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Review: TARSHI’s Orange Book

Book cover. "The Orange Book" written in orange, and "A teacher's workbook on sexuality education" as its subtitle written in black below it on a white background. The box with the white background takes the centre of the book, the remaining part of the book is coloured orange.

TARSHI’s The Orange Book : A Teacher’s Workbook on Sexuality, ensures that we acknowledge the presence of the ‘elephant in the room’ and that in fact, also take a good look at it. Much like the famous story about the blind men and the elephant – the one in which each of the men feels a different part of the elephant and hence come to different conclusions about what it actually is. Sexuality too, is actually a bit like this proverbial elephant. The Orange Book does a thorough job in making the reader realise the different facets of the ‘elephant’ that is Sexuality.

One of the most significant distinctions made, which recurs throughout the book, is that between ‘Sex’ and ‘Sexuality’. The more popular term – ‘Sex Ed’ more often than not actually stands for ‘Sex Education’, and has been subsequently looked upon with suspicion and discomfort in a conservative context such as India. Using the term ‘Sexuality Education’ instead, broadens the scope of the subject and in fact comes to incorporate certain aspects which otherwise remain unaddressed under the ambit of ‘Sex Education’. Some of the central ideas which the workbook discusses in detail include body image, self esteem and decision making, and the process of gendering. In fact half the book is dedicated to discussions around these and other such themes, and one comes to the more familiar and commonly discussed themes of ‘Sex Ed’ such as the differences between male and female anatomy or an explanation of what HIV and AIDS are, only in the latter half of the book. Such a focus on the socio-cultural, personal and emotional aspects of what Sexuality entails is what is more often than not overlooked in Sex Ed workshops or even in printed content. Comprehensive Sexuality Education or CSE as it is abbreviated, looks at sexuality as something central to being human, and when aspects other than the physical are included, not only does the accompanying stigma around Sexuality get mitigated, but it also helps one look at sexuality in a more holistic manner instead of in a fragmented and piecemeal way.

The design of the workbook is such that it consists of a series of exercises that the reader can engage with independently. Calling for introspection, these involve analyses of one’s own assumptions, relating the content to one’s own experiences and thinking about society at large vis-à-vis one’s own levels of conformity. Every section of each chapter has a ‘Notes to Myself’ section, with space for readers to fill in what they learnt from the exercise, one thing that they will be able to use from the exercise and how they felt after the exercise; allowing readers space and time to reflect and absorb what may be new, revelatory or even potentially disturbing pieces of information or thoughts. The pace of the whole workbook is relaxed, meditative and reflective with features that make it highly suitable for the content it is trying to work with.

The workbook also points to how even without realizing it, teachers engage with sexuality on a day-to-day basis and how this may manifest in the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the school or of individual teachers. For instance, in the sort of remarks teachers pass about students, or the kind of comments teachers may allow students to make about others, without understanding the emotional and psychological implications for the recipients. Often, this particular aspect of sensitizing teachers remains unaddressed and may be difficult to achieve even in a workshop. Instead, when it’s a book that teachers are engaging with privately and at their own pace, these same issues may actually be received differently.

The human rights perspective is also invoked, and a value system which gives primacy to choice, diversity, equality and respect is expected to guide teachers to respond to real life situations, which is what the book aims at preparing teachers for. The chapter entitled ‘Sticky Situations’ and the section called ‘It’s in the News’, contain case studies collected from teachers or from newspaper clippings. The old adage ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ may actually strike one as true when reading some of these, and the readers knowing that such instances have taken place and been reported, are forced to recognise and/or come to terms with how likely such situations are in their own environment as well. Another particularly powerful section is the chapter on ‘Harassment and Abuse’ which includes a section on myths and facts. Busting myths is a huge part of Sexuality Education. Very often teachers themselves have been socialized to deny instances of harassment and abuse, and that itself is a huge problem. The section also acknowledges the fact that teachers themselves may be victims of harassment and abuse by school leaders, fellow teachers and even students.

There is a constant engagement with the reader throughout the workbook. The perspective of the teacher, in fact, even the constraints the teacher faces today, in terms of time or workload are also acknowledged. The content and tone of the book is one of ‘care’; and when one feels cared for, it is likely that one is encouraged to extend that care to others as well. Knowledge, as the book also reiterates at some point, is ‘power’. Equipped with a fresh and rich perspective on their day-to-day realities where sexuality plays such a vital and active role, teachers should definitely feel positively charged to respond to situations and also be able to guide their students more effectively – with greater conviction, and in keeping with basic human rights.

In the current social and political milieu, where instead of embracing Sexuality Education there has been the regressive move of hushing up the dialogue, such a workbook which is designed to be used in self-study mode by teachers, can in fact also serve as a rich resource for someone wanting to create a module for teachers on sexuality education as well. School leaders or interested individuals or organisations can very well use this to structure sessions for teachers and educators.

What is particularly commendable about the workbook is that it quite seamlessly discusses the major issues of discrimination, marginalisation and prejudice prevalent in society in a completely non-preachy way. The last section has case studies and a matching exercise which if engaged with seriously and honestly can create a powerful and meaningful moment of realisation for the reader. And given that the target reader is a teacher, the hope is that such resources will actually work towards the goal of making the teacher more than mere mechanical facilitators who ensure students learn academic content but rather a public intellectual, because that is what we really need our teachers to be.