An integral part of adolescents’ lived experiences of sexuality and romance often include negotiations with their families. My research indicates that romantic love amongst adolescents is termed as a distraction by parents, as something which ‘hampers’ studies, is ‘risky’ and not supposed to be ‘indulged’ in. Romantic love is best thought about after and outside the space of schooling. But this does not foreclose the fact that adolescents do have romantic and sexual relationships. Apart from rebellion, runaway marriages, and facing the danger of ‘honour’ killings, what are the different ways in which adolescents can and do negotiate daily with the family around questions of romance and sexuality? To examine this, I will engage with sections from a book titled Get Set Grow: Ten Tools for Happy-Go-Healthy Teens (2013), by Anne de Braganca Cunha, a Mumbai based counsellor and writer. Borrowing from my research, I will also look at some narratives of a few 19 year old students’ negotiations with their families in Mumbai.
When I talk of negotiations I have in mind the term ‘bargaining with patriarchy’ borrowed from Deniz Kandiyoti who discusses how “women strategize within a set of concrete constraints”. These bargains “influence both the potential for and specific forms of women’s active or passive resistance in the face of their oppression.” (Kandiyoti, 1988: 275)
Cunha’s book is distributed by an elite private school in South Mumbai to its adolescent students. I would like to examine the section titled “Make Peace with your Parents” from Cunha’s book to understand how she lays out the ways in which adolescents can ‘bargain’ or negotiate with the family around issues of romance. The book sets the tone that sex is firmly within heterosexual marriage – between husband and wife – though heterosexual dating is allowed. The family in Cunha’s book is understood as comprising of parents and child(ren).
If there is somebody you like, bring him/her over to your home together with a couple of friends, so that your parents can get to know them. Your parents may have a wise opinion. Listen and discuss maturely, without hitting the roof if they are not ecstatic. If the puppy love grows to maturity, your parents will understand and accept. Let your parents know where you are with whom at all times. Keeping to deadlines will help build trust.
‘Nita has been banned from inviting boys for her seventeenth birthday party, because her dad saw her best friend walking hand-in-hand with a guy, after which they both spend an hour in Neeta’s room. ‘If this happens from sending her to a co-ed school, I will send my younger daughter to Sophia College” he exploded.
Sometimes fathers of girls can be rather overprotective, unreasonable where their daughters are concerned, probably remember the wild oats they sowed in their youth.’
So what do you?
- Improve matters by developing a more meaningful communication with Dad. Enlist an aunt of your Mom’s aid in the project.
- Work out deadlines for returning home and guidelines for outings and in-house activities
- Remember that setting limits shows love and concern, comply with this Code of Conduct out of respect, not because of fear and punishment.
- Discuss life as it affects you without using words such as ‘Annoying!” and “You don’t understand!”
- Explain that banning all communication with guys may cause you to be deceitful and mixed up
- Promise that you will approach friendship with guys very slowly, and only with people they approve of.
- Ask to invite your friends home so that they get to know them. Throw a house party, but ask for some privacy.
- Ask them to trust you, and show that you are deserving of their trust. Presto, you will gradually find that you are getting more liberties. However, if you can’t break through ask somebody older to help. (Cunha, 2013: 46-47)
What are young people’s experiences of their negotiations with their parents? A few upper middle class young 19 year olds I interviewed in Mumbai expressed experiences similar to those in Cunha’s book. Tina recounts how her parents encouraged her to bring her male friends home. Her mother also told her that she can “go ahead and have relationships and she doesn’t mind, but she shouldn’t be hearing from someone else that [Tina is] in a physical relationship where something would go wrong.”
Atul describes in detail the ways he negotiates with his parents when it comes to relationships. His narrative echoes the advice that Cunha gives in her book.
If your parents don’t want you to date, tell your parents about your partner, what kind of person they are. Parents tell you that it will affect your career and academics; that you get distracted, you are talking on the phone all the time. Parents’ point of view might be right. They also think that a break up will lead to depression, parents come from that old school of thought. But there is always a maybe. Maybe I might get depressed, maybe I will be able to handle it.
Sheetal also discusses the ways in which she negotiates with her parents and tries to understand the reasons for certain limits set by her family:
Limits are something that you are socialised into at home. My parents are very protective. I have to be home by 11 pm latest, earlier they used to pick and drop me, I didn’t like it, but I understand why they do it. My boyfriend and I only sit and talk. We don’t go out much; we talk in college and then go home and study. My parents think we have a physical relationship, but that is not true. They are probably right in thinking that it’s not right, but they won’t change their mind.
There are obviously many problems with Cunha’s understanding of adolescents’ relationships with their family in the context of romance/dating. But both the narratives and Cunha’s advice understand negotiations as comprising of dialogue, restraint, and trust. This opens up to us questions we might want to ask of our own politics: What are the fine lines between family control and concern? Does family disapproval of a particular romantic relationship of adolescents necessarily always stem from control, patriarchy and heteronormativity? What role does ‘concern’ play here? How can maturity be understood in the context of adolescent sexuality?
Shilpa Phadke (2013) examines the dilemmas of freedom and safety from the perspective of a feminist mother: “Is the curtailment of our daughters’ choices, even in their best interests, or at least what we perceive to be their best interests, an anti-feminist act? The language of ‘best interests’ is often used by those whose politics we may consider regressive. Can we divide restrictions into ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’?” (Phadke, 2013: 98). Consequently, how do adolescents who desire to exercise their sexual agency understand which ‘boundaries’ set by their families are ‘regressive’ and which ‘progressive’? If the boundaries are ‘regressive’, then what are the ways of effectively negotiating with them?
How would it be productive to think of adolescent negotiations with the family as dialogue and constraint? Lata Mani (2014) discusses the idea of restraint and freedom by asking: “Is freedom only to be understood as the absence of constraint? … the interdependent conditions of human existence make impossible the negation of all constraint”. Mani continues by asking “What kinds of constraints are integral to our interdependence and inter-relationality and thus in need of being woven into our conception of freedom and choice?” (Mani, 2014: 29). Consequently, can restraint and ‘bargain’ in the present lead to greater freedoms in the future? Does that re-instate the status quo of power relations or does it provide ways of living in inter-dependence as Mani calls it? To help us engage with adolescent sexual lives more complexly, it might be useful to seriously think of how we can accommodate questions of trust, inter-dependence, restraint and dialogue within our politics.
Chandiramani, Radhika, Shagufa Kapadia, Renu Khanna, Geetanjali Misra. 2002. Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour: A Critical Review of Selected Studies (1999-2000), New Delhi: The Gender and Reproductive Health Research Initiative & CREA.
Cunha, Anne de Braganca. 2013. Get Set Grow: Ten Tools for Happy-Go-Healthy Teens. Anne de Braganca Cunha, Mumbai.
Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1988. “Bargaining with Patriarchy”. Gender and Society. 2.3: 274-290.
Mani, Lata. 2014. “Sex and the Signal Free Corridor: Towards a New Feminist Imaginary” Economic and Political Weekly. XLIX.6: 26-29.
Phadke, Shilpa. 2013. “Feminist Mothering? Some Reflections on Sexuality and Risk from Urban India.” Journal of South Asian Studies. 36.1:92-106.
Shah, Chayanika, Anupama Rao, Rohini Hensman, Mary John, Rinchin. 2005. Symposium. “Marriage Family and Community: A Feminist Dialogue.” Economic and Political Weekly. 40.8.
 Feminist, Queer, Dalit and Left engagements with the family have rightly tried to revolutionise and reform marriage and the family, rethinking its heteronormative, patriarchal and hierarchical structure and often proposing or asking for alternatives (Chayanika Shah, Rinchin, Mary John, Rohini Hensman, Anupama Rao 2005). At the same time these imaginings of the family do not delve into the strategies that adolescents can and do adopt to negotiate with their families in the present.
 I use the term sexuality as defined by Chandiramani et al which maintains that “sexuality encompasses eroticism, sexual behaviour, social and gender roles and identity, relationships and the personal, social and cultural meanings that each of these might have.” (p 1)
 I also specifically look at a private elite school because that helps us understand how the discourse of family and sexuality is formulated within this space, and to understand how the upper middle class, neo-liberal, ‘nuclear family’ in urban spaces is thought about vis-à-vis sexuality. As both the author of the book and the school where it is taught are Christian, it also goes to say that these formulations of the ‘family’ also draw from the author’s and school’s community backgrounds.
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