(This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of Teacher Plus, a beautiful magazine for educators published out of Hyderabad.)
Go to any conference, and you will always find this to be true. Real conversations happen during coffee breaks, over meals, and on other occasions when individuals let down their guard.
Let me narrate to you an episode from a conference I attended recently. I was speaking with a sexuality educator, who gave me a detailed picture of the curriculum he is expected to teach and the challenges that he comes across. At one point, he said something that made me so uncomfortable I remember it vividly.
“The best kind of sex is no sex at all. Teenagers do not have any emotional maturity. If they learn about pleasure, they will be out of control. It is our job to protect them. That can happen only by instilling fear about diseases they might get if they have sex before marriage.”
Now I have worked with teenagers, and I understand that many of them are going through an emotionally rough period. However, I am not sure if getting them to think of sex as bad, dirty or dangerous is a particularly bright idea. Biological changes can be messy to deal with, especially if one has not anticipated them. What they need is a vocabulary to make sense of what they are experiencing, not this fear-mongering.
I do not have a problem with pre-marital sex. It used to happen earlier, it happens today, and it will continue to happen. The task of sexuality education is not to moralize but to support students in learning about and developing a healthy relationship with their own bodies. We do them a great disservice by creating the impression that sexual intimacy is only about the dance of body parts, and what goes where.
Imagine the kind of adults our students will grow up to be if we began to think of sexuality education as an opportunity to learn about respect, boundaries and consent. They will have the confidence to stand up for themselves, not give in to pressure, and prioritize their safety. They will seek advice from trusted adults instead of relying on pornography or ill-informed peers.
This kind of sexuality education is missing from our schools because we have not worked through our own conditioning around guilt and shame. Even schools that teach about the so-called birds and bees are usually heteronormative in their approach. The definition of sex is reduced to peno-vaginal penetration aimed at reproduction. Other forms of pleasure remain unexplored. This is a way of saying that same-sex relationships, queerness, asexuality, masturbation and bisexuality are frowned upon.
As an educator, I gravitate towards educational resources that have a sense of humour. These are not only books, videos and posters but also art exhibitions. One that particularly struck me was a recent exhibition called ‘Fondle’ at the Mumbai Art Room, featuring artist Murari Jha and curated by Shaunak Mahbubani. The viewer was guided to imagine the tiny room as a playground with multiple objects inviting sensory and intellectual engagement. There were signs saying, “Approach with empathy’, ‘Engage with care’, and ‘No means no’.
In the curatorial note, Mahbubani wrote, “…these sculptural forms cheekily combine allusions to the body’s erogenous zones with everyday materialities of the South-Asian region. Playing with position, scale, weight, material, movement and other interventions, Jha imbibes into each of his friendly creatures a set of preferences of interaction, often hidden and imperceptible until a labour of understanding is undertaken.”
What would sexuality education in schools look and feel like if it happened through this kind of aesthetic appreciation, character study, storytelling and open-ended discussion? I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach, so I guess the answer to this question would play out differently depending on the context of each school. What I do want to stress is that sexuality education shouldn’t be a list of don’ts even though it is important to teach about contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
The Jha-Mahbubani collaboration framed consent in a manner that isn’t simply about saying yes or no but navigating the drama, anxiety and joy of an intimate encounter. The curatorial note further stated, “Some are keen to be touched, moved around, enjoying empathetic contact, but bruised by harsh handling, others are more shy and settle into corners, or harden themselves allowing visibility but deflecting fondlers. Within themselves, they present a plurality of modes of communicating consent.”
Conversations around consent have become all the more urgent thanks to the MeToo movement. There is a growing recognition of how power relations influence consent, and a need to reclaim bodily autonomy and sexual agency. A person is able to violate someone because they think that their privilege, status or political influence will grant them impunity. Sexuality education can be a way to resist this violence.
How do we address the actions of those who have not bothered to seek consent and have violated boundaries? There is a legal mechanism in place for this, which has its own loopholes, and there is a process of naming and shaming through social media. Do we have the patience and maturity to operationalize restorative justice practices that seek accountability through apology, reparations and community involvement? This is the direction sexuality education could take. We have miles to go before we sleep but let us get started.
(Source for all images: https://www.shaunak.co/fondle)