Why are we afraid of sex education?

I remember having to look at Jack paint Rose through the gaps in between my fingers. Who would’ve thought there’d be nudity in a movie about a sinking ship! Clearly not my mother and my aunt, who’d taken nine-year-old me and my similarly-aged cousin sister to watch ‘Titanic’ at a theatre in the city. We tried really hard to hold in the giggles as our nervous mums frantically wished the scene away. I doubt they really expected us to dutifully shut our eyes during the “inappropriate” scenes. It was probably just an order made in panic.

Why panic? Because it’s sex, silly. You don’t take your family to a movie where people have sex! Not where I am, at least. So what about “the talk”, then? Who tells the kids about the facts of life?

If your parents sat you down one awkward evening and dished out all the essentials, you’re not one of many. I got my facts of life from a Khushwant Singh joke book and Friends (the sitcom). I have to admit I’m kind of grateful about not having to go through all that with my parents, but apparently that is the best way. So under the burden of that responsibility, a few months back I went and bought my twelve-year-old brother a picture book about the changes in an adolescent boy’s life. We never talked about it again.

Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier if you just got taught about sex in school with the rest of the kids by a teacher you didn’t particularly care for? In my school education the closest I remember experiencing any form of sex education was in class 6. A bunch of people from Whisper (P&G’s sanitary napkin company) came and gave us a very nice session on menstruation. When I say ‘us’ I mean the girls. When we all returned to class (trying to be discreet about the free sanitary goodies we all got), some boys began complaining about how it wasn’t fair that only we got stuff. Thanks to one wise schoolboy who whispered furiously (‘It’s some girls’ stuff da’), they quickly shut up, and the day resumed.

In class 9, we all waited with bated breaths for our biology teacher to teach Life Processes part-2 (Sexual reproduction in animals). Ultimately they excluded that lesson from the exam though. Perhaps the teachers sensed that we’d all gone through it enough without their help. It was in class 11 that we formally got taught about how babies are born. By then, most of us had our set perceptions about the forbiddenness of sex.

Of course that was more than a decade ago, when Mario was the coolest bit of technology ever. Today, kids are playing videogames where they have to steal cars from roads teeming with scantily clad women. Things have changed. Or have they?

In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) launched the Adolescence Education Programme (AEP). The programme outlined sex education in CBSE schools with the intention of tackling AIDS, child abuse and unsafe sexual experimentation. As of today AEP is supposed to be taught in all CBSE schools as life skills education from classes 1 to 8, and as co-curricular subject from classes 9 to 12.

Ever since the AEP was introduced in 2005, it has been facing stiff opposition from self-proclaimed safe-guarders of our “values”. Several states and political parties banned AEP citing various reasons.

A Frontline article from 2007 quotes Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan: “I believe that the text material on the subject was not submitted before you in a proper manner or else you would not have approved it. Instead the younger generation should be taught about yoga, Indian culture and its values.” Other ministers who opposed the programme cited similar reasons: “corrupting young minds”; another article quotes former HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi as saying sex education was a foreign conspiracy by international NGO’s.

Last November, the UNFPA (the UN’s Population Fund) came out with an evaluation report of adolescence education in India in 2010-11. The report compared levels of awareness of adolescents exposed to the AEP programme and those not. They found out, as expected, the AEP kids were better informed about sexual harassment, menstruation, and common taboos. However, both groups of children (AEP and non-AEP) performed poorly when it came to knowledge about the spread of AIDS, the use of condoms. More alarmingly, the teachers themselves displayed a lack of comprehensive knowledge with many of them justifying wife-beating. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that the report states “43 per cent of students said wife-beating can be justified by certain circumstances.”

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that something is wrong somewhere. I found a petition report which was presented to the Rajya Sabha in 2009, which made the crux of the problem a little clearer to me. The petition was to put a hold on introducing sex education in CBSE schools, as proposed by the AEP programme.

Here are the main concerns of the petitioners as stated in the report.

• that sex education will corrupt Indian youth and lead to collapse of education system;

• that sex education will transform student-teacher relation into that of a man and woman;

• that it is an education to sell condoms; and

• that it will lead to creation of immoral society and also lead to a growth in single parent families.

According to one of the petitioners, “the AEP material claimed that sex was a wholesome pleasurable experience which would prod sense organ of the children to experiment such thing under peer pressure. This according to her was not only immoral but also illegal in the eyes of law.”

The committee also brought out excerpts from some of the AEP material which they claimed to be “pornographic” in nature. One of the alleged “pornographic” lines is “Conception occurs when semen with live sperms is deposited in the vagina or cervix and fertilizes a live ovum.” Another one is “Missing monthly periods, nausea, vomiting, enlargement of the nipples, full and tender breasts, positive pregnancy test etc. are signs of pregnancy.”

Now what kind of weird people find sentences like these even remotely titillating is beyond me.

The report goes on for pages and pages, but what stayed with me is the fact of how all these naysayers have one thing in common. They all seem to agree that ensuring that your child is not promiscuous is more important than protecting him or her from sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies and AIDS. Without realising it these people are sending out a message that they would rather “protect” their daughters from unmarried willing sex, than educate their sons to not rape or beat their wives. It’s prestige over practicality, and nothing kicks prestige in the rear-end more than a wayward daughter, it seems.

None of them seem to understand that sex education is not the only place a child can learn about sex in the world today. Do you want to risk your child getting a skewed perception of sex from a videogame, or would you rather he or she learnt it from trained instructors?


The petition report can be seen here

The UNFPA evaluation report can be seen here

2007 Frontline article can be seen here