Three months into the first ever biology class of my young life, my class test result came back with a jolly ol’ 8/10 looking smugly up at me. I should’ve been pretty smug too. But I broke into a cold sweat. Why oh why had I scored so well on a test about Sexual Reproduction?
Most of my classmates had done badly—unsurprising, since the teacher had only skimmed through the subject, So what did that make me? An average student who got lucky? Or a pervert who thought about sex so much that I aced a test without any effort?
It would have been pointless, I remember thinking, to explain to my tight-lipped teacher and my puberty-stricken classmates that bookshelves at home had books on the human body. It would be pointless to say that my mother and I had open discussions about everything under the sun, including sex, genetics, childbirth, protection and more. How could I explain knowing all these “adult” things as a girl of 12? What other kind of ‘depraved’ knowledge did I have? Was it enough to send me to the counselor? The principal? To be expelled?
Over a decade later, I’ve realised just how harmful this attitude towards sex is, particularly from an education point of view. If school is supposed to prepare you for the world outside, scrimping on such an important aspect of human life – sexual development, desire, safety, and more – leaves young people like sitting ducks. If you wouldn’t send a kid to buy sabzis without knowing basic arithmetic, how on earth can you expect a person of any age to engage in sex without knowing concepts like consent and contraception and getting tested for STDs?
Terming it ‘age inappropriate’ is just plain lazy. Kids’ bodies start changing when they’re as young as nine. Students in Class VIII are struggling with period cramps, sexual attraction, involuntary erections, sore breasts, bad genital hygiene—and they deserve answers immediately! Passing the buck to colleges and universities is no good either, because it’s just as hush-hush.
About a year after I had shed the weight of my excellent biology marks, the inevitable happened. I had so many questions. Why did my nipples stick out painfully in the cold? Why were tampons refusing to go in? Why was I not attracted to boys? What was homosexuality? What do I do with period-stained panties? Was kissing really as messy as it looked? And what the hell was this ‘PCOD‘ some of the girls were complaining about?
As a 25-year-old with the answers to all these questions, I’m angry about having to wait so long, and about how the right education could have saved me from so many mistakes (and underwear; man I threw away so many after they got stained!). I would have not hurt myself forcing in a tampon. I would have come out of the closet sooner and prouder. I would have been able to empathise with and help classmates dealing with PCOD. I would have gotten on my friend’s case about using protection, instead of watching her swallow pill after pill, thinking that I didn’t know enough to say anything. But wishful thinking is all you’re left with when schools and parents don’t tell you what you need to know.
Without proper sex education at the school level, the risks are too high. 2.1 million Indians living with HIV/AIDS, because shame and stigma and exorbitant feeds forbade them from accessing testing services, non-judgemental doctors, antiretroviral therapy. 16 million teen pregnancies in India, each with complications like hemhorraging, hypertension, and anaemia. And India’s idea of consent (even in legal terms) is so horribly skewed that marital rape is not a crime.
The Delhi Statistical Handbook found that, in 2015, there were over 40 lakh school students in the capital alone. The figure must have risen by now. Think about the risks we are exposing them to by keeping them in the dark. And while we’re at it, we need to think about the 8.4 crore children who are not in school. Imagine if each of them were equipped with knowledge about how to take care of their sexual health, what questions to ask, and whom to ask. We could reduce the number of new STD or HIV infections. We could reduce the number of injuries and accidents. Less unwanted pregnancies. Less fear of abortion. Less fear of families and ‘honour’ and people wrecking their bodies. Hell we could even rescue sex from a cultural quagmire, and restore it as something that’s fun, pleasurable, and legitimately a way for two or more humans to bond with each other!
I don’t know about you, but that’s the future I think India’s youth should be stepping into.