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Sex education begins at home

Considering that we are still so unsure about which class sex education should be introduced in, what should be taught and who will teach, should be decided later, writes Nandita Sengupta.

india Updated: Jul 27, 2007 00:11 IST
Nandita Sengupta

In December 2004, two teenagers showed us why introducing sex education in Indian schools is asking for trouble. The ‘MMS kids’ from Delhi must now be in college getting on with their lives. But recall how India responded to the 16-year-olds recording and distributing their infamous clip. All, barring none, turned away. The school suspended them, mobile phones were banned in the school and the eBay CEO was arrested. Remarkable responses that would be repeated today to the last detail in a similar situation, as we don’t know any better. The ‘sex’ and the MMSes, of course, continue. The only purpose served was to hush the whole thing up, and if youngsters wanted to scream ‘what the hell’, they were simply not allowed to.

In the ongoing debate about sex education in schools, we’re still fighting over what to teach, when to teach, how to teach and who will teach. Both opponents and those for sex education have been bandying about such skewed arguments that there’s hardly place for a sensible conclusion to be reached. Sadly, the arguments for sex education are even more hackneyed than those against it — the opponents at least known for their dogmatic approach.

The ‘progressive’ reasoning behind talking about sex is to make minors aware of Aids so that they can be cautious about their sexual behaviour. It is an unfortunate generation for which sex and talking about sex will be associated with a disease and its entailing burden. A teenager’s sexual behaviour is a result of his or her beliefs, which is a mix of individual values, family systems and the ability to engage with the media blitzkrieg and peer pressure. It is not a stand-alone raging war of hormones.

The onus of sex education lies solely with the parents. Until they can get over their squeamishness about talking sex, there’s little ground that will be covered to ensure responsible behaviour. And that is exactly what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meant when he said on December 1, 2005, that people should shed their inhibitions and openly address issues of sex, in order to ensure safe-sex practices. He’s talking about ‘us’, the parents, and not just ‘they’, the teachers.

Why does the responsibility lie at home and not with the school? For starters, every child starts asking questions at a different age. There’s no single age at which all them can be bundled into a class where a psychologist will brandish the fear of HIV in the hope that kids will rush to wear chastity belts. Parents, more than anyone else, can help youngsters appreciate the emotional paradigm of sex, and the cost of early experimentation to their health and well-being.

The point is that parents don’t even have to pre-empt the ‘talking about sex’ — the queries start on their own. It’s been said ad nauseam that the important bit is to answer truthfully. When the child encounters a blank wall at home is when he takes his curiosity elsewhere. So don’t blame him for learning about sex from P. Diddy because his daddy was lost for words. Parents are also the best people to talk to their children about judging what’s in the media and handling peer expectations.

Ideally, NCERT publications on sex education should be sold in bookstores across the country and read by the parents of five-year-olds so they can ‘talk’ about the basics. The other reason that sex education must start at home is that teenage sexual behaviour is not driven only by ‘science’ or by fear of disease. When we debate the importance of sex education, we really mean guiding children to make choices, the consequences of which they believe that they can deal with. A morality compass is essential — it’s not just about health or society but also about a sense of worth. Home is where children make their value judgments and form their personality. And finally, whatever happened to love and heartbreak? In all the talk about parents being friends to their children, far too often parents end up being neither guardians nor pals ,guardians have to face some truths themselves.

Grown-ups refuse to acknowledge that when they grimace over Rakhi Sawant’s pelvic fury, kids do not necessarily love it either. But they are watching the adults squirm as much as they are watching her. It’s a good time to talk about sexuality. Why are you uncomfortable? Why don’t we let her do her thing? Different families, different standards. No book can help on this one.

The school has its own role to play. It has the right environment to talk about Aids, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, impact of early experimentation, etc. — and more so because the sex educator is usually a psychologist or a counsellor. ‘Regular’ teachers are ill-equipped to take on the additional role. Moreover, teachers also need help. Ask any senior school teacher: flirtatious students are a growing problem. They scare teachers. Young men who open the door with a flourish are at once “cute and threatening”. No teacher has been trained to handle that.

In school, ‘sex education’ with all its overwhelming relevance is best left alone. The school is nothing but a ground for experimentation. It is at home that it must begin. The same way that teaching youngsters about religion does not lead to fundamentalism, telling them about sex does not lead to irresponsible behaviour. Not helping them to dispel myths, however, can only confuse them further.