How Young Girls In Small Towns Learn about Sex In The Absence Of Sex Education
With sex education centred around reproductive biology and not consent or pleasure, young girls in small towns rely on their peers, family and the internet
Trigger Warning: The article contains mentions of sexual abuse and violence.
“You have a sex demon inside of you. When I touch you, only then will it be scared away,” the pastor said to Akriti Lakra. He had been brought by her family to “counsel” her in the wake of a breakdown brought on by mental health issues. Lakra had also just come out to her family as bisexual.
What followed was a nightmarish experience of sexual abuse that still traumatises Lakra, a brilliant scholar, and an active proponent of women’s right to pleasure. During these sessions, the pastor would ask her to undress before the women of the household. He would squeeze her breasts or slyly insert a finger in her vagina and ask: “You are not getting enjoyment, right?” He would call her a “witch” or a “whore” or tell her that her breasts were large because “you do sex a lot”. Not one in her clan of 72 relatives stepped in to help despite her pleas.
Lakra and no one in her family had ever been educated about sex. At the local Catholic school, the subject was taboo. Sex education was limited to references to biology and reproductive technicalities, and students were advised against asking questions. There was nothing on consent or pleasure.
“Adivasi society is historically gender-equal, but because of colonisation and the sexist religious literature being fed to us, there is gender violence,” says Lakra. There are other problems with the skewed nature of sex education in India – even among educated couples there is no conversation about sex and pleasure, she says. And notions about ‘purity’ isolate many Indian women from sex education, such as the young daughters of sex workers in red-light areas, she adds.
While India is now the most populous nation in the world, a March 2023 UNESCO report, ‘Sexuality Education in India Yet Remains a Taboo,’ shows that many smaller, underdeveloped countries, such as Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and Sudan have more robust sex education programmes than India.
In urban areas there are other resources for sex education, but our interviews showed that in small towns, girls and young women learn about sex from coercive relationships, limited internet exposure and families.
‘Vulgar, Shocking, Promoting Promiscuity’
In the late 1980s, when India initiated sex education in its national curriculum, the material was limited to contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. By the mid-2000s, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), along with the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), introduced an Adolescence Education Programme (AEP) in all state and government schools to promote safe sex practices.
However, various state governments across ideologies, primarily the right, banned the course because it is “vulgar and shocking and would promote liberal sexual behaviour before marriage and adulthood among students” and lay the ground for the sale of condoms and other sex-related products by multinational companies. Teachers were threatened with physical violence against teaching it. Another adolescent education programme initiated by the government in 2020 also faced vehement opposition even though the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexuality’ had not been mentioned anywhere this time.
Priyamvada Srivastava, a lawyer who studied in a convent school funded by the Maharashtra state board, said that her school did not even bother with basic anatomy. “I did not know what things were called until much later in life,” she says. “My school did arrange the so-called ‘talk’, but the emphasis was always on ‘abstaining’ and ‘saving yourself for marriage’,” she says.
Textbooks used in Central Board of secondary Education (CBSE) and ICSE schools do contain chapters on sexual reproduction, moving from plants to animals and humans between middle and high school, but again, the focus is on the technicalities. The more progressive ones may move beyond this, for example, to stress that a child’s gender cannot be ‘blamed’ on the mother. But even here, there are no references to critical questions of consent or pleasure. All that a student gets from this education is that a male sex organ enters a woman’s body, fertilises eggs, and nine months later, she is a mother. The blanks, physical and emotional, are left to be filled by young persons who get no insights into sex from their families either.
At an impressionable age, it is not taught to the youngsters that sex is not “done” to a woman, and that her participation and consent are integral to the act, say experts. Tarkik Sheth, who has worked as a biology educator in a coaching class of ICSE Board schools in Thane, says the focus at all times is on rote learning and scoring marks.
Ritika, from Aara in Bihar, comes from a community listed as Other Backward Castes (OBC) in the central list. Before Ritika could start schooling, her cousin had molested her multiple times, and she points out that for many young girls, the introduction to sex is through coercion. Ritika recalls that when she felt her breasts were growing, it was to her father that she went for a consultation with a doctor. Her mother refused to discuss the changes happening to her body. She also talks about a female member of her family who, frustrated with repeated and unwanted pregnancies, swallowed chuna (quick lime) in the hope that it would induce an abortion.
Malti* Barik belongs to the OBC barber caste and grew up in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, and she says women are never encouraged to ask questions about their bodies. “In our culture, women are taught to be ‘pure’ and not ask ‘bad’ questions and hide what is happening to them,” she says, adding that this allows sexual abuse and resulting trauma to go undiagnosed in small towns. There is almost no awareness about mental healthcare and the few professionals who do work in such areas are rarely trained to work with people from multiple marginalisations, as Behanbox has reported.
Pranita* Masih, who comes from a converted Christian backward caste family from Punjab and grew up in Asansol, West Bengal, says that the lack of sexual awareness caused her immense anxiety in her growing years and even later. “I used to think if I kissed, I would get pregnant. When girls with little knowledge of sex move to cities, they are told that sex is only a physical need and they are manipulated into casual hook-up parties and one-night stands. But this also leads to the exploitation of girls under the garb of bodily autonomy,” she adds. Today, though, her new family members do talk to young girls about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’.
Tanz (Tanushree) has been working as a Comprehensive Sexuality Educator and a Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and Justice(SRHR-J) practitioner and has worked with school children in several districts in UP and Bihar. They are used to hearing a lot of myths related to sex: “If you jump up and down after unprotected sex, all the sperm leaves the body, and therefore, impregnation is not possible.” Or “Smaller breasts mean lower capacity to feed a child”.
Tanz(Tanushree) says that most sex education programmes are not built to be community-centric, and are delivered without relatable cultural context, ignoring social locations and caste identity. “The reality is that the caste location of an individual deeply impacts their access to SRHR-J information and services,” says Tanz (Tanushree). She also points to the limited, donor-driven funding for sex education programmes in India which reduces the scope of work and only prioritises impact numbers. International funding for such programmes has been hit by the current Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulations in India. Most districts do not have accessible sexual health services, and lack of anonymity for such services is also a hindrance, she says.
Ritika, who grew up in Bihar and now works in journalism, points to the lack of diversity in how urban educators approach sex education in small-town India. “They need to bring examples and experiences from the community [to sex education], and that is where the concept of community leaders came from,” she says. “They can’t just go to a small town and suddenly start talking to women about orgasm. They must first get to learn what is already available. They forget that our mothers, rendered illiterate by the system, also taught us these things in broken, hidden, local words.”
Ritika says communities have their own ways of dealing with sex education: “For instance, on the wedding night, a girl’s aunts will explain things to her, though indirectly. ‘This will happen’, or ‘If you don’t get enjoyment, then let us know’, or ‘Entice your husband’, they would say teasingly. This is how they refer to the sexual urge. There are several Bhojpuri folk or wedding songs where women complain about their wedding night and how their husbands could not satisfy them. In Bihar, most husbands migrate, and there are numerous songs where women sing that when their husband is not with them, how can they satisfy themselves? Here, they are talking about masturbation – can they do that, or is this a sin or self-pleasure?”
Here is one such song documented in Unearthing Gender-Folksongs of North India, a book by Smita Tewari Jassal, associate professor of anthropology at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara:
“Dear god, my husband is just a little boy.
With my boy-husband on the roof I slept.
Lord, the jackal calls out in the field of arhar.
Instead of my blouse strings, he opens the door.
God, that burnt me up from heel to head.
From the field, when the jackal called he heard.
Lord, the husband-boy just started to cry.
From the courtyard came his mother and sister next door.
God, who’s been beating our little one so?”
“In north India, from the nineteenth century onward, social reformers, urban intellectuals, emerging middle classes and caste associations were eager to restrain women from the practice of singing abusive and obscene songs…at weddings…the reformers’ objectives were to be accomplished by targeting women’s songs and patriarchy was to be refurbished by silencing women…dictated…by their desire to erase the erotic from women’s lives and to suppress women’s sexuality in the interest of conjugal harmony,” says Jassal in the book.
How Women Learn About Sex, Despite Stigma
“Girls are more dependent on school for sex education,” noted a field study, conducted in Andhra Pradesh. In small Indian towns, where the digital divide is significant, it is hard for women and girls to seek any information in privacy.
“Even my mother does not know about many things. Whenever we discuss any health problems…our mothers say that it happens to everyone, and our parents never think it necessary to take us to the hospital for treatment. If we try to discuss more about this, our parents look at us with suspicion,” the female respondents of the study said. At times, medical professionals trivialise their symptoms or misbehave with them, only for the women to later find out that they have vaginal itching, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, urinary tract infection, abnormal vaginal discharge or PCOS, the study added.
Several girls and women in small towns talk about how their first boyfriend was their gateway to sex education. While this might be helpful in some cases, in several more, it leads to lifelong trauma, as Sawani* Devi’s experience shows.
“I got to know that what was happening to me was rape after I read a newspaper article describing rape and consent,” says Sawani Devi, 27, who grew up in Guwahati and sometimes identifies as a woman and sometimes without a gender. She says she grew up craving love and “gave in” to a boy in Class X when he sent her a “sweet” text. The relationship later turned into abuse, she says, and the boy would rape her often and blackmail her. Over time, she told her parents, who filed a police complaint and a court case.
With time, Devi’s parents have evolved in how they deal with sexual issues. Her father has always been relatively open-minded. “Recently, he told me sex is normal, and it is okay if you have had it. The question of whether it is good or bad should not arise at all. He also told me that he was okay with me being a lesbian if I was so,” she says.
At the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development(ICPD) and its Five Year Review, India attested to Sexual and Reproductive Rights (SRRs). Under the ICPD agenda, the Indian government is mandated to provide free and compulsory education for adolescents and young people, irrespective of the opposition. The ICDP stresses “a safe and satisfying sex life” and aims to eradicate discriminatory practices that “place an undue onus on women in order to access comprehensive reproductive health care, such as spousal authorisations”.
Young women in India usually look to their peers for sex education. And most often, information comes in middle school from the sexual content in novels and reference materials.
However, Jolly* Singh, a Dalit, grew up in Tilakwa in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, with a small circle of friends because her mother was afraid the neighbourhood would find out about the family’s caste status. Singh’s understanding of sex came mostly from the columns written by sex experts in Hindi newspapers. Despite her English education, Singh learned the meaning of ‘masik dharm’ and ‘sambhog’ before she learned the words ‘menstruation’ and ‘sex’.
Later, her parents got her a computer with the internet and a ration of half-hour on it. “In that time, you have to play NFS, Jardinains, and card games while also searching for sex. I would be scared and delete the browser history,” she recalls.
There were many gaps in basic sexual information for girls in her growing years, and this gave her many moments of anxiety. She thought there was something seriously wrong with her because her panties seemed discoloured or “bleached”. It was much later, and mostly through Instagram accounts of gynaecologists that she realised that this was normal and caused by the acidic levels of the vagina.
“With the internet, our curiosity can be satisfied in private no matter how weird or different it is,” says Singh. She posts queries on online forums, sometimes with an anonymous identity.
But the internet can also be a problematic space. Rimi* Mahato, who belongs to the Kurmi community listed as Extremely Backward in Jharkhand, says, “In 5th grade, my male friends tricked me into watching porn, and the incident scarred me.” Later in college, she missed her periods for two consecutive months, and during the examination, the gynaecologist informed her mother that Rimi might be having sex or masturbating, perhaps using sex toys. She says she was slut shamed for this by her family members, including her mother. “Before the ultrasound results were out, I had to take a Prega News test just to prove that I hadn’t engaged in sexual activity,” says Rimi.
Perpetuating Cycle of Ignorance
Sakshi Uniyal, who worked as a biology teacher in Assam, says since sexuality is not a direct part of the curriculum, any time spent on these discussions was labelled as a “time waste” in the schooling system. Her female students were unaware of products such as condoms for women, and myths around menstruation and purity were widespread as they are in many parts of India.
In co-ed schools, these years were also fraught with early exploration of gender dynamics. Boys would read through “the pages” and giggle, crack jokes, and drop innuendos. Girls would squirm in discomfort or be “cool” and laugh along. But neither had any idea where to go for unbiased information on sex. In a society where girls were shamed for cutting their hair, families were certainly no help. Growing years for girls were full of instructions on how to “sit properly” and how not to “attract boys”.
Manikya Mangaraj, who teaches Science in a school in Kalahandi, says even the most inquisitive and active of girls never raise any questions during biology classes on reproduction. Boys, on the other hand, revel in asking uncomfortable questions, he says. The result of this awkwardness is that when sanitary pads were distributed to female students, the boys commonly passed obscene comments.
Effective sex education needs to use different approaches with different age groups and communities, sex educator Tanz(Tanushree) explains. “One has to approach sex education in a sustained, long-term and neutral manner and allow adolescents the scope to process their discomfort. With parents, our experience has been that it takes explaining the value of such education in a de-sexualised manner, centring healthy relationships, communication, prevention of sexual abuse, etc. However, the local gatekeepers, such as the sarpanch or the religious leaders, are a very tough audience to break through,” Tanz(Tanushree) says.
Their experience shows that the Muslim community is not comfortable with sustained engagement from individuals in sex education. On the other hand, upper-class, Dwij Savarna, educated girls seem to find it easier to get consent from their parents to attend sex education sessions. “However, people from such backgrounds seem to listen to information sessions but do not absorb or try to implement it. Further, teachers and preachers often interrupt our sessions,” they say.
While talking about young married girls in small towns, Anirban Chatterjee, an expert in community health and preventive medicine who has worked in states like Assam, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, says: “We do advise them to decide their choice of contraception. However, visible forms of contraception are completely discouraged by family members. Hence, once-a-month contraceptives like Antara and injectables are preferred, especially in minority communities where contraception is anathema.”
State, Society And Sex Education
Disinformation about sex education led to an AIDS epidemic in India, which has the third-highest number of HIV-infected people globally. One-third of the reported infections and half of all new infections are in the 15-29 age group. Even in the state-sanctioned sex education programme, the focus was on disciplining adolescent bodies so as to control HIV/AIDS. The AEP wanted “scientific instruction to enable the students to grasp physiological facts that would eventually take care of problems of sexual desire and fantasy, etc., wrongly triggered by media ‘misinformation’ (sic)”. Further, the focus was on “scientific instruction”, “scientific sexuality” and “sexual hygiene”, detached from the critical issues of gender, caste, region or power.
“There is no place for a debate here on cultural sensibilities. This is a basic question of saving lives,” said Sujata Rao, the director of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), on protests against sex education. “The conservative elements in our society are unable to cope with these dynamic changes that are taking place. There is a fear that this area was once under their control and is now spiralling out of their control.”
When Sexual Rights Are Not Part of the Discourse
Vani Viswanathan, the co-lead of programmes at Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues (TARSHI), says that big cities have large migrant populations which hold on to the values and morals of their home locations. This informs their access to information, services, perspectives and approaches to sexuality. “That said, there is definitely more diversity in sexuality-related thought, expression or behaviour that one may get to visibly see by virtue of being in a big city, even if they don’t necessarily associate with it or agree with it,” she says.
Farheen*, who belongs to a blacksmith clan of a Nomadic Muslim Tribe, says that urban migration gave her the freedom to exercise her sexual rights. “Back in my small village in Satara, teen girls are beaten up by the men of their families for sitting by the window
side during summers. Boys played cricket outside, but girls sitting by the window were accused of ‘calling for sex/attention’.”
There are small winds of change, too. In 2021, UNESCO recorded the government-NGO scheme ‘Udaan’, a school-based sex education programme in Jharkhand. This is among the most backward states in India, and young women have their sexual rights further threatened by the state’s poverty, illiteracy, child and early marriage, and lesser access to contraceptives and pregnancy-related care. However, through stories, games, quizzes, and case studies, Udaan educated a million students within a short span from 2009 to 2019 and is now being used as a model to expand comprehensive sex education.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
[This article is part of The Talk, a series of stories, each produced by a different newsroom or team, painting a picture of the state of sex education around the world. During the month of October and November 2023, stories will be published by Unbias the News, NADJA Media, CNN As Equals, Impact Newsletter. Kontinentalist, Suno India and BehanBox.]
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