A slice of adolescence: Sex (mis)education in India

A still shot of a satirical video about Sex Education in India that went viral in 2014. Source: Reshareit.com

By Mandeep Singh, Melton Fellow

(Mandeep’s original blog post was written for Pasand, a social enterprise dedicated to adolescent heath and wellness.)

Details are hazy, but I think it was the turn of the millennium. A fauji family and consequently nomads by circumstance, we’d just moved to a new campus (again) and Mom was anxious I wasn’t acclimatising well, for I had been confined to the loo the past couple of days. She feared I’d fallen prey to a nasty stomach bug. Or maybe it was the water. It was my third visit to the loo that morning, and while she was worried sick, on the other side of the door I was onto something far more sinister.

Leaning against the wall far from the commode, I was feverishly fumbling with the little appendage between my legs, once again inching closer and closer to the edge beyond which I knew lay a thrilling plunge into earthly paradise — and the now not-so-innocuous organ was the secret gateway to it.

I was seven, maybe six… curiosity killed my innocence, and there was no going back.

It took my body another half a decade to embark on the tumultuous journey called puberty. By then, I was helplessly trapped in a state of hypnotic servitude to my genitalia. Resistance and resolutions had been futile, and I’d succumb to my urges whenever they flared.

Of course, I failed to foresee any of this as a 7 year old. And in all honesty, I had no inkling of what was actually happening every time I did the deed. I came to believe I was the only being capable of milking ecstasy from my genitals, and as such, was immensely thankful for my ‘gift’; for a brief period even harbouring a desire to showcase my “superpower” to my friends (Fortunately, it never happened).

Sex (Mis)Education

Class 6 was when I first heard the word condom. This was the beginning of a confusing trail leading to a gradual awareness of the changes happening in my body, and the eventual ‘discovery’ of the birds and the bees. Unfortunately for us, discourse on puberty and sex was largely absent in families and the school curriculum. I should mention my father’s attempt to initiate a conversation on sex, though it had a ‘sexual-intercourse-is-for-procreation’ spin to it. He left it at that, sensing I knew more, much more… He signed off with the understanding that I wouldn’t hesitate to speak to him if had a query about sex, and reiterated his motto “Everything at the right age”. That was the first and the last time we had, or came close to having, a meaningful discussion on sex. I never went to him when I had questions, because I told myself I didn’t. In reality, it just felt too awkward.

Then came the CBSE’s fabled class 7/class 10 science lesson “Reproduction”, a perfunctory attempt at Sex-Ed, and forever a curricular hot potato among the teaching staff. That chapter has been a source of mischievous anticipation for an entire generation of students. Our excitement built up as we started with the biology lessons, but ultimately when it was time to study the chapter, the teachers chose to devote disproportionate number of class hours demystifying the fascinating asexual reproductive ways of the flowers, seemingly mesmerised by the collective chastity of the plant kingdom.

Studying sexual reproduction entailed muffled giggles and committing to memory two well labelled diagrams of scandalous things, all hush hush, done and dusted in no more than an hour. The text was clinical and evasive, for instance “… the sperm is ‘introduced’ into the womb (no word on how it is ‘introduced’ there — Magic? perhaps Quantum teleportation?) No word on erections, sex, or what a womb is even meant for…

A paragraph touched upon contraceptives — condoms, pills and something called a “copper-T”.

You popped the pill and dodged the pregnancy. But a condom? Copper-T? How were those things used? Surely not popped like a pill… What did they even look like?

The text didn’t elaborate.

Draw a neatly labelled diagram of human male/female reproductive system (10 Marks).

This sure fire exam question basically sums up how batch after batch of students gets tested on the subject of sexual reproduction every year. For this is all they get to learn, in class.

So, while many of us had a vague picture of things (from non-classroom learning), it was disastrously insufficient for an age group poised on the cusp of sexual maturity.

It was then left to us to figure things out. Building on what we knew, and based on facts and info pieced together from ‘blue films‘ (DVD porn), condom ads (Dude, Dudette and parrot unabashedly chanting “KUN-DOME! KUN-DOME!” in public. Remember that one?) and sanitary napkin commercials, we stood in triumph, having finally broken the elusive code of sex and adulthood. There were four pillars to our enlightenment:

  1. Sex was a prerequisite for pregnancy.
  2. Condoms prevented pregnancies.
  3. Sex also lead to AIDS, and condoms prevented AIDS. (Corollary: Condom free sex = AIDS.)
  4. Sanitary pads were spongy conveniences worn by the fairer sex to pee in, eliminating the need to scout for a restroom.

However, it lead us to the “The Great Aids Paradox“, which stemmed from our inability to reconcile facts (1),(2) and (3). We knew we were all a result of pregnancies, made possible by contraceptive free sex.

But by this logic, our parents also had AIDS when they had us. This conundrum was a source of sheer torment for us, but arguably also served as a good exercise for nurturing our critical thinking faculties.

Once, a struggling classmate was severely disciplined by our teacher for some debauched transgression that the latter kept alluding to. The girl was slapped and berated in front of us. Later, word got out that she had a ‘boyfriend’, and the two had allegedly touched each other in the wrong places. The teacher had gotten wind of this. Punishment was swift and public. The message was clear: Urges and crushes were taboo. The good kids stayed focussed on studies and got good grades. Humiliation awaited those who strayed.

I too, quickly judged the girl, smug in my contention that she had forsaken her studies for romance and would achieve nothing in life.

A newspaper article about Indian politicians’ opposition to sex education in schools. Source: attitudespeaks.blogspot.de

As I grew older, more and more boys started coming clean about masturbating.

By class 9, we started hearing popular high school myths linking masturbation to a variety of horrific consequences. These included blindness, a life condemned as a midget (stunted growth), low IQ and shrunken testicles, to name a few.

These were scary enough to have some of the most lecherous lads announce lifelong abstinence from the act. Of course, hormones would prove too difficult to rein in, and every third day someone would frantically renew his pledge of abstinence following a ‘relapse’. These guys in their mutual support groups would reassure each other that they hadn’t squirted out their brain cells/all their growth hormones in just one instance of a relapse.

I wouldn’t say I was aware these claims were bogus. I too believed in them, yet somehow, the prospect of living with the consequences had become a price I was willing to pay for extended retreats into the narcotic haze of prurience and lust, far away from the steep expectations and setbacks of a bumpy teenage life.

And this is where I really wish I had overcome my shame and sought some guidance. An excess of anything can be damaging. I was severely addicted. Copious self-pleasure became the cornerstone of my escapist tendencies, and continues to be so. It’s been the single biggest influence on my very essence, and mostly not in a very constructive way. Still, I consider myself very fortunate to have emerged unscathed despite the tyranny of puritan hawks in school and a mega-mountain of misinformation out there.

I had a middle class upbringing in a supportive, liberal environment. Someone else may not have such privilege, and that makes them much more vulnerable to STIs, an unwanted pregnancy, ridicule, abuse or an unfortunate combination of these.

Perhaps my eighth grade teacher was just concerned about the besotted girl’s well-being. I wonder how sitting her down and making her understand the risks involved would have made a difference. Perhaps expecting a regular teacher to explain penetrative sex to a bunch of 13–16 year olds in science class is too much to ask, and if so, it just accentuates the dire need to have a solid Sex-Ed curriculum with dedicated sex educators in place.

That is why the work of team Pasand and the like gives me hope. Hope for change. Hope that a girl experiencing menarche is able to embrace womanhood with pride, hope that millions of teenagers get access to proper sexual education and wellness products, and hope that carefree young boys can masturbate in peace…