I recently moved into a new house. In the process of unearthing hoarded goods, I came across a box of my textbooks from middle school. One particular book’s contents evoked mixed emotions, given the newer contexts in which I have explored it – as a former adolescent, a brand new adult; a science student in high school but an arts student in college; and as a heavy consumer of literature and media.
The notorious couple of chapters from my eighth-grade science book – ‘Reproduction in Animals’ and ‘Reaching the Age of Adolescence’ – were our first, and for most the only exposure to sex, or at least it’s education. CBSE’s prescribed textbooks circle back to the concept in tenth, but insufficiently. By the time it delves into details in the 11th grade, it is reduced to an optional discipline.
Of course, it is impossible for me to put ‘sex’ and ‘education’ together without referring to the eponymous Netflix series. The show revolves around Otis, a high-school student struggling to navigate his ambivalence towards sex and his peers’ obsessions with the same. With the addition of Jean, his sex-therapist mother, the show has a refreshing and bold take on the subject, especially for Indian audiences.
In Sex Education, the parents play an active part in their children’s lives, sometimes to a fault. They’re flawed, scared and make mistakes, and their kids are often left to deal with the repercussions, exemplified by Maeve’s absconding parents or Adam’s military dad. The teenagers themselves stem from clichés, but are treated as wholesome and mature characters. Eric isn’t just the gay best friend, Aimee isn’t simply the dumb blonde girl and Maeve is more than her bad girl persona.
The show dares to talk about sexual health and how it derives from and affects an adolescent’s mental health – all while India struggles to normalise mental health itself. It takes sex beyond its cisgender heteronormative confines, exploring how it fits into varying gender identities and sexualities, whereas we’ve yet to normalise the former. It speaks openly about masturbation and sexual exploration – while for most of us, sexual autonomy as a teenager is unimaginable.
Flipping through the pages with diagrams of the male and female reproductive system, alongside terms like ‘secondary sexual characteristics’, I can distinctly remember the utter discomfort of studying topics like menstruation in class.
“There was a lot of giggling and avoiding eye contact with the other gender. Many people would sit in the back bench and flip through the chapter way before it was even meant to be taught. Our teacher did her best to control the giggles, but she was probably very used to this reaction,” said Gauri Kumar from R. N. Podar School, Mumbai.
It wasn’t until the 11th grade, when I opted for Biology, that I found out that there exist a plethora of contraceptives beyond condoms and that AIDs is not the only incurable STD. Only about 30 out of 150 students in my batch got this information.
Things are done in a similar manner all across India.
I spoke to people who went to school in Delhi, Mumbai, Raipur, Patna and Chennai, and – not to my surprise, unfortunately – none of them received any formal sexual education. While teachers tried to open a dialogue at some places, at others, such an effort wasn’t even made.
“Some of my teachers would hesitate while teaching this – rush through the chapters and not talk about the diagrams. This would engrain the belief into the students’ minds that this is something that shouldn’t be talked about publicly,” said Jatin Jha from Don Bosco Academy, Patna.
The topic is also not broached by most parents, with a few exceptions. But even those attempts remain severely deficient.
“My mom gave me the most awkward sex prep talk when I was 11. She just to tell me to not get physically too close to a guy because I can end up pregnant and she told me that rape is very very painful,” said Anubha Gupta.
The focus is more on sexual awareness in terms of harassment and ‘good’ or ‘bad’ touch. While extremely important, this adds to the narrative of how dangerous and ill-advised sex is for teenagers and does nothing to help them accept it as a natural part of growing up.
On the one hand, our adults evade this topic and on the other, we delve into it anyway – armed with little guidance and a potential plethora of misinformation. Just because a subject is not discussed, doesn’t magically make it any less of a reality for teenagers across the country. Despite the awkwardness and the unwillingness to have holistic discussions about it, we end up engaging in sexual activities anyway, and in doing so pose a threat to our own physical and mental health, and to others’.
“The internet mixed with teenage hormones gave us some really odd results. We discovered porn and sites like Omegle, with its standard question of ‘asl?’. All these instantaneous inputs not only gave us information that no one taught us how to handle but also made so many of us vulnerable to manipulation. With puberty and dating, teens – especially girls – started getting sexualised for their breasts and locker room talk became a thing. Before we knew it, we started doing things that we just did not understand,” said Srishti Sensarma from The Shri Ram School, Moulsari, Delhi.
The systematic ignorance and societal oppression of all things related to sex for high school students leads to this severe lack of awareness and knowledge. Left at the mercy of the internet, it’s no surprise there are huge gaps in our understanding and acceptance of this.
“How did you receive sex education?”, Netflix asks a grandparent for a video “Indian Grandparents Talk Sex” and very promptly, we hear the reply, “Same way I learnt to laugh, cry, walk. It’s a natural phenomenon.”
But it is this ignorance that leads to the question from India in this video to the cast of Sex Education: “I’m a 20 year old woman. Can I become pregnant after watching porn?”