The three of us were sitting in a school van, closely guarding the encyclopedia my friend had just borrowed. Two naked humans with blank eyes spread themselves out in front of us and my friend traced her hand over all over the images. She pointed to one part of an image and said “penis”. What? This was new knowledge for me. So, that’s what they call it? Not ‘pen is’? Fortunately, over the years I was relieved to hear many more stories of people making this mistake, and it was one of those jokes everyone knew the punchline to but laughed anyway.
What was not funny though, was how the awkwardness around ‘private parts’ and the subject of sex led to bullying and unwarranted shame.
Sex education classes came to us in carefully curated parts. First, we were taught pollination in biology. We would be flipping through stamens and pistils in our textbook and then suddenly two pages later, cross-sectional diagrams of a penis and a uterus would pop up. Why was the uterus the female equivalent of a penis?
Followed by this, we had our classic girls talk where teachers told us that ‘breast’ was not just a chicken piece. They told us it was okay, we were mammals, so it was natural for us to have mammary glands and that boys had them too. Except, boys were not part of this conversation, and they called our mammary glands boobs; they also stared at them and discussed them around us.
When I had my first period, my parents said congratulations, gave me basic technical info on how to wear a pad and then handed over a book called… you guessed it, Girls Talk. This book was supposed to answer all my questions about sex and give me all the information I needed. Except, this book was based in America, and the girl in the story had a family that actually said the word sex out loud around her. She even went on dates with the knowledge of her parents and had a cousin to talk to about things her parents didn’t seem to understand.
This was nothing I could relate to. There were no stories about having crushes on classmates and the way you felt confused to get their attention. There were no stories about secretly finding ‘unwanted things’ on the internet or in novels that you hid under your bed. There were no stories about that one aunty who wouldn’t let your brother ask questions about Whisper ads but didn’t bother to change the channel when it was Axe instead.
Talking about our bodies was always hard, and most of the time we are met with responses like “vere onnum kittiyile chodhikkan?”, so much so that suppressing any questions and fears we have around the subject becomes instinctive. This is especially bad when it comes to talking about abuse. There are too many stories about people having faced abuse much before they got the Good Touch – Bad Touch conversation in school. Also, the concept of good and bad can be confusing too, because sometimes even bad touch can feel good.
It must be even harder for a queer child or a child who is unsure of their sexuality to see where they fit in because most parents and schools don’t want their children to know that straight and cisgender are not the only ways to live. I have no memory of queer representation in the media from when I was little, except when men with feminine attributes were either used as comic relief or to make the hero seem more desirable. This is not only harmful to a child struggling to understand and express their queer identity, but it also affects the attitudes of their peers towards them; like Hannah Gadsby said in her Netflix special “And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.”
Misleading opinions and attitude about sex are not limited to friends and family; politicians’ and policymakers’ opinion about sex education plays a huge role in the development of the school curriculum, which in turn decides how well informed young Indians are, leading to a vicious cycle of misinformation.
This is not to say that children will not find out about sex if you don’t tell them, but the sources they rely on may be sexist and may promote violent and illegal behaviour. Remember Types of Mallu Sexism? Remember Boys Locker Room? Remember all the incidents that took way before these two?
Even if young people don’t go looking, they will find sexism and violence even in mainstream movies, advertisements, and music. Without any guidance from people they can trust, children will internalize all that they see and will become ashamed or disrespectful of their bodies or those of others around them, and carry these feelings forward into their adult lives.