I went to a school under the aegis of the central government. The physical and educational infrastructure of the school was crumbling, but it tried its best to provide for its many hundreds of students. When I reached secondary school, we had a session on sex education. Given that my school was a co-ed one, certain parts of the talk were common. But, when it came to the part on periods and pads, the “boys” were sent out and the “girls” stayed back.
We were segregated according to the gender binary (which was imposed on me as a child, because I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate my transness back in school). They must have talked to the boys about boners and becoming “decent” men, I assume. I can’t know for sure, because I was never allowed to be there. Sex education in Indian schools is nothing but a binary, abstinence-oriented, one-time intervention.
Such education is incomplete. It doesn’t take into account the realities of Indian youths’ lives.
Where Indians once needed to avoid a lot of scrutinies to go on with their love lives, we now have access to each other at our fingertips (via screens). Young people, especially now, are on the cusp of many freedoms. Access to the Internet has revolutionised how we interact with each other.
To think that we are not sexual beings, or to assume that all of us are heterosexual and/or not transgender, is a massive flaw. Don’t infantilise us! We need open spaces to have these conversations, again and again, instead of being “shamed” for being “curious”.
My sister, now 29, went to the same school as me, for a bit. One of the hats that my sister, Apurupa Vatsalya, dons is that of being a sex educator. Naturally, I wanted to talk to them about what they thought of the sex education we had received in school. They said, “I didn’t receive any sex education in school, barring one chapter in biology, which was assigned as self-study.”
This was the chapter detailing the so-called female and male “reproductive organs”. I was taken aback to hear that someone who is just three years older, didn’t even receive the basic talk I had.
Speaking about the long-term impact of not having received a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), they added, “I’m an intersectional, sex-positive, queer feminist. Because I was deprived of sexuality education, I ended up internalizing a lot of misinformation, stemming from brahminical patriarchy. I struggled in taking care of my own sexual health, needs and well-being as a result of this.”
They have become the teacher they needed, growing up. Today, they run a popular Instagram page, as a sexuality educator.
According to UNESCO, it “is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.”
Unlike the popular misconception about it, CSE actually leads teenagers and young adults to make responsible choices. It is NOT a greenlight to sexually experiment. Apart from one’s common sense, there are research studies to prove otherwise.
For instance, a study with a sample size of more than 900 adolescents, studying at a Marathi-medium school in Pune, Maharashtra, concluded that: “Students who were not exposed to scientific literature on reproductive and sexual health were more likely to have initiated sex early.” (Sahay, Nirmalkar, Sane, Verma, Reddy, & Mehendale, 2013).
CSE provides children and young people with a safe space that equips us with the knowledge we need, to look after our own sexual and reproductive needs as well as health. A meta-analysis by Khubchandani, Clark, & Kumar (2014) showed that “Comprehensive sexuality education has greater efficacy and cost-effectiveness (even in the developing countries) with regard to improving sexual health outcomes in adolescents.”
Next, I thought of reaching out to a couple of other sex educators. Karishma Swarup is one of them. She is also a sex educator on the Internet. Her school counsellor “tried to be sex-positive and said ‘sex is a sport, it’s all about experimentation, but she never actually gave us any hard skills about healthy relationships, consent, condoms, STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and pregnancy prevention.”
Like many of us millennials have, Swarup resorted to the Internet to fill in the blanks. “The bulk of my actual knowledge about CSE, as a teen, came from YouTube videos by feminist creators like Laci Green, and then my training when I started teaching peer sex education in college [Brown University],” added the 24-year-old.
My sister, Swarup and 27-year-old Nikita Barton are the three (CSE for all) musketeers, the way I see it. Barton facilitates queer and trans-affirming CSE.
They went to a “catholic school”, where they received “the bare minimum [information] on menstruation and mood swings during adolescence etc.” They were also fed ridiculous lies like, “Children whose parents truly love them don’t waste time dating because their heart is already full.”
Absolute hogwash, I say! Young people are likely to be drawn to each other, irrespective of the parental love we may (or may not) receive. Learning about our own and each others’ bodies is also a part of learning how to be well-adjusted adults. Currently, Barton conducts one-on-one as well as group sessions for all age groups. They believe that it’s never too late to learn.
In these sessions, they touch upon the scientific as well as societal aspects of sexuality. They “celebrate every individual and assure them that they are worthy of love, respect and consensual, pleasure-filled sex if they so choose!” One of the workshops they have designed is called ‘pleasure 101’. They added, “Having access to information that is affirming, allows us to think through our decisions, without the unnecessary burden of shame, stigma and hatred.”
While everyone is trying their best to be inclusive on the Internet, there is still a long way to go before CSE is accessible to all. Not everyone has access to a smartphone and the Internet, for instance. Even those who do may not understand English. Other intersections such as caste and disability also impact one’s sexuality.
Vatsalya knows that they have only catered to a certain section of society. “The response has been positive, barring unwanted dick pics and abusive messages on social media. I haven’t personally faced a lot of backlash because I’m cognizant that I have majorly catered to a very privileged slice of society,” she says.
Varuna Srinivasan, a doctor by training and sexual health consultant based in the USA, weighed in. “Well, it does get frustrating when I try to be intersectional. For example, when I bring in issues of race and caste, people are not so willing to talk about the ways in which they impact sexuality. It’s important for us all to keep talking about these nuances too!”, she explains.
In an attempt to do so, she “creates [virtual] spaces that encourage curiosity and empowerment.” Having gone through the journey herself, she feels so much more sure and confident about her body. Hence, by “working to import thorough comprehensive sex education in our communities, I am hopefully telling others that they too deserve to feel the same way.”
Swarup said, “More than the hate in my comments and DMs [direct messages], I am flooded with questions—people have so much to ask and they don’t know where to go because this is ‘literally’ the ‘talk you never got’.”
From teaching in schools, she moved her work online due to the pandemic. “What I didn’t expect was the number of young adults—college students, newlyweds, young people in general—who had the exact same questions and clarifications as the high school students I’ve taught in the past,” she adds.
If there is one thing I know for sure about CSE, it’s that as young people, we need it. We want to talk about sex and all things related. We want to dispel the shame that is associated with sexuality. It’s about time us Indians started talking about these things candidly, instead of brushing them under the carpet. Shouldn’t we be in a position where I am prepared to look after all my needs and boundaries, sexual or non-sexual?