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Desire and Sexuality Education: Teaching about Romance, Love, Infatuation and Other Such Attractions

Sexuality Education is not only about Sexual and Reproductive Health, but ideally also aims to address the question of adolescent relationships and romance. Research suggests that there is a missing discourse of desire in Sexuality Education (Fine 1988) [1] even though there is a move to include a discourse of erotics in the curriculum in New Zealand (Allen 2004) [2]. If one were to think of conversations on romance in the classroom in middle-class urban India today, what could they be? Tied with this are the following questions: what are middle class adolescent girls’ and boys’ experiences of romance? What are the messages given in the classroom by schools and NGOs today? And consequently, what are the tensions in pedagogically engaging with romance in the classroom?

Romance amongst middle class urban adolescents is viewed by schools and teachers as either not serious (as ‘puppy love’) or as ‘dangerous’ and a reason for moral panic. In the former case, romance is equated to a ‘bubble that will burst’ and in the latter, romance is viewed as having a disastrous spiralling effect, where it leads to sex, and pregnancy and possibly STIs and STDs. This necessitates a certain kind of Sexuality Education focussing on disease and pregnancy prevention. However, my research shows that middle-class adolescents’ romantic lives are much more complex than they are made out to be. I draw on my interviews with middle-class men and women from Mumbai, between the ages of 19 and 28 years, reflecting on their schooling and adolescence.

Young women recount how adolescent heterosexual romance is often about finding a boy ‘cute’, holding hands, talking on the phone, or discussing these things with other girl friends. Most of these relationships don’t last long and don’t typically end in marriage, though many women, in their adolescence believe in the idea of ‘eternal love’ where the first boyfriend will become their life partner forever. Dating and crushes are also characterised by teasing by peers. One young woman says, “I was crucified in school for having a couple of crushes and my friends equally were crucified by us also. Every time you pass by they will utter his name instead of your name.” Almost all the young women I interviewed spoke about crushes along these lines. None of them described at length their emotions of falling in love with a boy, even though they acknowledged the idea of ‘eternal love’.

The young men I interviewed didn’t necessarily talk about adolescent romance as always involving sexual intercourse. Many described their heterosexual adolescent crushes as characterised by sitting and talking to girls or holding their hands, being confused about the desire they felt for girls and the awkwardness of proposing to a girl. For instance, one of them described the awkwardness of liking a girl: “I liked this girl, didn’t know what to do, what to say.”

A young man, who is uncertain about his sexuality, recounted how at the age of fourteen he fell in love with one of his neighbours, who was a boy. “He was 6 years elder to me. We used to go around, sometimes he would take me out. He used to see me as a younger sibling. I really felt something about it. I felt maybe this is the man I could spend the rest of my life with; this is the man I could get to really know. But I don’t think he saw it that way. The moments I spent with him, I can never forget.”

One 20 year-old man described the feelings of a first love, “First time when I liked (someone) – for that time I was very serious. I was quite thrilled about it. I didn’t have any weird feeling that I should kiss her or something, but just that I used to like her company, as simple as that. I never told her. She did get to know though, after school. At that time she was very important to me. It wasn’t there in the open. Nobody knew about it except a few friends.” Romance for these boys is a serious affair, often involving long-term commitment or awkwardness and strong emotions. This not only upsets the idea of ‘puppy love’ but also questions the assumption that romance necessarily leads to sex and pregnancies. I also read these boys’ narratives as subversive acts, questioning the essentialist notion of male desire as predatory.

Ritty Lukose (2009) [3] argues that there is an important link between romance and modernity and that for adult women, romance emerges as a key site for negotiating consumer citizenship. This is true not only for women but also for adolescent boys and girls. As one young man said: “Dating involved at that age for us – kissing, chilling with that person all the time, going to a restaurant or café for a date or holding hands. Flirting and romance would be in restaurants easily.” Dating also involves an exchange of gifts and flowers, though it is assumed the boy would get more gifts for the girl.

What are the messages about romance in the classroom? Sexuality Education in some schools in Mumbai is careful to distinguish between love, friendship and infatuation and to provide definitions for them. Dr Anthony Grugni in the textbook Exercises in Education to Love (1997) [4], produced by an organisation in Mumbai, writes about the differences between infatuation and love. Infatuation, in the textbook, is “the kind of relationship that surfaces in… adolescence (21)” and is characterised as exciting, instant, impulsive, leading to jealousy, purely based on sexual attraction and emotions, not lasting, selfish and energy sapping. Love on the other hand is read as deeper, lasting, not necessarily between romantic partners, selfless, sacrificing, involving trust and nurturing. Dating is seen as a process of knowing a romantic partner and hints that any relationships outside religious and community boundaries are not advisable and can lead to difficult situations.

An NGO based in Mumbai which conducts Sexuality Education programmes called ‘Life Skills Education’ [5] in Bombay Municipal Corporation Schools distinguishes between the different types of attractions for Standard 7 students:

  • Sexual attraction: When one desires to have sexual relations with another specific person or persons. Sometimes it is felt along with other forms of attraction such as romance, friendship.
  • Romantic attraction: When one desires to have a romantic relationship with another specific person or persons. Many people who’re asexual may experience romantic attraction even though they do not experience sexual attraction.
  • Aesthetic attraction: When one sees another person or persons as attractive, nice looking, handsome or beautiful, but does not feel any desire to be in a romantic, sexual or sensual relationship with them.
  • Sensual attraction: When ones sees another person or persons and desires to do sensual (but NOT sexual) things with them. Such sensual things may include, kissing, hugging, and holding hands.

In these two examples of textbook material on teaching about romance and love to students one sees an effort to not only fix meaning, but to make sense of the kinds of attractions students might feel and how they might be able to identify them. Though there is an effort to address the complexity of adolescents’ romantic lives, it often fails to address the awkwardness of adolescent love. Characterising adolescent love as infatuation also denies it a sense of seriousness which adolescents feel. At the same time, in the materials that I have examined, there is no talk on how to deal with non-reciprocity/un-requited love and consent and adolescent boys’ sense of entitlement towards girls. However, one of the school teachers I interviewed did speak about referring to stalking with reference to Bombay cinema.

This leads us to ask: how do we pedagogically engage with desire, romance, intimacy and non-heteronormativity within the classroom without meanings being fixed and fossilised? If we are looking at a performative, postmodern approach to love, romance and sexuality, how does that translate in the classroom? Is it necessary and productive for conversations on romance to enter the formal space of the classroom? And finally, if we are to take adolescent love as seriously as adult romantic love, what language do we employ to talk about it within Sexuality Education?

References

1. Fine, Michelle. 1988. “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire” Harvard Educational Review. 58.1.

2. Allen, Louisa. 2004. “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Constituting a discourse of erotics in sexuality Education” Gender and Education. 16.2: 151-167.

3. Lukose, Ritty. 2009. Liberalization’s Children: Gender, Youth and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.

4. Grugni, Anthony. 1997. Exercises in Education to Love. Don Bosco Publications: Matunga.

5. Akanksha Foundation. Life Skill Education: Empowerment Manual No. 1. Akanksha, Mumbai.

Pic Credit: Ketaki Chowkhani, Facebook

Article written by:

Ketaki is a PhD student in Women's Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her doctoral research is on Adolescent Sexuality and Sexuality Education in contemporary urban India.

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