Trigger warning: Mention of abortion
I think most of us would agree that Netflix’s Sex Education is nothing short of a masterpiece. The charm of the show lies in its unconditional respect for its people, especially the kids who are all constantly juggling their personal coming-of-age struggles with the pressures of society, family, school and peer groups.
Primarily focused on themes of adolescent sexuality and sexual health, the series follows these students as they discover self-pleasure, discuss contraceptives, unlearn myths and personal biases and form different kinds of relationships.
Absolutely unapologetic in its approach to depicting the depths and complexities of teen identity, expression and relationships, the show feels celebratory. And empathetic and balanced and kind.
So much that its idealism almost upsets us in light of the experiences we’ve lived through and heard of as young adults in India. Therefore, as lovely as it is to see such unabashed sex-positivity on-screen, Sex Education also serves as a reminder of just how dissimilar our reality is from its utopia.
The sex education we get is substandard, to say the least. We’re essentially just taught a single chapter on human reproduction in 10th-grade Biology by teachers who would rather be doing anything else in the world. Personally, they either endorse abstinence or just don’t bother going beyond the incomprehensive course material.
Also, even in its limited capacity, the knowledge we do get has undertones of heteronormative and ableist conditioning. There simply isn’t any information available for those who may be in queer relationships.
“We’re only taught of sex from the point of view of reproduction and not pleasure, which in itself invalidates all non-heterosexual relationships. The proper usage of condoms and other methods to prevent STDs aren’t taught. We just cover birth control and that too poorly,” said Kabir*, an undergraduate student.
Moreover, the discussions on contraception generally presume that the onus is on the partner with the uterus to simply not get pregnant.
Indian politicians and policy makers also seem to have an issue with harmless words such as ‘masturbate’, ‘intercourse’, ‘condom’ with some going so far as to proclaim that the Adolescence Education Program (AEP) would promote “promiscuity of the worst kind”.
— no context sex education (@sexeducation) October 9, 2021
On the other hand, in September 2020, inclusive Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) was made compulsory in schools all over England. The curriculum now includes lessons on queer sex and relationships, consents, boundaries, harassment, sexting, periods, among other things.
While the students at Moordale produce musicals on aliens and sex, we are raised in a restraining “hush-hush” environment. Frankly, the draconian rules of Hope in Season 3 is the kind of Moordale High that high school students in India can most relate to.
We’ve always been made to wear uniforms that naturally divide us in a binary of cishet men and women. Any expression of individuality or discomfort with the norm is criticised or punished. From the length of our skirts to the colour of our hair, every part of our appearance is policed.
Moreover, like Maeve and Otis, we get kicked out of classrooms if our opinions challenge the regressive beliefs that some of our teachers hold so close to their hearts.
In Season 3, Dr Milburn asks Aimee to look up pictures of vulvas online to understand just how varied they are. Maeve and Otis step in when one of their peers is receiving incorrect advice about the relevance of the size of a penis and help him gain perspective to overcome his insecurity.
However, for us, the bottom line is, we don’t have a sex clinic or therapist offering advice to solve our very specific problems or answer embarrassing questions we have in mind.
“The intolerance on the part of our parents and teachers has made it difficult for us to talk to them about these issues even if we really need guidance. We end up googling questions or seeking advice from friends who probably don’t know any better,” said Naina*, a student at Delhi Technological University.
India needs sex education modules focusing on sexual assault and exploitation awareness in its academic curriculum as such lessons help to empower young people by highlighting women’s changing roles in society & also provide a safe space to address distorted views of masculinity.
— prisha. (@prishafknwalia) September 30, 2020
While talking to friends may sometimes help, it cannot always be a substitute for an experienced or professional opinion. In Season 2, Florence confides in Otis about the lack of desire and pressure she simultaneously feels to have sex. Otis misinterprets her concerns and tells her she’s probably “not ready” for it yet.
However, when Florence later talks to Dr Milburn, a trained sex therapist, she is introduced to the idea of asexuality which helps her understand the situation better. The incident sits in complete contrast to the general indifference that most Indian adults show to the existence of non-cishet identities.
Needless to say, not being able to have open conversations with our mentors or guardians about our sexual health or sexuality also eliminates the possibility of them being able to support us emotionally when we need them to.
Dr Milburn reassures Otis that there is nothing wrong with him because he can’t masturbate and Adam’s mother hugs him after he comes out to her. Most of us don’t have such a support system at home or the institute we go to.
“I’ve never had an honest conversation with my parents about sex and I’m pretty sure I never will. They obviously know that I’m aware of it but they choose to avoid such uncomfortable situations. Elders here just try to keep you as far away as possible from the idea of sex and romance. But they’re also the ones who pester you to get married as soon as you turn 25,” said Natasha*, a second-year student at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women.
Whether by choice or by societal/familial restrictions, a lot of us don’t have sexual experiences in school or until much later in life. It is obviously understood that we all follow different timelines and that our age shouldn’t act as an expiration date to having certain experiences.
However, given our tendency to compare ourselves to other people and measure our worth accordingly, lack of experience can sometimes make us feel like we’re behind in life.
At Moordale High, the norm seems to be that most students have active sex lives. At one point in the series, the students started referring to the institution as the ‘Sex School.’
The normalisation of sex as a healthy aspect of an adolescent’s life is undeniably appreciable. But there is barely any mention of how not having sex or any sort of physical intimacy with another during one’s school life is an equally normal (and common) experience.
In India, the lack of a proper curriculum along with myths being peddled as facts in textbooks leads to a dangerous cocktail of misinformation that goes on to affect the notions about sex and sexuality, of a generation.
Gujarat Model Sex Education!
Gender Equality from Heaven in India: Men menstruate semen while sleeping!
Masturbation is copulation is menstruation;
And all are inter-changeable! 👏🏻 pic.twitter.com/ICaahZxtl1
— Leher Sethi (@LeherSethi) June 4, 2021
There are isolated incidents too that remind us of how inadequate and faulty sexual healthcare services are in India. Maeve, a 16-year-old with no financial security or familial support, simply goes to a clinic and has an abortion.
In India, if you are 18 or older, you only require your own consent to get an abortion, given that your circumstances fall under the MTP Act. However, if below 18, written consent is needed from a guardian to get an abortion, in the absence of which it is considered illegal.
In this regard, Sex Education seems to be a set in a world that is tolerant and admirably compassionate. But it also seems to be a bit detached from what real life looks like for a lot of people, in a way reminding us of all the work that still needs to be done.
A queer-inclusive and Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) course must be introduced in school curriculums. According to UNESCO, CSE teaches adolescents the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality.
Moreover, along with the kids’, updating parents’ and teachers’ understanding of gender and sexuality must also be prioritised. In the end, it simply comes down to being tolerant– towards our expression, our beliefs and our choices.
*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.