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Can we keep sex and emotions apart?

The squeamishness about sex education doesn’t square with our outrè pop culture

Written by Amrita Shah | April 24, 2009 11:45:59 pm

It is ironical that the Committee on Petitions,consisting of Rajya Sabha members,should have picked the day it did last week to stress India’s unique cultural and social status in the world. The Committee’s report,while making a recommendation to do away with sex education in schools maintained,in the words of the BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu who was heading the commission that : “Our country’s social and cultural ethos are such that sex education has absolutely no place in it.”  

It is ironical because on the same day that the Committee’s decision was being made public,lawmakers in North Carolina were  tentatively approving a Bill that would let parents choose whether their children should study the current abstinence-until-marriage curriculum,or one that also discussed contraception,or even skip sex education altogether; social conservatives have been objecting for long that marriage is devalued if children are taught about contraception they could use if they are sexually active. 

Regardless of what Mr. Naidu might believe,sex in the classroom,whether as a subject of scientific study or as education has been a touchy issue for people the world over. When Alfred C. Kinsey published his pioneering research on sexual behavior in the US in 1948 and 1953,alarmed critics in the press described the study as a threat to the stability of the American family. The circumstances at the time — it was the dawn of the nuclear age and the beginning of the Cold War era — a time of political and social strife from which the family symbolised the only safe refuge,led some even in the scientific community to join religious heads and cultural commentators in a fight to defend the traditional domestic realm.  

In the Seventies,a British film by Martin Cole called Growing Up broke with previous convention to show masturbation and intercourse acted out by real people. The film,an attempt to dispell the shame and guilt associated with sexual behaviour,received positive feedback from teachers and students but proved to be so controversial nationally — the popular tabloid,The Sun,was particularly scathing in its response — that it was banned by the Birmingham City Council. More recently we have witnessed fervent debate over issues such as the dispensing of contraceptives in public places and in schools.  

The point of this preamble is to counter the main contention of the Committee that India is somehow special and unique in this regard. The truth is that societies the world over,have tended to be especially sensitive about the manner,timing and method in which the facts of life are officially conveyed to their children.  

The operative word here is ‘officially’. It has to be admitted that there is something particularly skewed and misplaced about the amount of time,effort and seriousness that is being devoted to the question of whether sex education should be imparted in schools and our relatively passive acquiescence to living in an environment that brims with sexual imagery and provides easy access to all forms and portrayals of sexuality to all age groups. It would seem that we would rather put the health and life skills of our future generations in the hands of anonymous and often prurient commercial interests rather than entrust them to the assumedly sober guardianship of schoolteachers. By any measure this is a strangely duplicitous approach and it is not without its consequences.   

In Scotland for instance,abortions among under-16s reached record levels a couple of years ago despite efforts by the Family Planning Association to improve sex education and prevent unwanted pregnancies.  Commenting on the phenomenon,Tim Street,chief executive of the FPA observed that young people were getting mixed messages since ‘as a society we are allowing sexual imagery to be used out of context all the time to promote products,to promote events’.  

This contradiction and others relating to the subject need to be debated with sensitivity and with attention to various aspects including the psychological,public health statistics on the impact on AIDS prevention and so on. Judging by reports carried in this paper,the Committee and much of the testimony it has relied upon appears to have been dominated by emotion and preconceptions rather than facts on the ground. The fear of the new and the personal is a universal phenomenon. To retreat into a mythic past out of squeamishness is to abdicate responsibility towards the future.

amrita.shah@expressindia.com

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