Sex Education and Conversations about Sex: A Commentary

In this commentary, we will address the issue of sex education for growing children in the context of cultural practice and family ideology. Our author for last week’s post raises a critical issue that faces parents and teachers, in fact all adults concerned with children’s learning and development. How, how much, when and by whom should the topic of sexuality be introduced to children? In our search for information there were few answers. The conversations about sex education in the public domain are populated more by doubts and debates. Some people are sure that teaching children about sex makes them precociously interested and early participants in sexuality. Others believe that a conservative stance on information related to matters of sexuality are unnecessarily prudish and unwise, and in fact lead to a greater vulnerability for sexual exploitation. With such contradictory messages, how does an adult make a choice about their own position about sex education? Here are some of the resources that would help a search for answers.

Safety first

The safety and well-being of its members is an important objective of social institutions, especially for children who are seen as the most vulnerable. Yet, as adults, we often underestimate children’s strength and resilience, and can err on the side of too much caution. Finding a balance between saving children from the outside world and preparing them for it is a struggle all parents have faced at some time or other. Sexuality is an important domain in this regard, but this is complicated by the fact that conversations about sex are not believed to be straightforward and simple, and we tend to be wary about how and when and how much information should be available to children.

Silence and sex

Growing children have always had access to many more resources than the adults in their lives are aware of. However, the veracity of that information can sometimes be questionable. As adults too, we often provide inadequate or inaccurate information whether this is deliberate or otherwise. Matters related to sex can be silent zones in family life, where children learn from very early on that some things are not talked about openly, some questions will not find straight answers. As our author pointed out so acutely, it is often hard to understand how exactly the nuanced messages are understood by children in the absence of dialogue. The power and potential of human communication is indeed unfathomable.

Although we may choose not to talk about sex, the world around is teaming with images and information about sexuality. With increasing distance between the natural world of animals and plants and human dwellings, the easy access to experiences related to sexuality among other species has become rare. In this constructed world, making reasonable sense of sex and gender can be a tough task. Furthermore, the public attention on children’s safety has become increasingly saturated with the news about crime and social movements. The #Metoo campaign is a case in point. How do we make sense of this information, and how do we guide a child’s understanding of this bombardment they are receiving through media? What do we know about sex education that can assist with these decisions?

Schools and sex education: Persisting debates

For those who haven’t seen it, ‘Inherit the Wind’ is a powerful film[1] that handles the inclusion of the theory of evolution in the context of a conservative American community in the early 20th century. The speech by Spencer Tracy in defense of the inclusion of the theory in the school curriculum is legendary[2]. Some of the issues raised there are relevant to our discussion here, and you will benefit from revisiting the movie.

While looking for answers, we confronted the fact that despite the developments in education and public health, sex education remains a controversial topic about policy and practice. The concern remains that conversations about sex in fact plant “wrong ideas” into children’s minds and in fact trigger precocious interest in sexuality. Let us take the example of the State of Ontario in Canada. Starting from the fall of 2015, there was a proposal that second graders were to be taught about “saying no” and inappropriate touching, third graders would be informed about sexual orientation and gender identity and seventh graders would be taught about the dangers of sexual activity. This modification in the curriculum led to an uproar from different communities, parents and preachers included, arguing that the syllabus was sexually explicit and radical. If sex outside of marriage is against conventional practice, how can a parent accept the inclusion of “safe sex” for their growing child, some argued. One group of parents reacted by submitting a resolution that they “preserve the right to raise children following our cultural and religious beliefs”[3]. This article provides an interesting commentary on this issue:

Although it may be universally accepted that schools have the responsibility of children’s learning, sex education has often had to deal with religious conservatism. The curriculum for addressing sexuality also varies in different parts of the world. In the early Soviet Union, for instance, the approach to sexuality was liberal since traditional awkwardness with matters of human sexuality was considered pretentious. In Mexico, the Catholic Church continues to block most of the discussions related to sexuality even today. In North America and Europe, immigrants and native conservative groups have joined hands on this issue and continue to resist the inclusion of public health issues in the school curriculum. In our practical experience in schools in India, predominantly, chapters that dealt with information about sexuality were glossed over, sometimes even left out in some institutions, whereas others dealt with the information in scientific ways. It was almost as if sex education was left to the discretion of the individual teacher.

India is vast and varied, and the approach to information about sexuality is not something that is clearly articulated. With reference to messages about adolescent well-being, sexual health and safety, child abuse and HIV/AIDS, there are numerous efforts to initiate awareness campaigns through mass media, especially television and radio. Several campaigns by the Government as well as NGOs and individuals have brought these issues into the home through images and conversations; but making sense of the subtle (and not so subtle) messages is still the responsibility of the family.

Again, for a country the size of India, it is hard to make simple generalisations about such a complex issue as family conversations about sexuality. The interface between liberal and conservative approaches in time and space has resulted in a hugely complex pattern of perspectives about sex. Between the unclothed sculptures of the past and the veiled faces of the present, India presents us with a complex and contradictory position on sexuality. These perspectives are further complicated by the blatant displays of a particular version of sexuality that Bollywood is known for. How can one make sense of the distance between the gyrations of the actors and the silences at home?

Regarding schools, there seems to be an additional resistance to what is believed to be a “Western” approach to information about sex education, and research has indicated that both parents and teachers of school children resist having too much detail in the syllabus as this is believed to spur precocious interest among children[4]. Yet, the West is also battling with the same issues, and the liberalism that we believe is typical is merely a local construction of the idea of the “West”.

Making sense of Bollywood

Popular cinema has always had a significant role to play in the construction of sexuality. As last week’s essay points out, the ways in which these topics are handled in Bollywood have also changed over time. Although not through obvious scenes, adult themes in Indian cinema are not new. In fact, one can find numerous instances of ‘adult themes’ in the past. Alongside the prolific production of overdramatic, incredulous scenes of family life and love, there is a significant number of films that are noteworthy in their handling of sexual relations and we will soon prepare a list of films to watch soon for our readers. The film Mamta that we reviewed[5] a couple of months ago, is one such example.

TARSHI and sex education

It was around 25 odd years ago that I came across TARSHI[6] (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), a Delhi-based NGO that dealt with education about sexuality and gender. The resources available at TARSHI are well-researched and effective, and the workshops and seminars conducted by them have helped many schools and families to better understand a difficult domain of child-rearing. Their claim is that in fact, contrary to common belief, accurate information about the biology and psychology of sex and gender reduce the chances of early initiation into sexual activity and risk-taking behaviour. Conversations about sex in fact increase the responsibility by providing access to reasonable information that can help a growing child to understand what is going on, both with the body and the mind.

“Parents often fear that this kind of information might encourage children to experiment. The opposite is true. In fact, studies have shown that when young people have information about sexuality, they are more likely to make responsible decisions (including delaying sexual activity) and engage in healthier behaviours.” (From: The Red Book[7])

Their publications available here:

The Agents of Ishq

I cannot resist mentioning my delightful friend Paromita Vohra and her contributions to the contemporary understanding of intimacy. I strongly believe that she is making a significant contribution to conversations about sex. Her activities as an ‘Agent of Ishq’[8] provide a dramatic contrast to the sinister silence around sex in general, and women’s sexuality in particular. From playlists to poetry, AOI opens up fresh perspectives on a persisting conundrum. From their website: “Agents of Ishq is a multi-media project about sex, love and desire. Or, to put it another way, we make cool video, beautiful images and great audio about sex, love and desire in India. Agents of Ishq is brought to you by Parodevi Pictures, an independent media and arts company based in Mumbai.”

Among the readings available on her website, I find that the narratives of ordinary people’s experiences to be the most illustrative of the ways in which dialogues about intimacy can be approached, although some of the text may be unsuitable for children, so do read it for yourself before you share this with others.


A conversation:

Child- “Mom! Where did I come from?”

Mother took a deep breath and explained in great detail the whole science behind childbirth.

After 20 minutes the child said “Great Mom! My friend was telling me he came from Baltimore.”

Till next time,

Masala Chai









Features Image source:

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