My formal sex education at an all-girls convent school in New Delhi can be summed up in two words: woefully inadequate.
What passed for it was a brief interlude when one fine day in biology class in std IX, our NCERT-issued textbook opened with that tantalizing chapter, “Reproduction”. A frisson of expectation ran through the class as Mrs Ravindran began reading in her clear lilting voice. Towards the end of the first sentence, however, the voice became hushed as poor Mrs Ravindran (who had by then turned beetroot red) put down the book and said: “Girls, you can read the rest of the chapter on your own at home.”
“On your own at home” pretty much sums up our attitude to sex education. We still hesitate to ask questions, speak “forbidden” words or seek out information. A television ad for Naco (National AIDS Control Organisation) highlights this ingrained reticence as it urges men to boldly say “condom”, a forbidden word if ever there was one. New sexual awakening? Hardly. In India, the urgency for sex education is seen not in the context of sexuality, but of HIV/AIDS.
Last week, on 8 May, a widely reported judgement by justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul brought back memories of my own formal sex education (or lack of it). Justice Kaul was speaking in a vastly different context while hearing complaints, mainly relating to obscenity, against India’s foremost artist, M.F. Husain, who is represented in India by lawyer Akhil Sibal. Quashing three separate complaints, the judge noted that in a different era “sex was embraced as an integral part of a full and complete life” where people led “exotic lives dedicated to sensuality in all its forms. It was healthy and artistic. They studied sex, practised sex, shared techniques with friends and passed on their secrets to the next generation.”
Wow. Lucky generation. The current generation, unfortunately, doesn’t have it quite so easy. You have only to read some of the so-called agony aunt columns to realize the widespread ignorance: Can kissing cause pregnancy? Will masturbation stunt growth? Will my husband come to know that I am not a virgin?
Yet, the flag-bearers of public morality insist sex education goes against the grain of our culture. Last year, opposition and ruling party MLAs in Maharashtra, in a rare show of unanimity, got together to ban school books on sex education for senior students on the grounds that it corrupts young minds (they also banned an instruction manual for teachers; so perhaps sex education corrupts adult minds, too). Last month, the proposal to introduce sex education in schools was stayed and a committee has now been appointed to look into the issue.
Naco’s attempt to produce a sex manual for schoolteachers hasn’t met with much luck. The manual has been banned in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Goa. Last week, it came up with a new version in which terms such as “penetrative sex” and “sexual intercourse” have been banished.
We now have a bizarre situation where the state which produces the most films with their shimmy-shimmy, shake-shake item numbers and blatant sexual innuendoes led by its own son of the soil, the late Dada Kondke, refuses to teach its children even the basics of sex education. Our morality brigade seems not to mind ads on prime time TV for sundry aftershave products, shirts or men’s underwear that have women being “driven wild by passion”. The covers of our glossy magazines have B-grade actresses pouting and posing in next to nothing. We cheer little girls when they participate in talent contests where they shake non-existent hips and breasts. Our fashion “industry” seems to feed on the image of emaciated women prone to frequent “wardrobe malfunctions”. But we stop short of educating our children in the name of morality. Can anyone understand why?
I am equally troubled by our interpretation of sex education to be limited to either lessons about anatomy (biology) or the prevention of HIV/AIDS (public health). To have any real meaning, sex education must encompass all aspects of sexuality, and that includes reproduction and birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation, pleasure, relationships and positive body image.
Sex education must be seen as an essential life skill where men and women are taught about making informed choices and respecting individual choices and each other. A national study on child abuse last year by Prayas, a non-governmental organization, for the ministry of women and child welfare found that 53.22% of all respondents across 13 states had faced some sort of sexual abuse, from inappropriate touching to violent sexual assault. Most children didn’t report the matter to anyone.
Knowledge is empowerment. I can understand the awkwardness in talking about a taboo subject, but what’s the awkwardness of one adult compared to the education of a group of children? Anyone who says sex education goes against the grain of our culture is simply behaving like an ostrich, head in the sand. We simply don’t have the luxury of letting our children remain ignorant.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org