A 23-year-old Kerala woman recently released a video in which she spoke about an incident that shook her. She had given a lift on her two-wheeler to a teenaged boy, no more than 14, and he casually asked her if he could touch her inappropriately. While a few have resorted to victim blaming, several people have pointed out the need for sex education among growing children.
It is a contentious subject in India despite the country having the world's largest youth population. Parents, schools and governments have opposed its introduction to young people, fearing that they will be led 'astray' by the information. In 2005, the Adolescent Reproductive Sexual Health Strategy (ARSH) was launched and 13 years later, in April 2018, the Union government released Operational Guidelines on School Health Programme under Ayushman Bharat. The Guidelines include educating children on HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health. On ground, however, there is a lot of resistance to the idea and the Guidelines don't delve into consent and sexuality much.
Even among parents who recognise the need for sex education, there is extreme discomfort with discussing gender, sex and sexuality with their children. They'd rather the schools did the job but teachers are often ill equipped to deal with such subjects in the classroom, having to contend with lack of training, resources and objections from other parents.
If you are a parent who wishes to have these conversations with your child but are unsure about how to do it, here are some tips:
1. Sex education is not a single difficult conversation but an ongoing process: Recognise the fact that your child is growing every day and so is their curiosity about their own bodies and those of others. Don't distract them and try to avoid the subject when they ask questions, starting from the inevitable 'Where do babies come from?'. Give accurate, age appropriate information in a conversational manner rather than avoiding their questions or giving answers like 'The stork brings them'. If a two-year-old asks the question, it's sufficient to say that babies come from the mother's uterus (always use the right names for body parts, avoid saying stomach). If a five-year-old asks the same question, divulge more details. You can use books and recommended child-friendly videos that are available online. For instance, Sophie Blackall's The Baby Tree is a picture book that covers reproduction in a funny, factual and engaging fashion.
Starting young will create an atmosphere where the child approaches the parent for such discussions organically. With older children, it may not be a bad idea to talk about your own experiences growing up. The confusions you had, the mistakes you made and yes, even the crushes and relationships that you went through. Revealing that you were just as vulnerable and human while growing up will help bridge the gap between the child and the adult, and make them understand that these feelings and emotions are natural.
2. Respect your child's right to their body and privacy: Among the first things that experts on child sexual abuse say is to respect the child's right to their own body. This means that you do not force your child to hug or kiss others, be it strangers or family. You must take it seriously when they express an objection to being touched, even if it is as 'innocent' as tickling. Not all expressions of physical affection are abusive, but it is your child who must decide what their comfort level is.
It is natural for adolescents to want more privacy and space of their own. Do not expect them to behave in the same manner as when they were younger. Letting them know that you're available for them emotionally and keeping the communication channel open is better than prying.
3. Accept that they have sexual feelings: Think back to your own childhood and recollect when you had your first sexual stirrings. If you're honest in this exercise, you're less likely to be surprised that your 11-year-old is 'already' going through a crush.
As difficult as it can be for you to accept that your child is growing up so quickly, you must know that it is only to be expected. Do not demonise normal sexual expressions like masturbation or nocturnal emissions or attach unscientific views to biological processes like menstruation. Keep an open mind about your child's sexuality. For instance, if they express a same sex attraction, do not treat it as the end of the world. If you are unsure about any of this, educate yourself by speaking to qualified experts rather than go by tradition, hearsay or superstition.
4. Teach them what consent means: Your child must know that they have the right to give and withhold consent. Legally, one has to be an adult to indulge in a sexual act. However, experimentation among peers is quite common in teenagers and even children who are younger.
You may be very sure that your child won't do 'such a thing', but that's what every parent believes. They must know how to say 'no' and also how to respect a 'no'. Teach them the consequences of their actions. Having this conversation doesn't mean you're granting full rights to your child to experiment sexually. You must explain why sex is considered to be an adult business but at the same time, teach them how to be safe. From avoiding unwanted pregnancy to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), there is a lot that your otherwise all-knowing teenager might be ignorant about.
5. Speak to them about pornography: Your child is going to encounter pornography at some point in their lives if they haven't already. Pornography has existed for centuries but the Internet has made it way more accessible than it ever was. While you can set up content filters and monitor your child's devices and gadgets, they could still have access to porn through friends, cousins or others.
Your child needs to know that just like cinema is not reality and the visuals are manipulated to present a certain narrative, pornography too is conceptualised to fit a certain fantasy. What they're watching is choreographed and not merely documented. They also need to know that just as actors in mainstream films have to look a certain way to fit the bill, the bodies of porn actors are often not entirely natural. Young people who haven't had sexual experiences themselves may believe that pornography is the real deal, and may feel confused when reality is different or doesn't 'match up'. Making young people aware about such issues isn't 'spoiling' them; equipping them to deal with what is inevitable will only help them handle such situations better.
6. Do not overreact: Whatever happens, do not overreact. Remember that however adult your child's actions may seem, they are still children. They still need you to be their parent. Recall your own mistakes and stumbles while growing up and approach the issue after you have calmed down.
Shouting at your growing child or shaming them in front of others will only force them to withdraw into a shell or rebel. Try and reach out to resolve issues rather than adopt a blamey attitude. If the issue is serious, do not hesitate to take professional help.
Sowmya Rajendran has written over 25 books for children, including Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero, a nonfiction book on gender, sex and sexuality for young adults.