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The Audacity of Sexuality Educators!

A photograph of several paintbrushes of different sizes covered in dried paint.

Safe space or socially judged? Freedom to express or suppress emotions? Fun pleasure-based approach or fear-based approach? Multiple learning styles or academic sessions? Project-based or participant-based?

After a workshop with 18-year-old girls from marginalised segments of Delhi, I came back home with many questions. In an anonymous question box – one of the popular tricks up the sleeve of a sexuality educator – participants are known to put their most real feedback about the session through a range of questions they feel safe and free to ask. I had always underestimated the impact of the anonymous question box, but this workshop taught me otherwise. Based on the questions of the participants, I was also able to gauge the real needs of the group to whom I was delivering this workshop. At Sehmat Foundation, the organisation that houses me, I envision a space where we can design each workshop based on the needs of the participants and therefore re-label myself as a sexuality exploration facilitator instead of a sexuality educator.

Choosing the content for the curriculum

When invited by an organisation to conduct a workshop, we are often told to create designs which focus more on health and rights and less on the experiential aspects of sexuality. The latter constantly breaks societal barriers by bringing up topics like love, romance, sexual desire, pleasure, arousal, etc. But what if we were to leave the topics to the participants? In the anonymous question box, if the questions were more about contraception, sexual health, and sexual abuse, I would not think twice before creating a design for the session which focused mainly on these topics. But the questions are a lot more diverse. There are curiosities about animals having sex, about same-sex persons engaging in sex, about multiple-partner relationships and about pleasuring ourselves. While I talk about health and rights in a sexuality workshop, it would be non-inclusive to exclude the topics the participants have themselves broached. But often, the organisation that has invited me to do these sessions decides which topics to include and which to exclude for the subsequent sessions. Power is in the hands of the organisers and not directly the participants themselves.

Including pedagogies and modalities

Every time I design a session, there are huge judgements from colleagues and co-facilitators about what I choose to include in the curriculum and what not. The reality is that every sexuality educator, depending on their comfort and target audience, designs very specific curricula to suit potential participants. If we do get to curate a properly comprehensive curriculum, it will definitely be one that lasts more than 100 hours. There is so much that can be talked about and navigated through different mediums of absorbing information. After all, comprehensive sexuality education is also not just about knowledge giving. We want experiential educators who include the many modalities of art, dance, music, theatre, etc., to address our lived sexual experiences and to prepare us for more. A topic like consent cannot be “explained;” it can only be translated through experiential tools and by creating a simulation of reality in our sessions. For example, the topic of “safe and unsafe touch” comes within the ambit of sex-ed workshops. Can it be a workshop which is only about information giving? What about the practice of really being able to voice out a “No” or even a “Yes” and navigating the many shades in between, since consent can be very complex?

Hence, as sexuality educators, we need to make the effort to not just make our sessions comprehensive with respect to the topics and content, but also the different ways in which information is given and may be applied through life.

Over the years of my work, I have also seen Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) being accepted in projects that introduce sexuality as a “life skill” and not simply as a knowledge segment. As a life skill, sexuality education focuses on how we can lead our sexual lives in a physically and emotionally healthy way. While schools cover many key elements in their larger curriculum, communities outside schools also request for sexuality educators. It is not just adolescents who are receiving this life-skill training, but all age groups. So, when someone tells me, “Look around you – there are enough sexuality educators on Instagram,” I know that any number of sexuality educators will never be enough in a country of 1.3 billion people, where only certain segments of the population have just begun to accept sex-ed as a need, since there continues to be much resistance and CSE is still not widely accepted as a necessity. There is still a lack of opportunities to engage directly with the adult population. There are a lot of groups that need intervention in terms of sexuality education, and only adolescents so far have received a flicker of the limelight. Sexuality as a topic of conversation is still unacceptable when it really comes down to group meetings and similar spaces. There is also a difference in the way educators deliver content on social media and how facilitators who are facing a group in real life need to pass information and bring a carefully curated experience of sexuality to their workshops.

The sensitivities and the expertise of pedagogies needed to create comprehensive sexuality education curricula have also put the sexuality sector in an utter fix.

I see us constantly getting overwhelmed with new information to include in our sessions and a constant sense of being overwhelmed by making sense of all that we see happening in our workshops.

A lot about society is revealed, as well as the notions and myths of sexuality we have been living with. In a workshop, we are not just giving information but also receiving an overload of reflections on how our cultures experience sexuality. The onus is on us to integrate these learnings and reproduce relevant materials for future sessions.

My own sexuality as an educator

In one of my projects, we have had to conduct sessions separately for men and women in a very binary fashion. When one of the facilitators in our team joined us, they were also exploring their own gender identity. One year along the journey, I see them feeling really taxed because they now have to mask their non-binary identity in these binary sessions. There is a huge gap in the understanding and acceptance of different sexualities when it comes to where we are as educators and where our projects are located. In order to create safe spaces for our participants, there may be experiences where our own identities are constantly challenged. The need is to create safe spaces not just for the participants, but also the facilitators who are also learning, unlearning and re-learning everything that is put out there as the topic of discussion.

My own burnout just one year down the line really slowed down my pace to reach the vision of my organisation. I was exhausted because I had to provide information to my participants on sexuality, and it was challenging even for myself to live by the messaging that we were imparting in our sessions. At the same time, my peers in the sector were also questioning my approach, which was not prevention-based but integration-based. I was offering sessions which were unable to align with the needs of the project as much as they were aligning with the needs of the participants. In my view, the project would have to accommodate within its vision of the sexuality education programmes what the target audience really wanted to address for themselves.

Where is the limit and the boundary of exploration within our sessions?

Yes, we must also look at the major approaches to the kind of education methodologies that we wish to use within the sexuality sector. Many of the pioneers in the sector have created space for us to do our work and paved the way for projects that now proudly announce sex-ed as a life skill. Their efforts have also shown success because of their sensitively thought-out approaches. But do we need to continue to be the kind of facilitators who are constantly walking on eggshells so as not to say anything that is too “explicit” for our participants? To create comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curricula, we will have to include challenging and new ideas which are unusual for people to hear at first. Otherwise where is the education and exploration? I believe that just like movies reflect our realities, so should our curricula. The closer we are to reality, the more audacious it will seem. If I speak clearly about the kind of sexual experiences people do engage in, for example, if I speak clearly about both the pleasures and risks of oral sex, then it will be simultaneously more authentic and shocking for people who might consider such sexual acts as unnatural or gross. But that is also us being the pioneers of a more realistic approach to sexuality education now. What our predecessors have created for us should also evolve with our additions through our own altered realities.

In one of my workshops, a participant asked if it is allowed to engage in sexual experiences during the workshop. And my mind bended in several directions. My carefully thought-through response was,

“Thank you for asking the question!

There are rooms at our workshop venue, and within the privacy of one’s own space, where sex is not “forbidden,” as long as it is with the consent of all the participating people.

However, during the workshop in the workshop hall, anything that is not allowed as per our country’s legal system will continue to not be allowed. Therefore, public nudity will be forbidden. If you engage in sexual acts and someone who is a participant in the session or is an observer to the sexual act might feel harassed, abused or bullied by their own definitions. So, without the permission of the participants and observers, any such act might also cause trouble. However, I have seen that hugging and kissing have not been questioned in spaces I have been in.

It will totally depend on the participants and our group, actually.”

Positioning the content based on intention

In a recent session, I introduced the “sexual response cycle” as a topic for the first time. The way I chose to position it was based on the intention of building “readiness” for sexual experiences. Readiness not just in terms of being prepared with contraception and getting an STD screening done on one’s self and one’s partner/s, which are important, but also looking at the readiness of our bodies and gauging our body’s responses by understanding stages of desire, arousal, pleasure plateau, orgasm and resolution. When designing the session, including this topic seemed like a risk. Would it be too nuanced and overwhelming for this group? IS it complicated? Is the sexual response cycle even foolproof? I had to barter topics for the little time I was getting, and the resultant choices also put my reputation as a sex-ed facilitator at stake. What if this doesn’t land well, and everyone gets confused? But it worked wonders in how the participants received it! It naturally brought various aspects of understanding “consent” into the discussion, even before I started the topic. It also introduced “pleasure” and “communication.” A lot of the topics I would have had to bring up separately later in the session already arose naturally from the participants.

This also reminds me of the philosophy that Paulo Freire introduced in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written 55 years ago – to create curriculums through the involvement of the participants. They choose what they want to learn. It is a very democratic and dialogic process which I have seen educators try to use even for subjects like math and science in private schools. So why not for sexuality? After all, it is a topic that is way more experiential and based on our social structures than any other subject out there.

Cover Image: Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash