Friday, October 29, 2010

The continuing myth around ‘Sexuality Education’

I always find myself correcting people when they say, ‘Sex Education’, either implying (incorrectly) that it is about teaching children “how to have sex”. I don’t claim to know it all but I do claim the right to inform or be informed as much as I NEED and WANT to know. Our country will never move forward with this debate because our focus will eternally be on the content of the program and never its principles! I can only hope the succeeding words will make us think in the latter.

Growing up, we’ve all grappled with understanding various aspects of our sexuality. Sometime after that was the confusion of distinguishing ‘sex’, ‘sexy’ & ‘sexual’ followed by flipping over semi-nudes in Cosmopolitan magazines with my cricket buddies in my supposedly tomboyish phase. Sure enough, I’ve come a long way from those days and the journey wasn’t smooth throughout. My parents were very liberal to bring up all kinds of topics that suited my age and understanding. Still, a lot of questions were unasked and unanswered, a lot of confusion and pain confessed in silence and a lot of memories repressed.

Yet many of us don’t feel the need to formalize sexuality as we feel that we all go through it and we all know, more or less, about the changes our bodies go through. The loophole in this argument is how commonly we don’t know why we go through what we do and how we live with it in a sense of secrecy, shame and embarrassment. In my growing years, I used to question if what I went through was ‘normal’. Did normal mean that it happened with other kids as well and therefore was ‘okay’?
Sexuality education is still such an under-researched and underestimated area despite the wealth of material available online. Courtesy Google, the privilege of information that the folks of yesteryears didn’t have ready access to, is now just a click away. The real reason, however, has been and always will be our own stunted beliefs and perceptions. One does not need to look beyond as much as within to understand sexuality.

Just how much importance is given to sexuality in the academic disciplines is illustrated in the curriculum of a Delhi University’s Master’s program in Psychology that includes whole chapters devoted to topics integral to development like language and emotions but none on sexuality. For psychology in India, sexuality only exists in adolescent studies and psychoanalysis, the latter within the grasps of only a limited intelligentsia.

‘The Development of Sexuality’ was the topic I decided to make a presentation on during which I asked my professor and classmates their general understanding of the term. Predictable responses like, “a particular concern in the period of adolescence” or “how comfortably we deal with different things”, came to the fore. But the most remarkable response was from a meek girl who traveled to university from interior Haryana. “It’s natural?” she said, with only some confidence. It helped me realize that we not just misconstrue sexuality but also just how much a particular individual would know about it.

Places which have taken up the challenge of an active Sexuality Education Program are thrusting a lot of technical information on tough-to-interest children or adolescents in the most matter-of-fact form. These campaigners may have succeeded in including it in the curriculum. Yet in practice, it is nothing newer than Biology class or a reminder to kids of their moral education lessons. It is a subject matter that requires to be “taught” differently. What ‘Biology’ or ‘Anatomy’ objectifies as the human reproductive system, sexuality education humanizes with personal narratives.Such an insight of thoughts and beliefs shaped by varied experiences, exposure, cultural as well contextual norms, is amiss in the greater scheme of sexuality education.

I got my first real opportunity as a ‘School Counselor Trainee’ in a school run for underprivileged children. Although I believed that sexuality education was the entire school’s concern, I knew that it was the most for a school counselor. I wasn’t of course, too sure how it could be applied or whether it could be applied in a setting with kids coming from slum colonies. For that matter, is sexuality education only for the privileged? By this assumption, is sexuality and reproductive rights placed somewhere at the higher rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs resembling the hierarchy in our own society? I didn’t believe so.

As much as a collective effort, sexuality education should be individualized to each one’s experiential as well as knowledge exposure and importantly, pace of comfort. One has to establish a ‘baseline’ of exactly where to begin from and with how much. Too much information is as lethal as too little. I pondered over how I could introduce these lessons to students of grades 6th, 7th and 8th and in what way differently. I mean I wasn’t even planning on starting with, “Where do babies come from?”. Here I had to figure out my own comfort level with others in discussing sexuality. If I was afraid or inhibited in any way, there wouldn’t have been a point to any of this and I was capable of doing greater damage than any good. I resolved within myself and began from exposing, challenging and correcting the interpretative flaws in understanding the term sexuality itself.

The cherry on this cake is the interactive nature of sessions. A primary aim of sexuality education is to provide a comfortable space to developing individuals to remove the stigma and loneliness that accompanies the various issues of growth and development. Empathizing with others’ and widening one’s own perspective is what defines sexuality education.

Despite this knowledge, the controversies around sexuality education are always concentrated on the content it should cover whilst most overlook the more integral ingredient, the methodology; how information is presented - visually or verbally, imposing or convincing delivery method of the message, and if questions ought to be tackled with awkward silences, jokes, ridicule or harassment. It is not so much the topics that a program covers but how it does that determines its effectiveness and the outcomes in a child’s coping style.

I was enjoying my time with the children discussing and exploring their ideas on friendships, family, society, their bodies, emotions and even abuse through means of role plays, mixed gender interactions (an absent quality in the school) and chinese whispers, when everything was brought to a sudden halt. I had been asked to be discreet in my classes. The word, ‘discreet’, however, doesn’t have a place in sexuality education. In fact, it stands in opposition to it. My only applicable understanding of it was to not expose the students to graphic visuals of the body. Nevertheless, I compensated through all verbal mediums. ‘It was the content of the matter’, they hinted. It’s appalling to add here thatthey didn’t want me to mention the very term, sexuality, in class. With little space given to defend myself, I was asked to discontinue everything.

The point I’d like to drive home is that sexuality education has to begin at the very roots of a subject as well as with society. By the latter, I’m hinting towards the forerunners of a society – parents, teachers, policy makers, law enforcers; all in all, the adults! Convince them and consider the job almost half done. I say ‘almost’ because although children are agents of the norms, traditions and values of a society set by their respective adults, they are active learners of their own will and choice! My illustrative experience is a case in point. Had I, perhaps, convinced the school authorities of how what I was doing going to be beneficial for the students, then the response would have been more welcoming and the outcome more positive.

My humble effort would have been entirely futile and nothing beyond an internship fulfillment, if not for the active and aroused minds of the youngsters there. Any success, even if less than a centimeter on a scale, is attributed to their receptivity and a mutual understanding between us that touched me.
Sexuality Education is a dicey matter, no doubt. However, it has to be given some leeway on the grounds that it is still in its etiological period of research, understanding and formulation. After all, every discipline has built a home through a storm of resistance, revolution and renaissance.

Sexuality education arrived a while back and is slowly seeping into mainstream society. For those to whom it is still a culture shock probably need to dig a bigger burrow!

Originally published on 26 February, 2010 on The Alternative 

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