While cautioning children and adolescents about unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse etc, is important, where is the space for legitimising pleasure?

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news Sexuality Thursday, October 07, 2021 - 19:23

Do you remember that chapter in your biology book that everyone knew about, mentions of which elicited snickers and suppressed curiosity, but it wasn’t really spoken of? If you don’t because all chapters were dutifully discussed and taught well in class, you can count yourself in the minority luckier ones. For most of us, any genuine curiosity about it was probably dealt with shaming, poking fun, or avoidant answers. For the rest, the ‘reproduction’ chapter, and the words it introduced – such as intercourse and contraception – were somewhat of a joke.

There has been some progress of late, some would argue, with sexuality education and personal safety education in schools. However, the approach this education often takes is biomedical, premised on inducing fear of unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse and so on.

While cautioning children and adolescents about all these issues is important, where is the space for legitimising pleasure, teaching them that consensual sex can be pleasurable as well? And is it even possible, given that India’s anti-child sexual abuse law makes no room for teen sexuality, to see them as young people exploring their bodies and sexuality, capable of making informed choices? What do the three P’s — patriarchy, power, and pleasure — mean to us, and how do we navigate them? These were some of the questions that a panel called ‘Dard-e-ishq, Dard-e-planning’, part of the Love, Sex and Data virtual conference organised by Agents of Ishq and The YP Foundation, explored.

The challenges in sexuality education today

“Since time immemorial, patriarchy and power have ganged up against pleasure,” observed Dr Jaya, who has studied sexuality and sexual behaviours of young people, and has co-authored papers on the same. “Patriarchy and power can survive only by brutal suppression of voice, choice, and agency,” she said. And this suppression is often felt most by those who are most disadvantaged and deprived. “On the other hand, those who do have access to sexuality education often only get biomedical perspectives focused on preventing unwanted pregnancies etc.,” she added.

Is this what young people want? Not according to ‘The journey towards comprehensive sexuality education – Global status report’ published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this year. It quotes a 2019 online survey, taken by 1,400 young people aged 15-24 from over 27 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. “Less than one in three believed that their school taught them about sexuality very well or somewhat well (28%). Young people with disabilities and young people who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) were less satisfied with their sexuality education than their peers,” the report stated.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Indian law does not recognise the consent of a person below 18 years of age. Dr Kavita, a clinical psychologist and director of restorative care at HAQ, Centre for Child Rights, pointed out that on the one hand, while the law has made way to acknowledging issues like child sexual abuse, including that of boys, it has not made space for teen sexuality. “Agency of children who are having consensual relationships is not recognised by law. On the other hand, there are issues like [sexual] grooming. We need to educate and empower children with the knowledge that they have the right to pleasure, to give consent, but also caution them that there could be people who might manipulate them,” Dr Kavita said.

TNM had reported earlier that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act is often misused or ends up criminalising teen sexuality. This happens often in cases where young persons – both just below or above the age of 18 — are in a consensual romantic relationship, end up eloping due to fear familial opposition, or their relationship is discovered by the families, and the parents then file a case where the boy gets booked under POCSO Act. It is important however, to distinguish between cases where there is a significant age gap between the two – then it is likely to be a case of grooming.

Read: POCSO criminalising teen sexuality? NCRB data suggests that may be true

Language of pleasure

Simran Sanganeria (pronouns he/she/they), a sexuality educator, has observed that when they take workshops with adolescents, conversation about pleasure spurs a lot of ‘dirty jokes’. Ultimately though, what helps is using enabling language. For instance, when do the participants of the workshop experience pleasure? “Then many responses start emerging, and not all of them are sexual in nature. For instance, when a teen talks about the experience of buying something that they like with their parents – that is also a pleasurable activity,” Simran said.

It also helps to break away from biomedical approaches. For instance, in workshops with parents, and other adult stakeholders, the conversation starts with talking about sex in the context of reproduction and then contraception to prevent pregnancy and STIs. “The in-between question that emerges then is – why would you have sex if you don’t want to have babies? Then we start getting responses like ‘because I am married’ or ‘it helps feeling connected’ or ‘because my husband/partner wants it’. You start learning then about social realities also, and as a facilitator, you accept those responses without judgment. That creates a space where we can explore conversations about pleasure,” Simran said.

Then, it is also about using simplified language. “A lot of language is derogatory, inducing fear rather than pleasure. For example, a word like ‘masturbation’ is often too clinical and heavy, so I use the word ‘self-pleasure’. It is quite explanatory and simple,” Simran shared. He also allayed fears of stakeholders who might believe that speaking to adolescents about these things would actually lead to them having sex. She said that we should in fact encourage them to ask, let their curiosity blossom so that it creates a safe space for them to make informed choices.

How change can be created

Dr Jaya said that it is essential that whatever curricula or systems for imparting sexuality education we come up with, it is important to engage with partners in the government early on so that models are created within the system, and not outside it, increasing chances of failure. “Incremental progress is possible,” she stated.

The panellists also pointed to paucity of data, and Dr Kavita also said that we need to have more research-based evidence on sexuality education programmes from within India to plan further interventions.

Dr Jaya suggested anonymous mechanisms like question boxes, where a young person can safely ask what they want to know without putting them in harm’s way. Panellists also noted that confidentiality can be key to making sexual and reproductive rights accessible because of the shame and stigma associated with sex and sexuality making young people uncomfortable to openly ask questions.

The Love, Sex and Data conference, which is taking place from October 7 to 9, has Indian Sign Language interpretation and this particular panel also had simultaneous translation in Bengali and Hindi. Sign up and read about the other panels here.