Written by: Bhagyasree Venkat
The one word that causes a variety of responses and thoughts, spurs conversations and fantasies. A ubiquitous truth, a principle of creation and pleasure in the natural world - yet filled with a million unspoken taboos and clouded by societal obscurity.
India has the second-largest population in the world – a staggering 1.38 billion humans accounting for 17.7% of the Earth’s total count. With an expanding population pyramid and individuals of reproductive age accounting for a large part of the demographic, this it is a testament to how sex is an intrinsic part of our lives. Along with sex come the differences between the various genders, discourses on bodies and how we treat them, as well as the chasm between the two distinct facets of society - men, and women.
Our attitude towards everything we do is inherently shaped by inputs from the outside world - and sex is no exception. India has undergone several phases of divergent thought when it comes to sex and disseminating information about it: from writings like the Kamasutra detailing various modes of courtship, the Kuruntokai, an exhilarating collection of Sangam-era poetry on sexuality and society, to the statuesque sculptures, etched on the Khajuraho temple and the delicate paintings of the Ajanta caves, India’s history of affinity to sex is as colorful as its other facets.
This underwent a paradigm shift with the introduction of the principle of purity or chastity - which not only led to the suppression of sexual desire, but resulted in it becoming a matter of taboo. A sense of secrecy and shame replaced the freedom to read, court, and explore - and was paired with the silencing of women. Fifty percent of the population was now made to remain quiet, docile observers of society, hiding behind a purdah of invisibility, and being forced to showcase their wifely devotion by giving up their lives if their husband died. This sentiment was significantly deepened with the conquest of India by the British, who furthered the sentiment of Victorian prudishness by introducing the dreaded Section 377 that declared homosexuality a punishable offense. Prostitution, domestic violence and adultery was commonplace, with brothels flourishing in every nook and corner of the country.
India was a fledgling post-1947, still fresh from the traumas of divided rule and colonial principles. Several regressive laws remained in place, until the recent past - and the ghosts of it still linger when it comes to sex and sexuality, and we must do away with them.
Almost one in every fifth person on the globe is an adolescent - they comprised of 18% (1.2 billion) of the world's population in 2009, with 88% living in developing countries. India has the largest adolescent population (243 million with more than 50% of the adolescent population living in urban areas).
Like every other specific demographic, they too have unique health and educational needs, which are often overlooked or misunderstood owing to preexisting socio-cultural structures.
Adolescence is often seen as a phase of awkwardness, where individuals straddle between the worlds of childhood dreams and adult responsibilities. This age is marked by significant changes in physical, mental/psychological, and socio-emotional aspects of an individual’s life.
Recent literature suggests a high likelihood in experimental behavior and increased risk-taking that has the potential to influence the quality of holistic health and the probability of survival in both short- and long-term scales over their lifetime. This showcases a period of marked vulnerability, which requires responsible guidance and education concerning sex and wellbeing to be a priority.
1. In Bihar, of more than 10,400 adolescents (15-19 years) surveyed, 14.1% of unmarried adolescent boys and 6.3% of unmarried adolescent girls had premarital sex and of them, 22% of boys and 28.5% of girls had premarital sex before 15 years, according to a 2016 report by the Population Council, advocacy.
2. No more than 20.3% of unmarried boys and 8.2% of unmarried girls used a condom consistently, the study found. Among married girls aged 15-19 who cohabited with partners, only 11.2% ever used contraception within marriage and 45.2% had an unmet need for spacing between children.
3. Similar results emerged in a survey in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where 17.2% of adolescent boys (15-19 years) and 6.2% of adolescent girls were found to be sexually active. UP and Bihar together account for 30% of India’s adolescent the population of 253 million, enough to be the world’s fifth-most populous country.
4. Interestingly, unlike the United States, UK, or Australia, there are no reliable, regularly updated nationwide statistics on adolescent sex education, pre-marital sex or any issues related to sex and sexuality (and this is keeping in mind hetero-normative ideals alone, since same-sex unions and identification as members of the LGBTQIA+ the community was only decriminalized in 2018) are absent - the public health system is not prepared to serve the sexual and reproductive needs of the adolescents, said 2015 review in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Healthcare professionals often lack knowledge about sexual and reproductive needs, and since sex is itself a taboo subject, sexual histories of adolescents are usually not recorded or are unasked. Parents and teachers do not teach the principles of consent or bodily autonomy, and popular media portrayals commonly feature women marketed with the male gaze heavily in mind.
5. Sex Ed is not new; pushed by the mounting concerns of HIV-AIDS, the Indian the government in association with the United Nations introduced an adolescence-education program (AEP) - the first of its kind with national support - as early as 2005. Within two years of inception, the AEP was banned in 12 states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Uttar Pradesh. The pursuing of cultural chastity reflects in the lack of transparency in sex education - Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan wanted adolescent education to focus on “yoga and Indian cultural values”. A Rajya Sabha committee chaired by M Venkaiah Naidu–now Vice President of India and then a member of Rajya Sabha said the adolescent-education program would “promote promiscuity of the worst kind, strike at the root of the cultural fabric, corrupt Indian youth, and lead to the collapse of the education system and the decrease of virginity age [sic]”. The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) removed the “offending” illustrations and terms such as ‘intercourse’, ‘condoms’ and ‘masturbate’. The current CBSE textbooks for class XII do not explicitly feature the word sex, nor do they discuss psychosocial aspects outside the purview of human reproduction. This set of chapters is only taught to students of biology, and sex education is not compulsory.
This often leads to incorrect information being obtained by and circulated amongst the youth, often from dubious sources and pornography (whilst the porn ban began in 2015 when the Department of Telecom asked the internet service providers to pull down more than 800 porn syndicating websites, India still happens to be amongst the top 20 countries that view porn. Pornography isn’t inherently bad - but uninformed viewing leads to a much-distorted sense of reality.)
Another reason why Sex-Ed is needed is to encourage safe sex practices and prevent sex-related crimes. The latest NCRB report states that 2019 saw over 4 lakh reported cases of crimes committed against women, up from 3.78 lakh in 2018 and 3.59 lakh cases in 2017. The body reported 32,033 rape cases which translate to a shocking 88 rape cases a day -- and this is just 10% of all crimes against women.
The cornerstone of traditional sexual relations in India are laid by marriage, but not even this is a sure-shot way to prevent violence. Of the 664 cases of women who reported domestic violence in 2015 at NGO Sneha’s crisis counseling center in Dharavi, 159 women also reported, among other issues, marital rape. At Sneha’s counseling centers at KEM and Sion hospitals, of 218 cases of domestic violence received in 2015, 64 women said they had faced marital rape.
Similarly, recent remarks by the governments in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan regarding the heinous caste-based gang rape in Hathras show their regressive approach to sex and bodily autonomy: instead of offering solace to the victim, statements such as “sanskar should be instilled in girls to prevent incidents of rape” and open gaslighting were observed.
In a country that endangers the lives of women, refuses to address crucial issues of sexual health and safety and fails to recognize a significant part of the fabric of humans based on their gender identity and sexual preferences, how can any progress be made? Is this not a huge setback to our glorious ideals of freedom and emancipation? How can anyone be truly free if they are uncomfortable in their own body, afraid to speak up, afraid to love and live?
If your body is a device and sex is a function - a user manual in the form of sex education is the need of the hour. Learn wisely, and go forth free of fear, prejudice, and shame.