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Interview – Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Portraits of Reema Ahmad, Tarun Vejendla and Apurupa Vatsalya

How would you visualise a world where Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is the norm? Read on for a peek into worlds visualised by some folks who responded to this when we placed the question before them.

For the Comprehensive Sexuality Education issue of In Plainspeak, we invited a few people to participate in the interview section, individually, across email. Multiple perspectives do often provide a rich, robust presentation on what has been, and continues to be a challenging subject. So, we’d like to thank Reema Ahmad (RA), Tarun Vejendla (TV) and Apurupa Vatsalya (AV), for picking up the threads of this theme with us. We requested them to speak of some of the priorities they identify, and also to share directions towards possible ways that could move us forward together in the CSE landscape, keeping in mind that there are many different constituencies and interest groups involved.

To begin with a brief introduction to each of our three participants:

Reema Ahmad (She/Her) is a certified sexuality educator, a counsellor using neurolinguistic programming-based tools, and a mental space psychologist. She works in the area of abuse, trauma, relationships with young people and adults. She has been a TEDx speaker twice, a Josh talks speaker, and has also written a book on how to talk to kids on taboo topics − Unparenting- Sharing Awkward Truths with Curious Kids, 2022. She writes for many online and offline publications and is a poet and editor as well. Reema has shared these links to a few interviews, talks and articles on her work focused on CSE and abuse prevention.

Tarun Vejendla (He/Him) is a Sex-Ed content creator, feminist and a college-going student. He is passionate about sex, sexuality, pleasure, feminism, unlearning toxic masculinity and the intersectionality across these subjects. He loves using pop culture references and memes to make Sex-Ed fun.

Apurupa Vatsalya (She / They), is a Programme Officer – Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice at The YP Foundation and a Sexuality Educator and Neuroqueer Content Creator. They are a gender justice lawyer-turned-sexuality educator and prevention of sexual harassment trainer from India. They are a trans* nonbinary person, an intersectional neuroqueer feminist and a Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice (SRHRJ) programmer, currently working with 5000 adolescents, young people, parents, educators, and other stakeholders across 4 states in India. They have been researching, designing modules, and facilitating CSE workshops, in addition to conceptualising and facilitating courses addressing themes of pleasure activism for women and gender-diverse folks for over five years. They have worked directly with about 200 people living with Vaginismus to enable them to become pleasure practitioners. Apurupa leads the entire Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights portfolio at The YP Foundation. They’re also a member of the Multi-Stakeholder Leadership Group of the Generation Equality Forum.

We gave our small group two basic cue questions, and we are happy to present their responses here:

(1) How do you explain Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and that it is different from Sex Ed, when you interact and engage with people who may be unclear about the difference?

RA: I like to explain Comprehensive Sexuality Education as ‘Life education’ because through my life, research and training, I have come to understand that our relationship with our innate self – our body, our mind and thoughts and our sexuality – to a large extent determines our relationship with the world, and how we see ourselves in it. Sex ed may be distilled to just information about how our bodies work physiologically, and how we reproduce as a species, or how to keep ourselves safe while we go about getting to know ourselves. But CSE delves deep into the greyer, more nuanced areas, such as of consent (which does not just apply to sex), bullying, abuse, how to understand the dynamics of it all, and also emotional health in general. Through CSE, we can open out the dialogue into culturally taboo topics, like pleasure and how it is different for everyone, or how sexuality can often be an evolving thing with no fixed locus. Essentially, for me, CSE is an umbrella which shelters all the areas which when restricted can often cause the most pain to us and but when liberated, they give us the most joy; relationships with self and others, identity, autonomy, agency, and the knowledge that we were born free. It is not just a roadmap to our genitalia which reduced sex ed can be.

TV: Remember the ‘Sex Ed’ we got at school? That version of Reproduction in Human Beings and Adolescence chapter in the biology textbook! Whenever I interact with people, I give them the example of the Sex Ed we received at school Vs Comprehensive Sexuality Education (the real Sex Ed we all deserved) to explain the difference between the two. The Sex Ed we got at school was centred around procreation, full of diagrams that I didn’t understand and an information overload regarding various types of STIs. It didn’t cover topics such as the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, sexual orientation, pleasure, masturbation, socio-cultural factors affecting sexuality and consent laws. It was highly heteronormative and abstinence-only Sex-Ed.

In contrast to this, Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) educates children and young people about boundaries, the difference between safe and unsafe touch, the importance and nuances of consent, pleasure and the right to pleasure, credible information and fact-checking, intersectionality, and nurtures a sex-positive culture. Some common questions that young people tend to have are – ‘Am I gay?’, ‘Is it normal to fantasise?’, ‘Is masturbation safe?’, ‘How do I make the first move?’, etc. CSE provides space and safety to discuss these subjects in a non-judgmental manner. Comprehensive Sexuality Education is ever-evolving and incorporates new developments in Sex-Ed.

AV: When discussing the difference between Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and traditional Sex Ed with folks who might be unclear about the difference between the two, I don’t get caught up in the semantics. Instead, I focus on highlighting the unique benefits of each pedagogical tool.

Sex Ed serves as a useful starting point, especially when time, resources, or readiness are limited. It covers the basics of biology, reproduction, and how to prevent STIs and pregnancies. On the other hand, CSE is more comprehensive, pleasure-centric, trauma-informed, queer trans* affirmative, and rights-based. It encompasses a wide range of topics like consent, healthy relationships, gender and sexual identity, communication skills, body image, prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, and self and community care.

While CSE may sound like the superior approach, it is worth noting that both CSE and Sex Ed aim to provide age-appropriate, accurate, and non-judgmental information about the body, sexuality, and relationships. They attempt to touch upon the physical, emotional, social, and psychological aspects of human sexuality.

Having said that, age-wise/grade-wise, incremental learning-based CSE aims to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills they need in order to make informed decisions and develop healthy relationships, thereby fostering their overall well-being and autonomy. It enables the permeation of consent culture in social and sexual contexts. It allows individuals of all identities and cultural contexts access to affirmative information. It also promotes critical thinking and aids in the development of communication skills, particularly by encouraging intergenerational dialogue between adolescents and young people and their parents, teachers, and communities. In addition, it addresses access to sexual and reproductive services and empowers young people to advocate for their entitlement to the same.

(2) When you envision a world where CSE is the norm, and all spaces encourage the empowerment of children, adolescents and young people, what do you see in your vision?

RA: I see that we learn to be kinder to ourselves and that we need not wait to radically accept our bodies, our choices and our partnerships till mid-life. I see that when we know that we are allowed to be who we want and that we know how to keep ourselves protected in a dynamic world, we may not needlessly suffer abuse, harassment and bullying, at least where it can be avoided. CSE gives us the tools to know ourselves better and that is the most important thing young people can have, self-knowledge. It protects you from those who may not have your best interests at heart. It gives you the power to be the captain of your life and not just flotsam being tossed around by the opinions of families and in the cultural environment. A world with CSE as a norm is also a world where we learn to forgive the harshness of our parents or at least to understand it. We learn the complex art of thriving in a world that may not agree with us at all times, but we find the courage to be who we are anyway.

TV: When I think of a world where CSE is the norm, I think of sex educators from all areas of work and backgrounds. There shouldn’t be any withholding of knowledge and gatekeeping among sex educators. Doctors and mental health professionals have a role to play but they may not be capable of handling various facets of a vast subject like Comprehensive Sexuality Education. Educators who can bring in socio-cultural intersectionality can contribute a lot to CSE, especially in a country like India, where caste and religion have a profound impact on our choices, including our sexual choices. Sex workers can also offer perspectives that not a lot of other sex educators are familiar with and thus, CSE is incomplete without sex workers. I believe that peer support and peer learning is one of the most effective ways and strategies to discuss and impart CSE. Young people know what young people want and thus, with the required knowledge, they may develop strategies to expand the conversation to their peers. Children and adolescents must feel comfortable enough to ask ‘taboo’ questions and it is the responsibility of the educator to create such an environment. Exploration and curiosity about sex and sexuality instead of a goal-oriented approach should be the norm. In a world where CSE is the norm, children, adolescents and young people would be able to negotiate consent, autonomy, and agency, explore and decide their sexual values and find power in pleasure!

AV: When I envision a world where Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) becomes the norm, I imagine the existence of safer spaces for people of all ages and identities. In this culture, the wellbeing and agency of individuals will be at the core, supporting them through different ages and stages of sexual development throughout their lives.

At an individual level, I envision the coming together of multiple visions − a world where individuals have free and easy access to accurate and relevant information on bodies, relationships, and sexuality, along with comprehensive public health services. This information and assistance will not only be personalised to each person’s access needs but will also be culturally sensitive, recognising and honouring the unique identities and backgrounds of each person. Individuals will be able to make informed decisions, fully aware of the risks involved, even if their choices may not always align with others’ opinions or appear conventionally “responsible.”

On a relational level, we will be able to engage in open communication and CSE would enable us to build on our emotional intelligence and skills. Consent and respect are the foundation of all relationships in this society, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. We are enabled to challenge harmful gender norms, freeing ourselves from restrictive roles and embracing our authentic selves. This results in an environment that is more equitable and inclusive, where all relationships flourish on mutual support and genuine connection. Schools, families, and communities actively support young people’s sexual development. They provide spaces for frank, judgement- and shame-free dialogue.

From a cultural standpoint, the world wouldn’t just respect but actively encourage and cherish diversity. Access to SRH services and contraceptives would be free, and the public health system would be affirmative to people of all ages, genders, sexualities, castes, religions, classes, etc. Especially with CSE as the norm, there is increased advocacy for policies that prioritise sexual health and rights. Adolescent sexuality is not criminalised, and laws of the land align with adolescent developmental milestones and evidence-based research. A harm reduction approach, that addresses risks to one’s safety without resorting to punitive measures for consensual sexual activities, becomes the way forward. CSE is not just institutionalised, but the education system and broader society actively engage in cultural competency, ensuring that CSE is not only accurate but also tailored to different cultural contexts. Indigenous knowledge is deeply respected and integrated into the curriculum, fostering an anti-caste and decolonised version of CSE.

Cover Image: Courtesy of Reema Ahmad, Tarun Vejendla and Apurupa Vatsalya