Like any other Indian school, our school, too, didn’t provide any kind of sexuality education to us. They hoped our parents would do it, not realising that they were entering into a recurring pattern of passing the buck back and forth to avoid the ‘embarrassing’ talk about ‘the S word’. So we naïve and curious children, all of just 10 years old, started expanding our knowledge on this hushed topic by turning to our biggest source of information at that time – the dictionary! We would huddle in the corner of the class once the dismissal bell had rung and quickly look up words that we weren’t allowed to say or listen to. To our dismay, we couldn’t understand much of the jargon that described sexual acts and we were left more puzzled than before. We grew up only to sneak glances at film scenes that our parents forced us to close our eyes for, to believe that kissing made a woman pregnant, and to promise to stay a virgin till marriage because sex is a sin. We were excited about our biology textbook’s chapter 10 on reproduction in humans only to be rushed through it with no explanation for the numerous doubts that had accumulated over the years.
It is unfortunate that one of the most fundamental processes of human life is shunned to the extent that we’ve been taught, and so we learn to dismiss the natural feelings our bodies produce. By doing this, we also train ourselves to feel shame about the slightest stirring of desire and teach our minds to feel guilty for having ‘dirty thoughts’ that don’t align with the morals that we have been brought up with. This internal conflict gives rise to sex guilt – a complex psychological response that causes shame or worry when our actions don’t align with our values and beliefs (Murray et al, 2007). This guilt can manifest in various ways, such as feeling guilty for wearing clothes that are considered ‘obscene’ or experiencing guilt after engaging in a perfectly natural act like masturbation, simply because it is deemed ‘wrong’ by society. These feelings of guilt are influenced by factors such as societal norms, cultural beliefs, religious teachings, personal experiences, and individual values, shaping our perception of sexuality and self-expression. As we enter adolescence, our bodies mature and become capable of sexual function. However, societal teachings may lead to internal battles and self-repression. We are given warnings about masturbation, pornography, and premarital sex, which may instil intense feelings of guilt when we cross these boundaries. Moreover, gender-specific norms dictate our behaviour where girls are told to not talk to boys too much, especially at night, and women suddenly become ‘impure’ while on their period every month. We are taught to hate our bodies – our first home and find ways to mask the internal battles we face every day. As we grow older, the mind and body fight between what we want to do and what we are supposed to do. This battle between our beliefs and our impulses only deepens the abyss of sex guilt to give rise to numerous problems that impede satisfying sexual functioning. Vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, pelvic pain, inability to orgasm, low sex drive and relationship distress are all consequences of struggling with sex guilt (Halvorsen and Metz, 1992).
So, what’s the relationship between sex guilt and sexuality education? Previous research findings demonstrate that providing sex education to students has a positive impact in reducing levels of sex guilt (Wanlass et al 1983) and studies by Mosher (1979), Kelly (1972), and Shwartz (1975) reveal that high sex guilt levels can hinder learning about sex and birth control and contribute to the reinforcement of sex myths. The lack of substantial research on sex guilt in India is worrisome, especially considering that Indian society and cultural norms often reinforce feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sexuality. As sex guilt plays a significant role in shaping attitudes towards sexual behaviour, relationships, and overall well-being, its study becomes even more critical. A recent study conducted to see the impact of sex knowledge on sex guilt among youngsters in India showed controversial results where participants who had received sex education in the past had higher levels of sex guilt than those who did not (Aranha and Mahesh, 2023). This contradicts Wanlass’ study, and possible reasons for this could be the taboo surrounding sex in our country that makes the entire concept of sexuality education itself stigmatised, and children receiving it start associating it with shame. The other possible reason could be the quality of present-day sexuality education which makes us ask an important question – How comprehensive is the sexuality education curriculum in our country? The majority of participants in the study reported that they were only taught about reproduction and puberty in school while topics like STIs/STDs, contraception and anatomy were taught to only half of them. Very few people reported receiving any education on consent, masturbation, sexual orientation and sexual dysfunctions. The lack of a uniform structure in sexuality education often results in a focus solely on some topics. It is crucial to emphasise that simply teaching the anatomy of the human body falls short of providing comprehensive sexuality education. Similarly, using disturbing videos of childbirth to discourage sexual activity is not an appropriate approach.
A comprehensive approach to sexuality education encompasses various aspects of human sexuality, including the basics of anatomy and contraception, as well as broader topics like consent, sexual orientation, relationships and body image. The aim is to provide students with a well-rounded understanding of these subjects in a way that normalizes the topic and makes it relatable and easily understandable by being inclusive, age-appropriate, and free from judgment. Going beyond bookish knowledge, the approach is interactive and encourages open discussions, allowing students to ask questions and explore issues without feeling judged. The education is based on evidence and research, providing students with reliable information. The focus is on empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their bodies and relationships, rather than imposing specific beliefs or values on them. When sexuality education is delivered in such a manner, we can expect adolescents to view sex more positively, take appropriate measures and feel less guilty for experiencing normal bodily changes and sensations. Ultimately, comprehensive sexuality education promotes understanding, acceptance, and respect for human sexuality.
Comprehensive sexuality education is not limited to young people alone but extends to involve teachers and parents as well. These influential figures hold significant power to shape the minds and attitudes of adolescents, making their involvement in promoting a balanced and informed approach to sexuality crucial. To create a supportive and inclusive environment, we must ensure that the messages adolescents receive from their teachers and parents do not reinforce guilt-ridden attitudes towards sexuality. By embracing an open-minded and empathetic approach, educators and parents can foster a positive space where young minds feel comfortable discussing and exploring topics related to sexuality. However, training older people to deliver sexuality education presents unique challenges. Adults often hold deep-rooted beliefs and narrow-minded perspectives, making it essential to adopt a nuanced approach that respects their values while introducing new ideas and knowledge. It requires patience, empathy, and effective communication to bridge the gap between generational attitudes and the changing landscape of sexuality education.
By breaking the cycle of silence, guilt, and misconceptions surrounding sex, we can lay the foundation for a more informed and accepting society. Young people’s learning about sexuality need not be guilt-ridden as ours was when we were growing up. With comprehensive sexuality education they can be empowered with accurate knowledge and the ability to navigate their sexual journey safely and with confidence.
Murray, K. M., Ciarrocchi, J. W., & Murray-Swank, N. A. (2007, September). Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(3), 222–234. https://doi.org/10.1177/009164710703500305
Halvorsen, J. G., & Metz, M. E. (1992). Sexual dysfunction, Part I: Classification, etiology, and pathogenesis. The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 5(1), 51–61.
Wanlass, R. L., Kilmann, P. R., Bella, B. S., & Tarnowski, K. J. (1983, December). Effects of sex education on sexual guilt, anxiety, and attitudes: A comparison of instruction formats. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12(6), 487–502. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01542211
Mosher, D. L. (1979, August). Sex guilt and sex myths in college men and women. The Journal of Sex Research, 15(3), 224–234. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224497909551043
Kelly, F. S. The effects of sex guilt on part-whole free-recall learning of sexual and neutral words. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut, 1972.
Schwartz, S. (1975). Effects of sex guilt on word association responses to double-entendre sexual words. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43(1), 100–100. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076278
Aranha, S., B. S. Mahesh. (2023) Knowledge, Guilt and Attitude Towards Sex Among Young Adults in India. [Unpublished Master’s thesis]. Department of Psychiatry, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, India.
Chakraborty P, Mishra A. Lack of Sex Education in India and its Growing Importance in the Digital Era. 1(4).https://ijpsl.in/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Lack-of-Sex-Education-in-India-and-its-Growing-Importance-in-the-Digital-Era_Palak-Chakraborty-Avantika-Mishra.pdf