The super organ
Why talking about sexuality is important to combat child sexual abuse

Three Letter Word: How do we tell the children?

Even if you block their internet and disconnect the TV, a whisper from a friend, the lyrics of a pop song, the subtext in their history book will get to them.

education-main When it comes to sex education, you have no choice but to get to them first.

By Genesia Alves

Children are being “educated” about sex whether you think the time is right or not. Even if you block their internet and disconnect the TV, a whisper from a friend, the lyrics of a pop song, the subtext in their history book will get to them. So when it comes to sex education, you have no choice but to get to them first.

Between Sunday school lectures and a very liberal mother, I received a range of sex-talks from early on that roughly covered real (and imagined) science, pedantic morality, gender clichés and some drawings. By the time some of our peers were sexually active (late teens), the information filtering back was realistic: unsatisfying early encounters, awkwardness, a lot of kindness, discretion and much amusement at how true the term “bumping uglies” was.

But we were in the minority. In my two years in a convent girls’ school in Bombay, celibate Catholic nuns provided sex education. As parent of a 13 year-old now, I forget why I found that hilarious. Instead, I remember many girls, always from very conservative families, grasping at the opportunity to ask questions in class. We were sternly warned not to laugh. I remember our classmate A, at 14, precocious, with a pronounced “womanly” sway, her school-sash much too low on her hips. She asked, “Is it true if a man doesn’t have sex for a very long time, he gets…” she paused nervously, “so desperate, he will do anything? ANYTHING?” The nun looked up worriedly and said, “No, adults are supposed to be able to maturely deal with these urges.” While we tittered, Sister Asha offered us all the chance to speak with her privately if there was anything we didn’t want to share with the whole class. Then she specifically told A she wanted to see her. Turned out A had a 30-year-old boyfriend who was pressuring her to have sex with him. Her parents were going to “get her married the next year anyway”. I cannot clearly say how the situation was resolved because there was a complete clampdown on gossip generated from the sex-ed class.

Whatever the outcome, personally, I learned at 13, that no man had “uncontrollable” urges and that at 14, having a 30-year-old boyfriend was something adults took very seriously. I also learned that I was lucky that we had an open “ask-anything” attitude at home and at school dealt with by straight-faced women who never seemed shocked or asked “Where did you learn that?” or judged you.

While each parent will have their own special way to talk to the unique child they are helping into adulthood, there seem to be a few general guidelines. An open, non-judgmental forum is critical. Opportunities to bring up the topic casually — couples cuddling on a bench, an on-screen kiss, a creepy passerby — should be used. Emphasise on sex being a natural urge but that consent is paramount.

Kids are vulnerable to their own changing bodies and hormones. They should be empowered to refuse to accept or display physical affection if it makes them uncomfortable. Boys need to learn to respect women. Girls need to get the HPV vaccine. Everyone needs to talk about homosexuality. Most importantly, everyone needs to be able to come home and “fact-check” about sex.

My children are 13, 9 and 4. I am doing the best I can, though I find myself having to run faster to keep up. But I’m determined to get there first.

Genesia Alves is a writer in Mumbai

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