Our engagement with sexuality begins early in life. For many of us, it was probably that moment when we were caught scratching the “in-between-parts” of our body and heard a resounding, “chhi chhi, don’t touch there” from adults. This statement made two salient connections in our minds — do not touch “there”; it is shameful to do so. Most children, therefore, encounter information about sexuality, sex, bodies through the lens of shame and violence.
The silence around sexuality has many results. For instance, we often read news about bad sexual experiences ranging from using glue on a penis as contraception to using a pestle as a tool to masturbate. These stories may seem like outliers but are a symptom of a larger problem: There is not enough conversation on sexuality. Then, where are children getting the necessary knowledge from?
Is it derived from romantic movies around what works in relationships? Or pornographic books and films online? Is the information available simplistic and medicalised? Information that children and adults currently have on sexuality is either archaic or overly sexualised through inaccurate sources. A lot has shifted since the internet opened doors to talk about sexuality freely and openly. But we are still to fully explore how we can meaningfully speak to children and young people. We should not just provide the information and leave. Along with comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), we should provide safe spaces to unpack the existing information, bust myths and (un)learn together.
CSE, when provided properly, attempts to address not just the violence and lack of information that children have around bodies and sex. It aims to build a culture where bodily autonomy, choice and agency are discussed. It also facilitates conversation on self-esteem. This helps us to build individuals who are more tuned with the choices they make about their bodies and sexual experiences. However, we live in an environment where most adults themselves do not have this knowledge. Adults are also not comfortable with providing this information or exploring the scope of what sexuality education enables because of the unfounded fear that sexuality education may lead to promiscuity or risk-taking behaviours in young people. Thus, when we begin to speak about bodies, the automatic go-to is violatory experiences. This is because we approach it as “awareness for children” or “protection of children from violence”.
But even our attempts to protect children are not fully solidified. Unless the violence is gory, there seems to be room for “nuance”. In January, a Bombay High Court judge dismissed a case of child sexual abuse with the reasoning that “groping without taking off clothes is not abuse” because of “lack of direct skin to skin contact”.
Does that thigh graze on the bus or that pinching of breasts count as abuse or is it not violent enough? This assumption is situated in the belief that the act of violence perpetrated is not located in the violation felt in the body but the intent of the accused. This is worse when the victim-survivor is a child because of our assumptions about who can make decisions on one’s own body. In everyday life, the guardian has the authority to give consent on behalf of the child everywhere — schools, homes, in relationships with others. So, children are heavily discouraged to say “no” once an adult has given consent on their behalf. It is presumed that they cannot give consent in any circumstances. This assumption is reflected in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), which shifted who can provide consent — it is presumed that a person under 18 can never consent to any sexual activity.
POCSO was legislated nine years ago to protect children from sexual abuse. Has the legislation been able to fulfil its aim? According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) reports from 2016 to 2020, the number of reported child sexual abuse cases has increased from 36,321 in 2016 to 47,659 in 2020. This is a 31 per cent increase. Even this number is merely the tip of the iceberg, according to experts. The NCRB report of 2020 states that just 36 per cent of crimes against children are registered under POCSO. We aim to protect children from various sexual offences. But the statute primarily focuses on prosecution. Is prosecution enough to protect children?
Studies show that providing CSE will promote a culture where sexual violence can be prevented. But the path to providing children and young adults with said education is full of hurdles that make it hard for us to engage openly and honestly with children and young adults. There are other concerns around freely providing this education, which in part refers to the clause in POCSO on mandatory reporting (any adult who has information on sexual acts involving a child has to report it to the police). Many schools, when approached for conducting sessions on sexuality education, find themselves hesitating as they are not equipped to deal with the consequences of discussing consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences of children — especially if they will be punished for not speaking up about these cases.
Is there a way we can provide the necessary vocabulary to children? Experts working with children in various capacities say we can. Age-appropriate solutions do exist and must be sought to not only prevent violence in their lives as children but also build a better understanding of their bodies. The discourse being dominated by adults yet again forces children out of the centre of discussion and places our (dis)comforts in the centre. Are we ready to break this legacy of silence and ignorance?
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 17, 2021 under the title ‘The silence on sexuality’. Guha is a human rights lawyer and Raghavan is a disabled feminist, writer, researcher and trainer
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