(Article by Ms. Isha Bhallamudi, Mumbai. Cover Photo: FPA India, Rajkot)
Adolescence is a transition time between childhood and adulthood. But are we ready to equip adolescents to handle this transition successfully? One of the many things adolescents discover during this time is their emerging sexuality, and a healthy curiosity in sex and sexuality at this age is absolutely normal. Early adolescence is a good time to impart crucial information that will help young people understand the need to avoid risky behaviour and make safe decisions. But are we prepared to be the responsible ones, and start having adult discussions with adolescents?
There is an intense stigma about sex in Indian society. Young people frequently crib that before marriage they are expected to be totally clueless and naive about sex, and after marriage they are socially pressured to have non-stop sex and prove it by having more and more children. This double standard is both unreasonable and dangerous. Yet it is highly prevalent.
Adolescents are all the more curious about sex because it is made to seem like such a taboo topic. Normally and socially it is not possible to ask questions about it or talk about it openly. When faced with a reactions of distrust, shame, and fear to natural curiosity, where do you think they will go? They may approach friends (who may have half-baked knowledge themselves), online sources (which may or may not be accurate), or worse, pornography (which perpetuates violent and misogynistic perceptions of sex). You can probably guess the effect this can have on young people’s perceptions of sex, reproductive health and healthy relationships! Their explorations may end up being severely misinformed and place adolescents in real danger: of emotional abuse, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, in the absence of adequate information, they may be vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence and unwanted sexual advances.
So, we see that keeping adolescents unaware and absent from any discussion about sex and reproductive health can actively harm them and increase their vulnerability to harmful consequences of sexual exploration. But what is the way out? Instead of this negative approach, we need to encourage adolescents to discuss these topics with healthcare providers, parents, and reliable online sources. Positive approaches to sex education involve giving adolescents awareness, information, and safety strategies. Such approaches directly equip adolescents with the tools to protect themselves instead of magnifying their vulnerability to risk. Studies have consistently shown that when adolescents are provided with sex education and contraception, their rates of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe sex tend to fall.
In India, it can be very difficult for adolescents to find an open, reliable and non-judgmental space to access information about sex and sexuality. This is something that needs to change. Let us talk specifically about the home. Parents and adolescents find it incredibly difficult to open up honest and easy lines of communication about anything to do with this taboo topic.
There are many barriers which make these conversations difficult at home. One, parents are socialised to believe that sex before marriage is strictly taboo. They also fear that talking about sexual health will encourage more risky behaviour, rather than more responsible behaviour, in their children. They may find it impossible to accept adolescents and young people as sexual beings. At the same time, there is an even greater panic if adolescents are not sexual in the “correct”, socially mandated ways; for example, if they are asexual or homosexual. On their end, adolescents fear judgment, shame and punishment from their parents and society. These are only some of the barriers at play.
All these reasons have been discussed a lot in research, media, and policy. But there is one more, simple but rather insidious reason which is also contributing to this problem along with all the others above. This is the problem of vocabulary. Think of your mother tongue. What are the words for ‘sex’, ‘vagina’, ‘penis’, ‘foreplay’, ‘breasts’, etc.? Aren’t these words loaded with very heavy vulgar, misogynistic connotations? The English words above may sound appropriately clinical. Yet translate them into regional vocabulary and all you have are swear words.
Parents and adolescents cannot even begin to talk about sex if these are the only words available to them. Words loaded with shame, embarrassment, crudeness, and overt violence. Besides, the children are only yelled at if their curiosity gets them to touch their private parts.
We need to think about this: How are families supposed to talk about sex and sexual health in positive, respectful, and open ways when they don’t have the words to do it with?
There is a serious need to expand the vocabulary for talking about this most natural of human behaviours. We all need to figure out how to frame these conversations in comfortable ways within the home. In the long run, this will help keep the lines of communication open at home, increase trust between parents and adolescents, and help adolescents develop more responsible and safe behaviours. If we want to protect adolescents from the consequences of unsafe sex and risky sexual behaviour, we have to be able to talk to them about it in ways which make sense to them.
(Isha Bhallamudi is currently an independent researcher working within the intersections of gender, health, and young people in India. She has previously worked at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, where she carried out research projects for UN Women and UNICEF. She holds an MA in Development Studies from IIT Madras.)
[Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and under no circumstances can be regarded as reflecting the position of Family Planning Association of India (FPA India).]