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What young people want to know when they talk about sex

“Do you think the way we are going about sex education is outdated? Are we really answering the unasked questions of youngsters, especially teenagers?”

New Delhi | Published:July 27, 2014 1:00 am
sex-education-main The only lesson on sex in Mizoram’s school curriculum is squeezed into two pages in biology textbooks for Class X students, and it advocates abstinence as the “best and safest method”.

By Adam Halliday, Paromita Chakrabarti, Meenakshi Iyer, Ritu Sharma, Kevin Lobo, Ketaki Latkar and V Shoba 

The only lesson on sex in Mizoram’s school curriculum is squeezed into two pages in biology textbooks for Class X students, and it advocates abstinence as the “best and safest method”. Much of the chapter focuses on HIV and AIDS. When the teenagers of the state are not asking Dr Google for information, they rely on informal counselling sessions from teachers trained by the state’s AIDS Control Society, and volunteers at the Sunday afternoon church services. Abstinence is the main message in both, and sex is talked about as something sinful, which is most likely to cause regret later in life. “One of the teachers asked, ‘Suppose you have had sex before you get married. Will you have the courage to tell your future spouse? Will you be able to live without telling your spouse?’” says Kima, a 17-year-old, recalling one such session he attended some years ago.

Lalnunpuia Hrahsel, 42, has conducted these sessions for high-school students in Aizawl for several years now. He had been fine with telling teenagers that losing one’s virginity is not “in” and being a virgin actually is, that periods are normal, and that it is natural to have sexual urges but that abstinence is the best way to go about it and, if that seems difficult, masturbation is the next best option.

But a question from a young, pregnant, unmarried woman — should she follow the doctor’s advice and get an abortion or keep the child? — left him disturbed. “I just did not have a response. I knew she was hesitant to consult the pastor who would most probably have told her abortion is sinful, and yet she was not ready to keep the child. I understood her predicament to an extent, but I had no advice to offer and ended up agreeing with her that she should not have had sex,” he says. After some seconds of silence, he asks suddenly, “Do you think the way we are going about sex education is outdated? Are we really answering the unasked questions of youngsters, especially teenagers?”

it’s not the stork: An adolescent sexuality programme in Dharavi, Mumbai it’s not the stork: An adolescent sexuality programme in Dharavi, Mumbai

The answer from across India to Hrahsel’s question is: no. Long before Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan used his website to warn against “vulgar” sex education, a 2009 parliamentary committee headed by BJP leader Dr Venkaiah Naidu had struck down the proposal to include sex education in schools because it thought it would corrupt Indian values. Since then, in state after state, most schools and teachers have fumbled in a conversation about sex, sexuality and consent. Nothing much has changed from the time Azeem Banatwalla was in school in Mumbai in the 1990s, when the sex education class was a joke.

“An extra lecture of biology, they told us. There were just six of us in class giggling, while our teacher, to her credit, was trying her best. We learnt what we had to later, mostly via porn,” he says. The stand-up comedian and his troupe, The East India Company, recently made Sex Education in India, a video which pokes fun at the consensus of silence around sex. In it, actor Anand Tiwari is holding a sex-education class, with “Indian value” filters. So, the image of a naked man and woman on the writing board have the penis, vagina and breasts blacked out, the word “sex” is helpfully banned, and everything from kundalis to Bollywood is used to describe how people do the thing that they do.

As schools and parents continue to hope that their children are asexual beings, young people have found their answers in the half-truths and exaggerations of the internet, and their instincts. Shreya Joshi, a 19-year-old in Pune, has never attended sex education classes. She started having sex with her partner at 16. But the absence of a shame-free discussion around sex meant that for three years, till she was diagnosed with an ovarian disease, she had no idea that she had more contraceptive choices than an i-Pill.

What do youngsters talk about when they talk about sex? And what should a sex education class tell them about? “One of the biases that we face while talking about sexuality is that the session is going to deal with how to have sex before marriage and not about the positive nature of sexuality. It unsettles the dynamics between the educator and the student,” says Rituparna Bohra, queer activist and volunteer at Nirantar, a Delhi-based NGO working on gender and education.

Is it the terminology that needs to be fixed? Prabha Nagaraja, executive director, TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), an NGO in Delhi, says let’s talk about sexuality instead. “The moment one says sex education, many youngsters and adults jump to the conclusion that it is about how to have sex. On the contrary, a comprehensive sexuality education aims to teach children about decision making, learning to say no, to recognise and refuse gender stereotypes, to protect their own freedoms and those of others,” she says. Generally, the questions that come up from pre-teens and teens range from how babies are made to how to kiss; does kissing cause infection; does an intercourse always lead to pregnancy; what’s the correct way to use condoms and the efficacy of over-the-counter birth control pills. Among younger children, there is a bewilderment over the definition of “good touch” and “bad touch”, which has, for long, been the cornerstones of teaching them about abuse. “These can all be simple conversations around the dinner table or on the way to the bus stop while going to school. Sexuality is an everyday, commonplace thing. It does not need to be hushed up or kept aside for ‘serious’ discussions,” says Nagaraja.

When it is embraced as an everyday thing, like it is at The Valley School, Bangalore, even a lesson on The Tempest can turn into something illuminating. Vijaya Lakshmi Jaithirtha found her students giggling at the smutty innuendoes of the play, and she decided to “lay it bare before the whole class — the sex and the puns in Shakespeare’s works”.

At Shibumi, a small, alternative school with a focus on self-learning that she later founded with her husband, this culture of openness is amply evident. Every year, Jaithirtha and her colleagues take up anonymous questions from their students, who write in block letters, sometimes taking great care to mask their identity, and drop the slips of paper into a box. “They ask about masturbation and attraction. We answer academically and do separate biology sessions with girls and boys,” says Dr Roopa Devadasan, one of three full-timers at Shibumi, which schools 58 children between three and 17 years of age. The school covers the biology of sex and works with parents to sensitise young children to safe and unsafe touch. “With very young children, we don’t dwell on it much. For 12- and 13-year-olds, we address their natural curiosities of growing up and encourage them to talk to us,” says Sharad Jain, who teaches geography, Hindi, sports and fitness. “One student, aged 15, recently came up to me and said, ‘these days, all I think about is girls, girls and girls’.”

In a private school in Ahmedabad, 14-year-old Pooja Solanki finds herself looking away in embarrassment as Dr Sonal Desai begins to speak about the male and female reproductive systems and the hormones that lead to sexual urges. This is an all-girl class, with students between 14 and 17 years of age, organised by an NGO Samvedna. Though the state government tacitly discourages such sessions (officials refused to talk about its policy, as it was a “sensitive issue”), schools have woken up to the reality that young boys and girls meet and find themselves attracted to each other, that their questions about their bodily changes are not being answered at home. In the two-hour session, Dr Desai explains why girls menstruate, how male and female bodies are different, why sex education should not be about shame, and what is responsible sexual behaviour. Till she attended the class, 17-year-old Tejal Dabhi, a Class XI student, was confused about how a woman gets pregnant and delivers a child. “I have never talked about these things with anyone. Not my elder sister nor my mother,” she says.

Despite its obvious benefits, the session also showed how ideas of morality and tradition frame the conversations grown-ups have with teenagers, and how ideas of shame and honour trickle down. When Dr Desai spoke about the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour, she warned against girls wearing “indecent” clothes to Navratra festivals and attracting unwanted male attention. There was a cursory mention of contraception.

Shorn of moralising and the fear of adolescent sexuality, sex education can be used to urge youngsters to think about how to have a more equal, happier life. In a tiny room in Kandivali, Mumbai, 31-year-old Mamta Khare cuts through the chatter with one sentence: “Today, we will discuss the differences between being a man and a woman.” She is a facilitator of the Adolescents Gaining Ground (AGG), a programme designed by SNEHA, an NGO, to initiate dialogue on gender discrimination, sexual health and violence against women. The programme runs in three vulnerable wards of Mumbai including Ghatkopar-Vikhroli, Kandivali and Dharavi. Since its inception five years ago, more than 30,000 youth from the slums of Mumbai have benefitted. A report prepared by the NGO last year reports a 40 per cent improvement in knowledge about HIV/AIDS and about 43 per cent improvement in knowledge of puberty, male and female reproductive systems and conception.

“We have two age groups that we focus on — 11- to 14-year-olds and 14- to 19- year-olds. For the younger lot, the sessions focus on health and hygiene such as how to pull back the foreskin to clean the penis, how to maintain hygiene during periods or before and after masturbation. Whereas for the older bunch it is more about myth busting since a lot of their notions and misconceptions are already in place,” says Sneha Kupekar, programme co-ordinator for the Adolescent Sexuality Programme in Dharavi.

Khare says it took her 30 years and a few sessions with SNEHA to understand her own body. “Even after I had two children, I didn’t know much about male and female genitalia,” she says. But in the class, Khare is at ease, talking about menstruation, puberty and wet dreams, without embarrassment or indecision. She encourages the youngsters in the class to question gender roles. The girls ask her about why their parents tell them to return home before evening, while the boys have no such obligations. Khare explains that it is mostly because society dictates such norms. Then she turns to the boys and asks them whether the parents are right in asking their daughters to return sooner? The boys disagree unanimously.

“We meet a lot of parents who are in denial of the fact that their children are learning about sex. All we are doing is getting them valid information in a reliable manner,” says Neeta Karandikar, associate programme director at SNEHA. “Once a boy approached me and asked: ‘Is it safe to have sex when the girl is menstruating?’ Our job is to give them a sensible and scientific answer. So I told him it was safe, but he should still use a condom,” says 41-year-old Rekha Manohar, another facilitator at the Kandivali centre and a mother of four daughters.

In Mizoram, Kimi’s questions have never been answered. “They tell us that having sex before marriage will scar us for life and fill us with guilt forever but suppose someone has already done it? What will they do?” the 16-year-old asks.

Names of the teenagers have been changed

The story appeared in print with the headline How I Met Your Mother

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