We have to counter the anti-sex, anti-choice spin before it's too late

A vocal minority is attempting to influence the political mandate on sexual health.

I had hoped my first blog post for the New Statesman might be about my experience of sexism in the film industry (short version: it’s like 1950); that I think we should have a Good Sex instead of a Bad Sex literary award (why not celebrate decent, provocative writing?); or perhaps just a few lines on how underappreciated the naked male form is (and wanting this exhibition to come to the UK), but, instead, I am having to pen a piece about the way in which politicians are screwing us (no pun intended) over sex.

When it comes to sexual health, we seem to be seeing a subtle change in policy-makers’ decisions, with the vocal minority becoming more determined to influence the political mandate. Last year, I wrote this about Nadine Dorries MP, because her repeated attacks on abortion and sex education needed to be confronted. While it is nice to breathe a sigh of relief now, and know that her political objectives have been ridiculed (not least with her appearing on TV’s I’m A Celebrity), the fight for women’s rights over their own bodies still continues.

There is an undercurrent in UK politics, with, at its heart, an anti-sex, anti-women agenda. Bit by bit, the goal posts are being shifted and with each step pandering to the religious, anti-science, anti-choice ideologues, our rights, our ability to access healthcare, our freedom to make safe choices about our lives, get chipped away.

It’s incredible that we have a health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who wants the time limit for abortions to be halved, without any medical reason for doing so, and who fundamentally misunderstands that abortions are provided as healthcare for women – we shouldn’t need tragic cases like Savita Halappanavar to be reminded of this. But he sees this as a moral issue: he believes that personal opinions are the basis upon which to make medical decisions, not scientific facts. And he is in charge of women’s health. Great.

We also have a women’s minister and home secretary both pushing for four-week reductions. Besides ignoring their own parliamentary review (pdf) in 2006, which clearly states that there is no justifiable reason to decrease the 24-week limit because very, very, few foetuses are viable before then, these politicians press ahead with their ignorant opinions, arguing that “people’s views” should help form a pronouncement of women’s healthcare.

As well as the attacks on abortion rights, the coalition government is undermining sex and relationships education in schools and specialist services for young people due to their cuts in funding. If we don’t provide young people with comprehensive, age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which includes teaching about all forms of contraception, their sexual – and emotional – health will suffer. Brook, the sexual health charity for whom I am an ambassador, regularly asks young people what they want when it comes to learning about sex and relationships – and what they want is unbiased, balanced, knowledgeable sex education. Without this, they cannot make informed decisions about the sex and relationships they choose to have.

Simon Blake OBE, Brook’s Chief Executive, says:

“Most young people under the age of 16 are not having sex. Evidence shows that high quality sex and relationships education, provided by parents and at school, combined with access to free, confidential sexual health services helps delay the age young people first have sex and increases the likelihood they will use contraception when they do.”

If we don't fight against the encroaching attacks on access to abortion we will see a further deterioration of women's reproductive rights, and more women’s health will be at risk. And if we don't fight on behalf of young people and the sex education they are entitled to, then the impact on their lives, their relationships, and their sexual health, will be felt for generations to come.

In January, I'm running an event called Sex Appeal on behalf of Brook, to get people to openly challenge those who spread misinformation about sex, sexuality and sex education. We need to counter the spin that these anti-sex, anti-choice apologists are spreading – before it is too late.

Women’s minister Maria Miller has backed a four-week reduction in the limit for abortions. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA