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Public Interview: Choice and Sexuality – II

This is Part Two of a ‘public interview’ that TARSHI conducted last month. This exercise took the form of an online survey with eight questions, and two polls with two questions each, on Facebook and Instagram. Our attempt is to collate people’s thoughts, notions, and experiences surrounding the choices they make, and the choices that are accessible to them, with regards to their sexuality. In Part One of this interview we had shared the results of the two polls on Facebook and Instagram, as well as the answers to five Y/N questions in the survey.

In Part Two of this piece, we present the responses to three open-ended survey questions. We said that the respondents would remain anonymous, and so it is that what you read is our collation and interpretation of the responses to this public interview.

The Survey

182 people responded using the Google Survey form.

Each of the open-ended survey questions created space for respondents to answer as they pleased. Not all responses to the open-ended questions may be included here due to considerations of the length of this piece, but we present some of what we feel may be the most interesting and significant inputs on or about choice and sexuality.

  1. When you hear the words disability, sexuality, and choices in the same sentence, what are your first thoughts?

Here is a small sample of the responses we received to this question. Some of the responses received appeared to be offensive, or incomplete, or open to being interpreted in deeply harmful ways. We are not sharing these, but we would like to point out that even while reading and reflecting on these issues, each of us has choices about the approach and attitudes that we adopt. Choice comes with a responsibility towards self and others, even in the direction our thoughts take and the way we choose to articulate our thoughts on a subject.

Many respondents said they felt these three factors were connected:

“They’re connected.”

“They are correlated.”

Some respondents found it difficult to identify or articulate connection:

“It is difficult for me to comprehend choice in terms of sexuality for people with disability.”

“Seems like a ‘not so practical’ idea in a country like India; here we see disability only in the context of accessibility and employment, that too from a charity point of view.”

“Nothing.”

“Okay. Good for them. Never heard the word disability in the same sentence as those words though.”

“I don’t understand the question, but each one can choose what they want irrespective of their sexuality and abilities or “disabilities”.”

“It’s not good to talk about this to the elder ones or who are not aware about these words.”

Some identified aspects of connection across disability, sexuality and choices:

“Equality , Intersectionality”

“Triple marginalisation. A queer person with disability is oppressed as it is. Choice is a luxury that they afford at a great price.”

“Like how sexuality and disability are looked at independently, but that isn’t the case. Sexuality has to do with the expression of the body, that disability limits. It is essential to discuss both in conjunction.”

“The first thought that comes to my mind is how people who live with disabilities are expected to not have any sexual desires or even if they do, they are not allowed the safe space to express that desire -therefore, they are left with barely any choices to freely express their sexuality in a safe environment.”

“Too many assumptions about sexuality of persons with disabilities. Assumptions erring on the side of persons with disabilities being asexual or not capable of being sexual. Violations of their personhood.”

“How all three are interconnected – Having a disability may limit one’s choice(s) to express their sexuality. Their choices may be seen as by-product of their disability and hence may even not be deemed as “normal”.”

“Firstly, I disagree with the word disability. I prefer differently able. I believe for the differently abled population, sexuality, expression and choices are limited owing to the current conditions of society. Our society limits their freedom to a great extent. Everybody deserves equal rights and freedom to express their sexuality in a healthy, uninhibited manner; everybody must have provisions to be able to make choices pertaining to their sexuality, sexual behaviour and expression.”

“I think about the lack of choice that disabled people face in expressing their sexuality.”

Some answers expressed a sense of understanding and chose a positive approach:

“That just because they are disabled doesn’t [mean] they don’t have sexuality or awareness, and that I wish they had more choices.”

“1. Wonderful! and 2. Why not?”

“Disabled people choosing to express their sexuality.”

“Sex for all :)”

“Makes me happy people to talk about it without judgement and it’s something to embrace and figure out how you feel about it.”

“That a disabled person should be able to express their choice in matters of sexuality and also experience it the way they like.”

“The world is a much better place when everyone can embrace their sexuality and be proud of it.”

“Rights – and something that should be talked [about].”

Respondents pointed out many other thought provoking aspects as well:

“Normal but untold stories.”

“Lack of freedom in society to accept sexuality and disability.”

“We are so helpless with our sexuality and if we raise our voice against big or senior people at our work place we need to think twice if we will have the same power [as] we had earlier.”

“That sexuality is not a disability.”

“Under represented.”

“The inability of lgbtq being accepted as ‘normal’, rather being looked upon as a disability of some sort.”

“Let’s bring more awareness!”

“After watching Margarita with a Straw I don’t find it amusing anymore, honestly earlier I was skeptical.”

“Respect.”

“Fear.”

“Exclusion.”

“To listen more carefully and discuss and share and talk and talk and talk.”

“It’s Embarrassing to talk in public.”

“Certainly a taboo area and rarely mentioned in the same sentence. There is certainly an ignorance and indifference to aspects of sexuality and sexual feelings and choices of the disabled.”

“Disability has nothing to do with sexual choices. They are independent things. Having a different sexual choice, different in the sense different from the majority choice doesn’t make you disabled. It’s normal. It should be accepted as normal.”

“The intersection of sexual choice and disability as a domain of study has been largely unexplored as the main focus remains on providing basic needs (food, shelter, care, infrastructure, etc) to the disabled.”

  • Due to the constraints of a dip stick survey such as this, it was not possible to identify whether respondents came from a place of a lived experience of disability, but there is a sense of ‘othering’ in some of the answers, including those with a positive approach.Some responses also show a lack of acceptable terms and vocabulary when speaking of disability and when referring to a person with a disability. It is important for everyone to ask themselves – should this change? If yes, then what can be done to change this?
  • There were also respondents who understood the word ‘disability’ as referring to experiencing disability due to one’s sexual orientation. Again, it is interesting that these respondents did not think of disability in terms of physical, intellectual or psychosocial health or impairment, to connect the related experience of disability to sexuality and choices.
  • In particular, a response such as the one that says “It is not good to talk about this to the elder ones or who are not aware about these words” – may be connected to the responses to a Y/N question (in Part One of this interview) – where respondents were asked Would it embarrass you if an older person in your close circle were to speak up about their sexuality and related choices? A significant number of respondents had said ‘yes’. As we mentioned there, we believe that there are too many assumptions and stereotypes around older people and younger people and that a too sharp drawing of boundaries based on these assumptions limits choice and freedom on both sides.
  • Finally, out of 182 responses, there were 2 responses that particularly mentioned the film ‘Margarita with a Straw’. This too is extremely significant and opens the doors to discussing the impact of popular culture, film and artistic expression on subjects such as this.
  1. How do you feel you (would or) have gained from receiving Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in school?

There were varying kinds of responses to this question, with most being positive. Some respondents in their thirties and forties, particularly female respondents, spoke in terms of having struggled emotionally and practically due to the lack of CSE.We have tried to capture the essential approaches that people have taken while answering this question.

Positive and welcoming reactions to the concept of CSE:

“That would be great.”

“CSE in school still is very elementary but it does help.”

“It is a very important and healthy method of educating children about their sexuality. It would definitely help them to know about themselves. Instead of referring to some filthy magazines and sites, it is better that they would get this knowledge through a proper channel.”

“I think Sexual Education in School is necessary, as it could give students in their prime of adolescence the space to explore/ express their gender and sexual orientations. However I do think it is also necessary to have education programs that encourage sensitivity to a diversity of sexual experience and expression rather than going by the two gender/ heterosexual framework of sexuality. The gain could be more acceptance and support of one’s own […]. Might also work to dispel social myths regarding sexuality.”

“It would be of great  help n the children would  make informed decisions. They would discuss, deliberate and perform the sexual act out of their interest rather than for exploring, or under emotional intimidation or cajoling.”

“There should be a curriculum and students should be taught about sexuality from the beginning.”

Descriptions of how the lack of CSE impacted, or did not impact, the respondent:

“I wouldn’t have felt ashamed of my body for the longest time. Or felt disgusted at sex and sexuality. Or known how my reproductive system works and how it affects me.”

“Not really sure because despite the lack of that education, I managed to assert my choices, so my response will be fairly context-less if I attempted it.”

“I had to fish [for] a lot of information myself and had to rely on the sources I had handy, there was no one to even help me with resources on CSE; this led me to take decisions which I may have not taken if I had proper CSE in my growing up years.”

“Made me more confident.”

“Received none. Would have been far more comfortable with acknowledging my sexual attractions when in school.”

“I believe I would have been free from the default inhibitions and rigidity that almost spontaneously arises from growing up in a stigmatised social set up. I have wasted a lot of years prejudiced and judgmental, only to realize how redundant it has been. Life definitely would have been simpler and easier.”

“It would have been very helpful. I was sexually abused as a child and I never told anyone about it. CSE could have given me the knowledge and courage to tell my parents.”

“I never had CSE in school. When I first read The Gender Book, just to know that gender is a spectrum and I do not have to be ashamed of any of my choices, was very liberating. And the fact that most people get their idea about sex from hyper masculinist porn freaks me out.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that children just pop out after a man and a woman sleep together.”

“It would have helped me *to develop a gender neutral way of thinking *to be empathetic towards people who are different from me in terms of their social and sexual identities, and biological and intellectual capabilities *to be aware of various forms of sexual oppression I and people around me have faced such as bullying, body shaming, self doubt, incompetency, etc.”

Responses indicating a situation of ignorance / lack of knowledge, with or without CSE:

“Nothing was clear or explained.”

“I’d feel informed, as long as it doesn’t have tradcon[1]or crazy gender studies bent to it.”

“I have not gained or received a good education on this topic.”

“I guess that would have certainly made a difference in understanding myself and others.”

“In school, there wasn’t much to learn from and even sessions relating to sexuality, for eg.the menstruation class, was only for females, which I thought was silly, because I believed everyone should have been a part of it. I believe conversation is power and there should be more open conversations regarding sexuality as a topic.”

“It would have been great, to be honest.As a 22 year old I am not sure if I understand my own sexuality properly. It would have been nice if someone would have talked to me about this more openly.”

“Not much. The sexuality chapters were never taught in class but were given as homework because the teacher herself was not confident in teaching those topics to students.”

“I would have gained an understanding of the female anatomy. It wasn’t till college [that] I realized the vaginal opening was different from the opening [that] we pee from. When I told my mother about that, she was shocked that they were different. So many of us (women who grew up in India) have no idea about our own anatomy! Further, it would have taught me about consent.”

“I would have majorly benefitted from it to get information on a lot of things I was clueless about – (I thought I got periods because I masturbate and it was a punishment from God) – and also [would] have been taught respect towards non-cisgender and non-heteronormative peers. I never made fun of them but lacked the words and arguments to stand up for them in front of other people who would make fun. I had the sense that it was wrong, but in a supremely confusing way.”

 

Other responses sharing individual experiences and significant insights:

“Would have lost much less time, would have learnt to value myself much sooner. Would have helped all round development much faster. Would have managed emotional trauma and stress better.”

“If I take only school lectures in account, then fears, boredom and a sense of feeling stupid about my teachers as I have been a self aware child and knew things quite better than them. (Or had [the] guts to just say it out.)”

“Concepts like consent would have become clearer.”

“I received CSE after school in its true sense. And it changed how I feel in my skin. I wish I’d had access to affirmative, sex positive, rights based, accurate information on sex, sexuality, reproductive health, freedom, consent, choice, fluidity – in school.”

“Personally speaking, I would not have constantly seen my body as a vehicle to satiate male sexual desires, I would not have romanticized my body as a heterosexual object, and not have thought that my ultimate goal in my life was to give birth to a son who would then bring some big change in the world.”

“Immensely, I would have educated my parents.”

“I would like to share about this to teaching staff of schools or school organisations to include CSE as part of [the] curriculum.”

“I would have had a balanced, more mature view of sex and sexuality. Growing up in a boys-only school in the pre-internet era kept me ignorant and homophobic for longer than I care to admit.”

“While in the eighth class, a student (I wrongly considered him a good friend of mine) played a prank. I was sleep[ing] and he inserted his penis in my mouth. I woke up and started laughing. I thought it was done in jest. But he shared it with all. Almost all the school teachers and students began mocking me.At the end I had to leave school since it was getting out of control. I wish [the] teachers had shown some maturity. It was a small town. Hence the ghost of the incident followed me to another school too. I had no courage to share it with my parents. I couldn’t do anything but face jeers and mocking everyday, in silence. CSE could have made a huge impact in the way teachers handled the incident.”

  • Many respondents said they had no such thing as CSE when they were in school and many more said that CSE is valuable and should be included as part of school curriculum.
  • The fact that respondents also spoke of teachers and the influence teachers have on children and children’s attitudes reinforces the importance of training teachers to develop supportive attitudes, as much as to increase their own knowledge about sexuality, and how to deliver a CSE curriculum to children and young people.
  • Responses to one of the Yes / No survey questions, (described in Part One of this interview), may be closely connected to these thoughts and insights around CSE, or the lack of CSE. The question asked was: Are issues of choice and sexuality respected, or even understood, in the context of marriage in India?A huge 86% of respondents had answered ‘no’ to this question. In our society, the way most children are raised and socialised, marriage is integral to everybody’s life, is normalised, in the way perhaps, that for some children, even school is not. You may drop out, you may skip school, but you will not skip marriage.It is important to consider that too many young people get married without a clue of what marriage may entail for them, or whether there are choices of any kind that they may exercise with regard to marriage. In an environment where children grow up thinking of marriage in the future as a given, almost non-negotiable aspect of life, do they not have the right to also grow up with age appropriate, correct and affirmative knowledge about sexuality? Sexuality is at the core of each individual and very few will debate that it is integral to the experience of marriage. As survey respondents have said, if they’d had the value of CSE they“wouldn’t have thought that children just pop out after a man and a woman sleep together”, and that “Concepts like consent would have become clearer.”
  1. What factors support, or restrict, young people’s choices and expressions of sexuality?

Many different factors have been identified by respondents across a wide span of responses. Almost each response points out an important factor, without too much overlap across responses. It is to be noted that universal themes that have emerged strongly are societal and family norms and pressures, as well as environmental conditioning and the importance of a safe environment. Responses shared here may not be reflective of the whole, but they indicate many areas that may be worked upon, to support young people. Again, in answer to this question, some responses are open to negative interpretation in offensive ways, or to misinterpretation because of the way language has been used. These, while of significance in themselves, are not amongst the responses selected for sharing here.

Factors that support:

“[…]young people’s own bravery and resilience.”

“Recent change in legislature and open dialogue in social media are supports.”

“An evolving youth, the 377 ruling, pride marches and the overall LGBT community, dating apps and internet communities.”

“Attention, awareness and acceptance of sexuality are the factors that support – While lack of these factors would restrict expression.”

Factors that restrict:

“Bigotry.”

“The biting silence around sex, gender, and sexuality. These are spoken [of] in hushed tones and often tainted with misconceptions and myths.”

“Lack of information, support from surroundings, fear from society, internal doubts – restrict young people from express[ing] their sexuality freely.”

“Young people have limited information, options and agency to make choices or express their sexuality. They are either controlled or influenced by factors like media, society, peer pressure and much of the messages [from these sources] are internalised and harm them further; they become a part of the hetero-normative machinery before they know [it].”

“Lack of acceptance of public displays of affection, lack of acceptance by parents of the dating culture, lack of flexible housing/accommodation policies for young unmarried couples, fear of safety in conservative societies, etc.”

“Fear of being judged would be the primary restriction.”

“Societal norms and familial relationships (most families would like their children to exist within a conventional expression of sexuality); peer stigmatisation (even those of your age group and your colleagues are explicitly sexist); lack of sexuality education in school and work spaces makes it seem that one must hide one’s true sexuality.”

“The mindsets of people around them, feelings of shame about their choices and expression and the consequences of their expression.”

“Morality of others, stigma [that hinders] talk[ing] about sex freely and lack of language to express themselves – since it is so taboo to talk about it.”

“Lack of understanding, lack of perception of ability (self-efficacy), lack of freedom of choice, lack of empowerment, social inhibitions, conventions, stigma, discrimination, misguided ideas, fear and guilt – are some of the major things stopping young people to take charge of their sexuality, responsibly.”

“Societal stigma and silence surrounding premarital sex, ignorance about sex and sexuality, violence against girls and sexual minorities, and skewed gender roles and expectations which impose burdens of chastity and honor on young women, restrict the expression and choices of sexuality.”

“The fact that people are not ready to accept or understand what sexuality as a broader term means. The sad truth being, the society that we have grown up in only makes us understand terms and our lives in binaries. This or that.Male or female.Black or white. All of this has led to a conditioning and naturalisation of a kind that restricts people from exploring the wide spectrum that unfortunately, goes unnoticed.”

Factors that influence, one way or the other, depending on how a particular factor plays out:

“Conditioning.”

“Knowledge about it, one’s personal experience.”

“Vocabulary, I would say, is the first thing which can help us express as well as restrict our expressions of sexuality. Example: penis and vagina are as much out of use as are ling and yoni in popular lingo, be it in erotic literature or popular cinema and our conversations. Other factors are fears that one is nourished with through the growing up years. Lack of courage to challenge the establishment. Lack of legal knowledge which leads most of the people to still fall for legal fears in terms of expression of their sexuality (not only trans identity, but love in general).”

“Society, religion, culture and people.”

“Parents.”

“It’s the people you surround yourself with and the knowledge you have on the topic.”

“Financial independence, peer pressure and family’s expectations.”

Additional points to think about:

“Monogamy, couple-hood, restrict choices – while friendships and safe spaces help.”

“A safe environment.”

“Gender discrimination.”

“[The] support that we need is to show acceptance. What restricts everyone is judgement.”

“Young people want to be respected and accepted by others, their family and friends. This many a times makes them conform to societal standards about sexuality. But if adequate space is provided to them to discuss these matters freely with parents and others, without being judged, it would help them tremendously.”

“Peers. Personal experiences. Empathy.”

“Family, peer groups, public institutions, media, food, clothes, so many factors.”

“Privacy and respect for individuality.”

“[…]poor role models .”

  • The responses to this question flow with ease and what mostly appears to be personal experience. Out of the three open ended questions in the survey, this one, unlike the other two, has no hesitant responses, no respondents stating that they do not understand, or have not thought about this, or not experienced this state of being.
  • There is a strong sense that most responses have taken the lead from describing factors that are restrictive, rather than those that support. Perhaps this signals a need now to focus on support, to understand what such support would entail, how it may be expressed and become a part of a framework of safe environments.***
    1. Author’s note: I had to look up this word. It stands for traditional conservative: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tradcon

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Article written by:

Reads, writes, does Sudoku, grows plants and walks with dogs as a reasonable option to running with wolves. Is a consultant with TARSHI, focusing on health, disability, gender and rights issues. A post-graduate from XLRI, graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University.

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