The learned Justice Shaji P. Chaly of the Kerala High Court recently upheld a school’s decision to suspend a Class XII boy and girl because they had hugged in front of other students during an arts festival held in the school. Apparently, the boy called the hug “congratulatory” after the girl gave a brilliant singing performance at the festival and both had apologised to the vice-principal for their public display of affection. The bench, however, was not impressed by this argument, having viewed images of their hugging which had been posted on Instagram and observing that they included “various compromising positions” which damaged “the reputation of the school.”
This peculiar combination of words (surely worthy of inclusion in the Hobson Jobson Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases) speaks to our penchant to use euphemisms when talking about matters deemed embarrassing or shameful (for example, “private parts” instead of genitals). Prior to this judgement, I had encountered this particular phrase only in the context of political scandals, as in the case of the hapless MLA of Morigaon in Assam who, in February, alleged that he was not the man caught in a video in a compromising position with a woman in a hotel.
That we might choose to describe an amorous embrace as a “compromising position”, instead of other obviously compromised positions that some of our politicians are engaged in, is testimony to the fact that so many of us, from politicians to high court judges, are more comfortable talking about corruption and rape than romance and sexual pleasure.
The fact that we become tongue-tied when talking about sex is baffling, given that we produce more babies than any other nation, presumably the result of millions of (unprotected) compromised positions, each year. Or that our culture is replete with vivid depictions of compromised positions through history, from the pages of the Kama Sutra and the walls of the Khajuraho temples to the screens of Bollywood and regional films. It appears that romance and sex are all very fine as long as they are confined to the walls of temples or cinemas: They have no place in the authentic, modern India.
The truth is that our continuing inability to be comfortable about the display of affection and the opportunity to love is deeply troubling for the 200 million young people caught, like the proverbial deer in the head-lights, between their desires and the denial of expressions of their sexuality. How else can we explain such cruel absurdities as the suspension of youth from school or their harassment by police (both the real ones and the self-appointed moral brigades) for hugging or holding hands in public? Contrary to the prevailing belief that our youth are turbo-charged sexual creatures whose animal instincts need authoritarian and paternalistic control, they are, in fact, amongst the most under-sexed in the world. A recent study, which interviewed more than 50,000 young people aged 15 to 29 years in six states, reported that just 15 per cent of unmarried young men and 4 per cent of unmarried young women had engaged in sexual relations, mostly with a romantic partner. This rate is amongst the lowest and the age of sexual debut is amongst the highest of any country in the world.
But the real existential crisis that the youth are trapped in is unique to our times. Over the past hundred years, the average age of marriage has steadily increased from the early teens to the early-20s (and even higher in urban areas); yet, over the same period, the age at which young people attain puberty has been steadily falling from the late teens to around 13 years in girls. One recent study reported that 80 per cent of urban Indian girls attain puberty by the age of 11. Yet, during this period of dramatic changes in the lives of young people, social norms prohibiting sexual relations (or, even just hugging) until marriage have remained inflexible.
As a result, young Indians are now waiting longer than their grand-parents’ generation to enjoy sex, at a stage of life when they are primed, from both psychosocial and biological perspectives, to be sexually active. To make matters worse, there is a toxic atmosphere surrounding sexuality education in schools which, if at all taught, is reduced to excruciatingly dull aspects of human anatomy and physiology delivered by bored or embarrassed biology teachers.
There is an abysmal lack of safe spaces to romance, and there is limited access to information and services regarding contraception (exemplified by a recent diktat to ban condom advertisements on television till late at night to prevent “corrupting” our children). At the same time, our youth have unrestricted access to a torrent of online pornography which becomes their only source of information, however twisted, about sexuality and we have the ingredients of a perfect storm.
It is time to reclaim sexuality from the self-appointed guardians of morality and to recognise that being sexual is integral to being human. There is no period of life when sexuality is as intensely experienced as during one’s youth. We should celebrate that young people are choosing to get married later in life, but reject the notion that this delay has any bearing on when consenting adults choose to engage in romance or sex.
In addition to making comprehensive sexuality education, designed in an age-appropriate way, accessible to all young people from an early age, we need thought leaders, in particular young people, to champion an open dialogue and challenge archaic values about youth sexuality. The only compromising position is one which denies the right to enjoy mutually consenting sex as a unique aspect of our personhood.