogate what I mean when I say them... and they're just little words.


Watch out for the word relationships being used to mean “only have sex with long term partners” or even more narrowly; marriage (quel horreur!)… I think there is nothing wrong with less long-term committed sex so long as everyone involved wants to be having it and and feels safe enough to use the extra precautions they may need for this type of sex. Relationships as far as I’m concerned are things that everyone has with everyone… friendships are relationships, sexual partners are a relationship, someone you had sex with once is still a relationship, people married for a million years are definitely in a relationship… so when we talk about it in sex and relationships education, we’re not talking about only one type of relationship, we’re talking about HOW you can handle all the relationships you’re in, which is something that is incredibly important when it comes to relationships where sex is involved. Relationships aren’t the alternative to sex.


Basically especially when used by politicians and people who know what’s-what in sex ed, abstinence refers to the ideology of “saving” sex… not just not-having-it, or choosing not to have it for now, but more than that. The tactics used in programs which call themselves abstinence are often engaged in making it clear that you are less of a valuable person if you have sexual interactions, and you’re a better stronger person if you don’t have it. The judgments about sexual choices are an established part of abstinence as a concept and as a word. So when you hear people use it, unless they don’t really know about this side of it, it’s important to remember “That means more than wanting not to have sex and saying no!”. It also seems to be very often concerned with ideas of purity and having “pure thoughts”, so you even have to feel bad for what you think apparently. This is a far cry from making choices, and understanding consent.


Now this is an interesting one. For a long time empowerment has been used by people like feminists to describe what it is to realise your own powers, and be able to feel as though you’re making your own choices. Empowerment in general terms isn’t about what choices people make, it’s about them realising that it isn’t not-their-place to make them. So when someone says a sentence like “Girls can be empowered to say no to sex”, they’re strangely not describing it as a choice but at the same time trying to make it sound like one.

If I say “I want to empower people to give me cake”… I’m not sure that’s really a good thing for anyone else but me, but it sounds a whole lot nicer than “I want to force people to give me cake”.


Sexualisation seems to me to mean different things to different people but what seems to be agreed on to me is what it isn’t. We apparently talk about sex a lot more now, than apparently people did 80 years ago (80 years before that who knows!), we show more of our bodies, there is more sexually themed media available in all sorts of places now than there were before. Sexualisation seems for most people describe what they think the bad parts of that are.

Many people believe that talking about sex openly, to show images of happy sexual encounters and for people to make art with sexual imagery as central is fine, but that using people’s bodies and images of them which are sexually explicit to make money is a problem, and that the images send messages to people which make them unhappy and vulnerable to sexual abuse or sexual assault by those who’d see the images and regard the people they represent as not worth caring about, and very often this abusive side is what they describe as sexualisation. For others all sexual images and messages, including those in sex education are morally corrupting and make people dirty and damaged, they’re likely to call all of this development in society sexualisation. And plenty of people using the word sexualisation are in between.

What seems to me to be one tactic of using this word for those who are anti-sex education, especially when trying to be persuasive, is that people can think they agree with you without really knowing that they do… you could say this for all of language, but with sexualisation the definitions seem so broad that using it can get you popularity which might actually be based on a misunderstanding, by design or by accident. So it’s really worth, if you think “Yeah, I agree!” to ask “Do they really mean the same thing as me when they say sexualisation?”.

This was originally posted at a student campaign for good sex and relationships education, also on facebook and twitter


Hi Jacob,

I teach a values-based sexuality class to teens and view some definitions as follows:

Sexualization as we present it is the use of sex or sexuality to influence, manipulate, or control other people. So ye, that fits in many ways with what you said about using sexuality to make money, as is done in advertising, pornography, etc. I also feel it covers things like manipulative flirting, for example.

We also speak of abstinence or of abstaining from sexual activity. Our class is what we call abstinence-based versus abstinence-only. We believe that proper education and a healthy view of values and relationships are essential before engaging in any kind of sexual activity for it to be healthy. For most teens there are a myriad of reasons, both physical and emotional, why waiting is often better than not, but if one makes an educated choice to move forward, they are not less-than as a result.

That's really great and useful!

Do you use abstinence to describe non-consent? Or just the style of education?

In the same way as celibacy means something slightly different too and has lots of religious implications, I think abstinence still retains that jist when you use the (much better) abstinence based.