The Act That Must Not Be Named
I distinctly remember the glee on my classmates’ faces when we started the most awaited lecture of the year, human reproduction, clearly indicative of our immaturity. The thrill of being taught something that was taboo felt like tasting forbidden fruit. We are all too familiar with the stigma around sex. Expressing genuine curiosity about this topic is considered shameful and exploring one’s sexuality, humiliating. Speaking with elders about it is disrespectful and unsanskari.
We can satirize this juxtaposition all day, but it is important to understand what this taboo has cost us. Multiple studies have shown that unsafe sex is one of the most risky behaviors for people, especially adolescents. There were 78,979 deaths due to unsafe sex practices in India in 2019 as compared to 14,354 in the US and 1,456 in the UK. A survey found that 57% of Indians do not use contraception. Over 17 lakh people contracted HIV in India in the last 10 years due to unprotected sex. Although abortion has been legal in India since 1971, around 67% of abortions are unsafe. Moreover, eight women die every day due to unsafe abortions. Shortage of doctors in rural areas, lack of confidentiality and widespread stigma are the major impediments to safe abortions. Hesitancy to understand this subject has led to the spread of unscientific and groundless notions about sex. For example, the use of the virginity test, irrational fear of AIDS patients, periods signifying adulthood (the brain only fully develops at 25), homosexuality being contagious, etc.
Karnataka recently banned pharmacies from giving contraceptives and antidepressants to people under 18 after condoms and contraceptive pills were allegedly discovered in some students’ bags. The fact that teenagers engaged in sexual intimacy was seen as abhorrent, but research studies show that adolescent sexuality is normal. Banning of contraceptives is not going to solve the problem but will rather lead to an increase in unsafe sex practices.
Having curiosity about sex is very common and natural among adolescents. But they are punished for having this natural curiosity. Expressing disgust at the mention of the word is inherent to Indian society. The mention of sex education in school and colleges was horrifying and parents, teachers, and politicians came together and expressed apprehension over “corrupting” our young children’s minds and offending “Indian values”. Do we do this to protect the child’s “innocence” or is it a marker of our own immature attitude towards sex?
Our main source of sex education these days is the holy internet. While it has been instrumental in bringing the importance of sex-ed into focus, it is also a safe haven for misinformation. One can easily go down all the wrong rabbit holes. One of those rabbit holes is pornography. Pornography portrays very unrealistic ideas of sex. It also reaffirms toxic gender stereotypes. A study found that 88% of pornographic videos contain physical aggression and 48%, verbal aggression. Perpetrators were mostly male, their targets female, and the woman’s most common response to aggression was to show pleasure.
Sex-ed is vital for navigating puberty. This phase of life is perplexing and painful to go through. Understanding our own body helps in reducing some of the confusion. The main argument against sex-ed is that it would increase “risky behavior” among teenagers and young students. However, reality is quite different. Studies show that a comprehensive sex education curriculum reduces the rates of sexual activity, risky behavior (unprotected intercourse), sexually transmitted diseases and juvenile pregnancy. Teenagers develop a healthy attitude towards sex.
When we are educated about sex in a logical and scientific manner and destigmatize the issue, we can have mature conversations about the social and cultural taboos attached to it. We can decide the appropriate course of action to deal with child marriages, prostitution industry, rape (includes marital rape), sexuality, misconceptions about ovulation, and foeticide.
A few subject matters concerning sex that everyone should be aware of are- types of contraception and the risks associated with them, fertility cycle, consent, sexual orientation, safe sex practices, genital hygiene etc.
It will be a long time before we can openly talk about sex in Indian society. That is the unfortunate truth. However, there are people who create a safe space to talk about problems faced by people. The onus is on us to bring the country to a level where mature discussions about sex are encouraged and healthy sexual attitudes are promoted.
Sources for sex-ed: @leezamangaldas, @seemaanandstorytelling, @mamadoctorjones, @dr_cuterus.