State of Denial
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26 May 2009
By Prasenjit Chowdhury
Sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in 1963. With Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra having been written earlier than that we can assume that Indians learnt to have sex earlier than the Brits. There is no point in arguing that India was ever an asexual society. Surely, India’s whopping population does not suggest that ours is a sexually abstinent country. Child marriages are still rampant and we do not seem to mind exposing our children to premature sex by marrying them off. We consider Konark and Khajuraho as embodiments of Indian sexual tradition, to be venerated, but do not accept educating our children about sex on the pretext that it is ‘Anti–Indian’.
Mindsets are hard to change. Perhaps Indian society is more permissive than it was some 20 years ago. But there is great reluctance and half –heartedness about embracing sex education as part of the school curricula in this country. Sex education was introduced in our national curriculum since the late 1980s, but how far have we succeeded in truly educating our children about responsible sexual behaviour?
There is the looming danger of sexual miseducation. And then, of course, there is the peculiar Indian combination of repressiveness and permissiveness that leads to poor judgment about sexual matters, which contributes to teenage pregnancy and spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Out of a misguided sense of protectiveness, Indian parents cling to the notion of childhood innocence and fail to provide timely or accurate information about sex to their offspring. The second kind of distortion comes from those who package sex as a commodity. While parents withhold information, the media and the marketplace spew sexual misinformation. Indian laws have not guaranteed access to knowledge about safe and responsible sexual practices, nor have they promoted discrimination–free HIV/AIDS testing.
Back in 1993, a survey of 35 sex education projects conducted by the World Health Organisation showed that sex education in schools did not encourage young people to have sex at an earlier age or more frequently. Rather, the survey showed that early sex education delays the start of sexual activity, reduces sexual activity among young people and encourages those already sexually active to have safer sex. So the talking point should not be the rationale of sex education in Indian classrooms but the methodology.
We were not alive to the emergence of the HIV/AIDS problem in India in the late 1980s. In 2007, India became the country with the highest number of HIV–positive people, with an estimated 5.7 million cases, but we are still in denial. While India has the largest population of HIV sufferers, a taboo on talking openly about sex has ensured that sex education is not imparted properly in schools, and people, especially women, are reluctant to seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
In early 2003, Sushma Swaraj, then health minister, told the press that the country’s AIDS programme had to focus on sexual abstinence and faith rather than just condoms. The hush–hush, inanely ritualistic sex education classes in Indian classrooms seem somehow to represent the conservative forces in India who are battling fiercely to resist the swift pace of societal change, as a new generation of adolescents, particularly in the cities, are brought up on a diet of globalised values. If we are going to teach our children that abstinence is the best way, we ignore the fact that there is a growing number of adolescents who are already sexually active in their early teens in India.
The Supreme Court, in 2005, decided that sex education in schools couldn’t be brought under the ambit of fundamental rights by making it a part of the right to education. Out of a misplaced notion of morality, we can’t just afford to turn our back on sex education, which can never succeed if teachers are not rid of inhibitions themselves.