By Zoya Achanta:
As a 17-year-old who grew up in a relatively liberal Indian household, I should probably be proud of the amount of information I’ve had access to in a society that believes sexual health is not something to be discussed with teenagers. It might then be a little unnerving when I say that until two years ago, my main thought processes ran along the lines of ‘what I don’t know can’t kill me’. I had always thought that the reason my parents hadn’t brought up sexuality was that it was genuinely something that only adults were supposed to know about.
Having always considered myself progressive, at least in comparison to a lot of the people I interacted with on a daily basis, it came as a shock to me when I realised that sexual and reproductive health were, in fact, concepts I should know about. When my cousin, who lives in the US, told me that in the 9th grade they were having weekly sexuality education classes, all I could do was stare at her in amazement.
The notion that sexual and reproductive health information should be publicly available had never even occurred to me, so naturally, I was inquisitive. I asked her questions and gradually began to understand that my feelings of shame around even thinking about what the word sex meant were completely unjustified.
In retrospect, I recognise that this lack of knowledge is not created by a single person as much as it is created by culture specific attitudes and beliefs about sex. When my friends and I started talking about sexual health and the consequences of different sexual acts, we realised how little we knew, and how much we were basing our perspectives on speculation. I have suffered this lack of knowledge first-hand multiple times. I faced it when I didn’t know what kind of activity was safe, when friends didn’t know how to decide how ‘far’ to go with their boyfriends, and when allusions to sex were cut from the films we sometimes watched in school.
One of the things that terrifies me the most is that although I am now relatively more aware of the physical and social implications of sexual activity, and about protection and birth control – many people still don’t know what their sexual activities could lead to. There are people who don’t know how pregnancy is caused and how STIs (sexually transmitted infections) are transmitted, and worse, they don’t know how to prevent it.
At one end of the spectrum, this prevents people from engaging in sex, or even other physical acts altogether, and at the other end, it leads to people mindlessly engaging in sexual activity and regretting the consequences later. When I sat down and thought about this, it struck me that this was a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, people are afraid of giving youngsters information about sexuality, but on the other hand, many people give their children full access to ‘masala’ Bollywood, a space where women are actively sexualised.
Sexuality and sexual health are concepts considered so taboo in our culture that parents would rather passively expose their children to wrong sources of information, instead of having a simple talk with them about sexuality. What this then propagates is the development of a society characterised by negative attitudes towards sexuality, and a lack of accurate information. A vicious cycle is created in which parents don’t have ‘the talk’ with their children because their own parents never had it with them.
Over the past two years, I’ve come to the understanding that sexuality education is not just something people should be aware of, it’s something they have a right to be aware of. It’s not something that people should feel ashamed of knowing about, it’s something that should serve as the guiding light behind their sexual actions. Every person has the right to be equipped with the knowledge that is so imperative before making a choice – whether it’s the choice about how ‘far’ to go with your boyfriend, the choice of having a baby, or the choice of deciding what you want to do with your own body.