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Of Giggles, Whispers and Embarrassed Teachers : The ‘Sex-Ed’ Classes That Taught Us Nothing

"Let's talk about sex" written twice - once in black, and once in blue in bold stencil format on a white background. Below are two stick figures. A cloud bubble shows one of them saying, "OMG".

By Nishtha Relan

This post is part of TARSHI’s #TalkSexuality campaign on Comprehensive Sexuality Education in collaboration with Youth Ki Awaaz

I remember an incident from my 5th grade, when a boy from the class had giggled and asked a classmate, “Do you know what sex is?”, and everybody who heard him knew he was in trouble. He was taken to the principal of the school. I remember it being the first time I heard the word ‘sex’ spoken so arrogantly and clearly, that too in an environment where we were supposed to pray in the morning, mug up lessons, prepare for sports functions and not think about anything other than utilitarian success, and this contrast was everything that embarrassed and excited us.

Entering adolescence, it is normal and healthy for teenagers to feel curious about the changes occurring in their own bodies and their peers’, and to want to know more about sex and sexuality, especially when the popular culture bombards them with sensual images and their parents keep trying to change the channel or flip the pages to ignore them. In a country where talking about sexuality is taboo, it is usually a struggle for teenagers to tackle puberty without harbouring a negative body image or making sense of the hormonal and physical changes, in the absence of adequate guidance. From personal experience and from the general attitude of the teachers towards teaching the prescribed chapters on sexual reproduction, we know that the often hurried teaching and the commonly silent reception of the State-prescribed syllabus does little to make children understand the larger ambit of human sexuality and subjectivity of sexual experiences. There are about 243 million people aged between 10 to 19 years, a major chunk of India’s population, several of who are or will soon be sexually active in the coming years. Considering all this, it is hilarious on one hand and outrageous on the other when people do not want to address this, in the name of ‘preserving culture’. We need to talk about sex, sexuality, contraception, consent, sexual abuse and harassment, etc. out loud. And if it isn’t obvious yet, we need sex and sexuality to be taught in its vibrant entirety in schools.

One look at the syllabus regarding sexual reproduction in the textbooks of 8th or 10th grade will tell you that the aim of such education is meant to propagate the dominant picture of heteronormative sex stressing the sole dimension of procreation. The problem here is that the students do not get to think about the other dimensions of sexuality, which are subjective, fun, and free from taboo. Such limited, theoretical lectures would hardly prepare students who are beginning to become curious about sexuality to have the correct information that enables them to make informed and responsible decisions regarding their sexual lives. They deserve to learn and have spaces to talk about and discuss these issues, free from frightening myths and feelings of guilt and shame. Moreover, sexuality is NOT the same as sex!

Adolescents need to know about various important issues regarding consent, tackling peer pressure, and the fact that one should not be bad-mouthed or discriminated against for having or being curious about sexual relations. Many teenagers deal with feelings of depression due to issues around body image, in the absence of information that questions the notions of what really is an ‘ideal’ or rather ‘idolised’ body image, and where do such notions come from. Students, who do not conform to heterosexuality, or to the gender they are ascribed, need to know that they aren’t ‘abnormal’ and they need not cut off from social contact. LGBTQIA issues need to be taken up in times like these, when an increase in social and cyber bullying often proves fatal for teenagers who dare to speak out about their sexuality.

Then there are people who fail to react in cases of sexual abuse or harassment, due to the guilt of having been a victim, blaming oneself for having been in an unfortunate situation, and/or having no one to talk to. The thought of parents and acquaintances knowing about the harassment is often accompanied with a fear of loss of family honour, for men and women. This needs to be talked about and delinked.

But that’s not it. People, and not just children, need to understand that sexuality has nothing to do with a person’s honour. School-going teens often develop intimacy and emotional attachment, many of them date their peers, which is a part of growing up and it is important for them to learn about healthy relationships and respect. It is necessary for them to know about the practical, easily available means of protection and contraception, without morality colouring any aspect of it. Moreover, need one mention that there are thousands, if not millions of married adolescents in this country, who need this information too? Not everybody has access to internet for their questions or information, and not a lot of teenagers are comfortable with the thought of talking about their intimate sexual experiences with counsellors.

Thus, there is a need to impart Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), which is sensitive to multitude of issues encompassing sexuality, instead of experiencing fear and/or anxiety due to incomplete, impractical and prejudiced information. In fact, this debate should have long been over. Sex is normal. Sexuality is beautiful. Then why should we let young people live with ignorance and misinformation regarding this central aspect of human life?