Let's Talk Sexuality
Alankaar Sharma and Vidya Reddy
The New Indian Express , Sunday - August 26,2007
The last few weeks have witnessed much debate on the issue of sex education for young people, with views ranging from it being considered a 'western' assault on Indian culture to being promoted as the only hope against the escalating HIV/AIDS statistics in the country. What is needed for everyone concerned is to stop viewing the issue as merely a conceptual, abstract and fancy one, but to finally acknowledge the elephant in the living room and start talking about it. This primarily requires relinquishing the attitude that says, "If we don't tell them about it, they won't know" or "Nobody told us and we grew up fine, so let kids find out by themselves". The assumption that young people will not be inquisitive about the sexual aspect of their identity is not only a severely unrealistic one, but also undermines their right to know about themselves. Curiosity about sexual matters is a normal part of growing up and natural during adolescent years. Young people are also constantly exposed to content with sexual matter through movies, television, newspapers and Internet. This curiosity effectively translates into young people's search for information about their metamorphosing bodies and the ensuing mental and social changes. More often than not, this curiosity is met with an icy silence that envelopes everything related to the word 'sex' in our society. Right from childhood, we learn to not speak or ask about anything even remotely associated with our private parts. Haven't we heard the term 'shame shame' being used to embarrass a toddler touching his/her private parts? Private parts are consciously left inconspicuous when parents excitedly teach their kids the names of body parts, almost as if those parts do not exist. Puberty, while heralding a change in the social roles of children especially for girls, is seldom discussed openly. Though this sounds funny, it is actually quite tragic that many girls feel scared that they are suffering from some serious disease when they start menstruating. Boys too remain confused over bodily changes during puberty and tend to believe easily in various misconceptions regarding sexuality at that impressionable age. This silence and shame gets so deeply embedded within their minds over the years that sexuality effectively becomes a substitute for 'evil' in the adage 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil'. Conversations on the subject remain whispery and sexuality becomes a mystery. But does such reticence on the part of adult society nip young people's curiosity in its bud? No. This only means that young people have few opportunities to ask questions and receive information without fear and shame. So where does our silence leave them? It leaves them to seek information from their friends who are likely to be equally ill-informed. It leaves them to search for answers on the numerous internet-based pornographic websites that may give them distorted ideas about the biological and social aspects of sexuality in the absence of other channels of open communication on the subject. It leaves them unsure of their own bodies and emotions. And it leaves them vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. How can a teenage girl muster courage to tell her parents that her cousin puts his hand in her panties every time he visits them, when throughout her life she has been conditioned to believe that 'good girls don't speak about such dirty things'? How will a seven-year-old boy be able to tell his mother that the school bus driver asks him to touch his private parts when in his mind 'private parts' resonates with 'shame'? Often in our work at Tulir – Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse we have come across parents and teachers who want their children and students to be protected against sexual abuse, but they do not want to talk about matters as simple as naming the private parts. This silence lends strength to abusers who use it to their benefit, feeling comfortable in the knowledge that children won't talk about it and if they do, chances are they will be muted by adults. Tackling child sexual abuse proactively also means lifting the veil of silence from sexuality. Silence breeds ignorance, dialogue develops awareness. Silence promotes secrets, dialogue fosters sharing. Silence furthers silence, dialogue furthers dialogue. Silence is no longer an option. Dialogue is. This dialogue needs to be an open one instead of being hushed up. Having a candid dialogue on sexuality does not necessarily mean teaching young people how to have sex. It certainly does not mean giving them information that is beyond their age and experience. It means conveying the message that their private parts are as natural as any other body part, and nothing to be ashamed of. It means giving them age-appropriate information about not just biological aspects of sexuality but also about responsible and sensitive behaviour within society and relationships. It means discussing with them the importance of being safe towards themselves and others. It means empowering them to not be pushed or coerced into sexual activities out of peer pressure or exploitation. It means creating a safe space to ask questions and raise concerns. To that effect, 'sex ed' is a misnomer. It is not just about sex. It is about sexuality, which encompasses biological, psychological and social dimensions instead of just sexual acts. The term 'sex ed' therefore needs to be dropped — not in order to call it something that doesn't mention the letters s, e and x in that order and thereby provides us with a euphemism that minimises our discomfort, but to reflect the range of issues that such a discussion with young people should ideally encompass. But will talking about sexuality with young people give them ideas? Yes and no. Yes, it will give them ideas about responsible, safe and violence-free choices. No, it will not encourage them to become voyeurs and flashers or to be reckless in their sexual behaviour. For those who fear that sexuality education may titillate youngsters, they need to realise that sexual content is available all around us, and not all of it is responsible, safe and age-appropriate. On the other hand, there are almost no channels or sources of open and caring communication. It is understandable that given our present context, talking to young people about sexuality is hard. The alternatives, however, are harder.