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The ABC of sex education

Sex education can secure an AIDS-free future and ensure that our children grow up with a mature and realistic attitude to sex, writes Vir Sanghvi.
None | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 22, 2007 08:40 PM IST

So, Lalu Yadav does not believe in sex education. We always suspected that he didn’t think much of family planning. But now we know that Lalu-ji would prefer it if his nine children were spared sex education lessons in the classroom.

In this respect at least, Lalu-ji has more in common with his stated enemies in the BJP than with his new friends in the Congress. His outburst about sex education was in response to Renuka Chowdhury’s suggestion that not only should sex education be taught in schools, but that Indian women should learn to take the initiative in safe sex by buying condoms themselves because men tend not to bother. Renuka’s position is pretty much the government’s official line: in an era of AIDS prevalence and greater sexual awareness, it makes sense to educate people about sex in a serious and sensible way.

Except that the Opposition does not seem to agree. On AIDS, the last BJP government’s position was summed up by Sushma Swaraj who suggested an ABC approach. A stood for Abstinence. B stood for Being Faithful. And C stood for Condoms. According to Sushma aunty, the AIDS campaign needed to focus on A and B before it got around to C. In other words, condom promotion was a low priority. It took Anbumani Ramadoss, the UPA’s health minister, to turn that policy around and bring our condom use campaigns in line with international standards.

On sex education, the BJP belongs to the same school of thought. Dr Harsh Vardhan, the former health minister of Delhi, has made his views clear. He managed without any sex education in his youth. And now it’s the turn of our children to follow his example.

His senior leader, my old pal, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, has gone even further. The teaching of sex education, says Dr Joshi, will lead to the creation of an ‘immoral society’. It will also lead to a growth in single parent families (presumably because the BJP has already confiscated their condoms). And, it will cause the collapse of the education system.

I am not terribly worried about the education system. If it could survive Joshi-ji’s term at the HRD ministry, then it can probably survive anything. But why would sex education lead to immorality and single parent families?

Don’t ask me. Ask the teachers in Uttar Pradesh. According to the head of the Secondary School Teachers Association, all books that teach sex education should be withdrawn. Otherwise, the teachers will make a bonfire of them.

What kind of a teacher burns books? And what could evoke such extreme action? Well, as far as I can tell, the UP teachers are not as worried as Dr Joshi about the potential rise in single parent families. Their concern is more basic: they are embarrassed talking about sex. “We have gone through the books and are of the view it would be difficult for teachers to curb embarrassing queries from our students once the material is put before them,” declared Om Prakash Sharma, head of the association of potential book burners. So, forget about the rights and wrongs of the issue. These bozos haven’t even got that far. They are just too embarrassed to discuss sex. And so, books must burn.

If it’s not sex education then it’s condoms. A month ago, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh banned the sale of a condom called Crezendo, not on the grounds that the manufacturers did not know how to spell crescendo, but because the ministers decided that it was a sex toy.

Intrigued by the notion of a misspelt sex toy, I googled Crezendo. It turns out that it is a prophylactic with a battery-operated vibrating ring (no, I don’t understand how that works either). And it does promise — as the MP government noted disapprovingly — to enhance pleasure.

So, is it a sex toy? The manufacturers say that it isn’t. They argue that condom use is declining because men claim that it interferes with their pleasure. Crezendo is an attempt to convince reluctant users that condoms need not impair their enjoyment.

But, of course, Dr Joshi has dismissed that explanation already. According to the good doctor, sex education is a ploy by multinational latex companies to flog their goods in the Indian market.

I have no quarrel with the old boy’s brand of swadeshi economics but, for the record, Crezendo is made by Hindustan Latex, which is not only an Indian company but is also state-owned. There may well be a great global latex conspiracy, but Crezendo is not part of it.

What do the campaigns against condoms and sex education have in common?

I suspect that both stem from the same source. As the world changes and talk about sex — whether in the context of AIDS or in mass media — increases, many people are discomfited by its emergence from the bedroom. As far as they are concerned, sex is not something that should ever be discussed.

Oddly enough, I understand some of the discomfort. I am myself often dismayed (if not shocked) by the gratuitous commercialisation of sex in the mass media. So, I have a certain sympathy with the view that crass permissiveness has gone too far and that Indian society is changing much too quickly for an older generation to feel comfortable. And I empathise with the teachers who feel a little awkward talking about sex.

But here’s my point: the protestors are picking the wrong targets. There is an argument against the titillating and exploitative quality of sexual portrayals in mass media. But there is no argument against sex education or condom promotion.

Like it or not, sex has become a larger part of everyday life. When I was growing up, a condom was something boys sniggered about; now, it is an essential tool in the war against AIDS. And AIDS cannot be wished away with some ABC mantra in which B is somehow made to stand for fidelity. The figures are pretty horrifying: about 2.47 million Indians are infected with HIV/AIDS and we have the largest HIV-positive population outside of Africa.

Nor can we afford to let our children learn about sex only from the mass media. Each time they hear some sexual innuendo in a song lyric or watch suggestive pelvic thrusts in a filmi dance, they are exposed to some form of sex. Far better that they learn from a sober and reliable source what sex is really about than that they become victims of an exploitative media.

To argue that sex education will lead to single parent families is not just the height of foolishness (and prejudice: who is Dr Joshi to pass judgement on single parent families, anyway?), it also ignores the reality of what is happening in India today.

According to a year-long study conducted by the NGO Prayas, with support from Unicef and the Indian government, in which 17,000 respondents were questioned, at least 25 per cent of children had been sexually abused at some stage in their lives. Worse still, of those who admitted to abuse, 30 per cent said they had been abused by a family member. It will come as no surprise that 71 per cent of these assaults went unreported. That’s one unfortunate consequence of our taboo against talking about sex.

What Lalu-ji, Sushma aunty, Dr Harsh Vardhan and my friend Dr Joshi need to realise is that each time they pose as voices of moderation, they are actually functioning as advocates of ignorance. Of course, it makes us uncomfortable to see condom advertisements. And yes, it can be awkward to answer questions about sex from our children.

But what is the alternative? An AIDS epidemic? The emergence of a generation that learns about sex only from Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant? An increase in sexual abuse of small children in homes deep within our cities and towns?

Finally, the only answer lies in knowledge; in information; and in the truth, told without titillation or embarrassment. I’m sorry if sex education makes Harsh Vardhan uncomfortable, or if Dr Joshi is squeamish about condom marketing. But their embarrassment is a small price to pay for securing an AIDS-free future and for ensuring that our children grow up with a mature and realistic attitude to sex.

A last thought: why do you suppose Sushma aunty stopped at ABC? Because she knew that D stands for her philosophy: Denial.

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