A word that kills conversations. A word that makes people squirm, makes them want to escape to their phones or look into space to avoid any response at all. Sounds familiar? This is the story of most households across India. But what is sex-ed really? And is the stigma surrounding the term justified? If teenagers are not allowed to speak about changes they are going through, how can there be a healthy relationship with their parents? It’s time for a change and leading that is Bookosmia’s podcast hosts, Suhani Khemka and Aadya Kataruka, both 14 year olds, in this insightful conversation with Anju Kish, Author , Advocate and Founder of UnTaboo.
Suhani started the conversation with a confession- she could only speak about the subject with her close friends as the word ‘sex’ could not be spoken in front of an adult. For Aadya, the restrictions she had started facing because she was ‘impure’ when she was on her period was baffling. In that light, both of them were eager for Anju Kish to address the elephant in the room.
What exactly is sex education?
Sex education is much beyond sexual issues. It is about understanding bodies, changes, emotions, reproduction, safety, consent, gender, sexual orientation, respect, relationships etc and covers a wide spectrum. It’s like an umbrella term under which there are thousands of topics including something as basic as hygiene. Do not fear the word ‘sex education’ as it focuses on two main themes :
1. The need for accurate information
2. Appropriate responsible behavior.
What is the target audience for sex education
At Untaboo we start as young as six and it goes up to 21 years old. We also educate parents, teachers and non-teaching staff. While it is important to educate a child it’s even more important to educate adults so that they are there to support children in their growing up years. Most of us grown-ups never under had any sex education as we had so many personal and societal biases against it hence it becomes very important to educate adults before we get to the kids.
People are still afraid to say the word ‘sex’. What can be done about that?
The word ‘sex’ and ‘sex-ed’ are misconstrued. When we talk about sex education people think that we are going to teach children about sex and that is why people misunderstand the entire idea of sex education. We probably need to coin a new term that is less scary so that parents can start getting comfortable with the word sex education
How do you deal with people who don’t want to untaboo the word ‘sex education?’
Conversations are the only way to untaboo the topic, that’s what we do. Sex education is not about sex it actually provides young people with factual, age-appropriate information so that they are able to make well informed decisions, form healthy relationships and take care of themselves both physically and emotionally. Sex education means safety – that is the message we give out.
A bookosmian, Sanskriti Jain a 15 year old from Bhopal has written an impactful poem on the topic of her body. It is titled “The day i became friends with my body.”
When puberty hits, our body goes through many changes, and it sometimes becomes hard for us to befriend our body. How do you think we can adapt to the change and love our body?
Body positivity, self-confidence, self-esteem stem from loving our bodies. According to research, adolescence is the most stressful period in a human being’s life – body changes, emotions play havoc, sexual feelings are at their peak, confusion, mood swings, the world seems topsy-turvy, to top it all, the media gives us mixed messages on how we need to be. Coupled with all that silence in school and at home, youngsters are left to fend for themselves during the foundation years.
How can we deal with it?
1. By realizing the difference between real and reel.
Ad films, feature films, pornography depicts bodies to be in a particular way to be beautiful. We need to understand millions are spent to make people on screen look the way they look, in addition to make-up they have photoshop, special effects etc. Even our daily photos have beauty filters so instead of looking at these images from reel life, it’s important to look at real life examples say from sports where achievements are not defined by the unrealistic expectations set on-screen. No one can define you. Only you can define yourself.
2. Dealing with rejection
Another message that films give out is that being rejected means one must resort to revenge, however this is just a warped reality. Parents must have conversations with kids on consent, respect and relationship skills to cope with rejection and that’s really important.
3. Parents being conscious of their words
As parents, we need to tweak our own style. Sometimes we may unconsciously create body negativity for a child where we may ask them to start dieting. Instead of that we could ask children to eat healthy so that they understand that eating healthy is for overall health and not just for physical looks alone.
During adolescence, teens get an overwhelming rush of hormones and desires. What are your thoughts on that and how can we control them?
It can be handled with conversation. Puberty begins with the production of sex hormones. It’s time for parents to start recognizing that this is a natural, biological factor. Once the parents talk to their children about these changes, the guilt factor for children gets taken away. There are lots of ways to handle a rush of hormones and desires. Masturbation is an amazing way to do this. It must be untabooed and we should talk about its advantages.
Parents are hesitant to talk about the bodily changes we undergo at puberty and I understand the cultural reasons behind it. It can be hard for us too to approach them about such topics. Any suggestions on how we can go on about it and talk to them about such issues?
Whenever we hear about parents being hesitant to talk about body changes, one argument that comes in is it’s not part of our culture. But what is culture? It is ever evolving. Wearing jeans, eating pasta, intercaste marriages were not part of our culture once upon a time but we have evolved. We have grown. And sex education was a part of our culture, we have the Kama Sutra and Khajuraho to prove that but somewhere we have been hesitant to speak about this topic
Here are some ways for parents and children to reduce awkwardness on the subject :
1. Open the conversation and call out the awkwardness
2. Sit with parents and figure it out. Tell them that there’s a lot of chatter about a subject you don’t know and you would rather speak to them and get accurate information instead of finding out from somewhere else.
3. Have a conversation jar
A lot of parents want to have a conversation but they feel it is awkward. One thing I suggest is to have a conversation jar. In this, families can choose to put a chit in the jar, it could have a topic that could be about body, about relationships or it could be about anything say traffic in Mumbai or sexual orientation or any subject that they want to speak about as a family. Put those chits in the jar. Family members could pick a chit and talk about that subject at the dining table. This will help normalize the conversation on such topics.
4. By understanding that this is more about safety and not about sex.
Mugdha Kalra, co-founder of Not That Different, one of BBC’s hundred women of 2021, wondered since speaking about sex education for neurotypicals is so hard she couldn’t even imagine how one could start speaking about the same with neurodiverse kids.
Anju agreed with the statement and said that accepting that the neurodiverse community also undergoes the same changes is a far cry. There is such stigma attached to it. People tend to forget that people who are neurodiverse also go through puberty, they also become adults, they also have romantic longings and sexual interests. We need to understand that every person has the right to adult relationships and has the right to information to be able to form healthy relationships.
How are children these days getting their sex education information?
For Suhani and Aadya, their friends were the primary source and a little bit of Google. At school, they were taught biology in an open manner, which helped them tremendously.
But is the internet always the right place to get information about sex education?
Sex education is beyond the physical. When you Google, it throws up 1000s of options . How does a teenager know which is accurate? Untaboo’s research shows that on the Internet, porn becomes sex education.
Research shows that 80% of college kids watch porn. Of them 40% watch rape videos. Of them, 60% feel like raping a woman.
An appeal to parents
Sex education is not about sex, it is about safety for your child. Youngsters need to feel understood and untabooing the word sex education and spreading the message is the only way to do it.
What is the role of a school in sex education?
Nidhi Mishra, Founder of Bookosmia wondered if schools have a role to play here. The teachers are already burdened with a wide ranging responsibilities, especially in the wake of COVID and would they be trained to handle questions on sex ed. Anju shared that according to her, sex education can be introduced as part of the curriculum, there can be nothing like it. This is not a one time talk, it’s like incremental learning. Just like you learn ABC and then you keep on adding your skills with every subsequent class, sex ed is like that. It is a lifelong learning . But yes, this is a specialized subject and expecting teachers to run it well without any training, will be unfair. At UnTaboo, Anju’s team has been working on running workshops and training programs for years and are now developing learning programs which can be implemented at schools- both for students directly and also equipping teachers.
When parents start speaking to children,it creates positivity about the whole concept, it helps children dispel the myths, go beyond the myths and apply their learnings in life. It also develops a positive and not a fear-based education that’s what builds trust with a parent and a child.
This article is a creative output of Archana Mohan,Nidhi Mishra and Mugdha Kalra, co-founders of Not That Different movement to understand mental health and embrace neurodiversity. We encourage you to listen to the podcast on audible.com , hubhopper to make the most of this meaningful conversation yourself.