As soon as I hit my 20s, the adolescence that I had barely emerged from became the very center of amusing conversations. These throwback conversations were largely centered on how each of us stumbled upon sex and its knowhow. The naive discoveries have always left me in awe of how we made sense of things.
It was around the age of 10, that I first heard the word ‘sex’, along with its vaguest interpretation possible. It was something that grown-ups did but was largely condemned as a ‘dirty act’ by my friends and family. As half-baked the information could possibly be about sex at that time, I remember feeling that if adults in our families ‘did it’, then there must be something good about it too! I decided I too would ‘do it’ for sure when I grew up, but with some bare minimum clothes on. A few months later, I heard that apparently, ‘bare minimum’ wasn’t a part of the deal. I pondered over the ‘change in plan’ and decided to forego sex altogether.
When I first got my period, I got a once-in-a-lifetime low down on menstruation from my mother, which went above my head. I was the least bothered about how the change in my biology would shape the rest of my life, and that one-time conversation remained one-time only.
Two years later came the legendary biology class where ‘coitus’ and ‘copulation’ were the only two permitted words to be used in class. While school textbooks portrayed just one picture – that the by-product of coitus was a child and the act of procreation was nothing more than diagrams and a step-by-step procedure – the school grapevine, internet and the ‘sex-expert columns’ in magazines had an entirely different perspective to share. At 14, I realized that people from every corner of the world were stressed about ‘coitus’ and wanted answers. I kept reading and realised that their concerns were not just limited to ‘sexual intercourse’ as a process but rather issues like how to perform better, questions around ‘virginity’, same sex attraction, safe sex, body image issues, marriage, and so on. While on the one hand the questions posed in some of these ‘advice columns’ seemed extremely bizarre, on the other I could not help but think about how, for something so personal, the only space available for people to talk was through a medium so public. Also, there was the risk that a question sent in may not be chosen to get published with an answer – what then!?
When I asked my mother if my grandmother ever spoke to her about sex and sexuality, the answer came as a straight no. Her godmother was ‘Femina’. It was the August or September issue of Femina published in 1983 that was an eye opener for her that spoke volumes about sex, not just as an act but as an experience. We may have moved beyond Femina to a plethora of options, with access to internet and a range of magazines, but the space for any dialogue when it comes to sexuality, remains miniscule.
While growing up many of us have laughed over the snippets from Dr. Mahinder Watsa’s column, Ask The Sexpert, featured in the Mumbai Mirror. The fact that such snippets continue to circulate on the internet even today is proof enough that there is so much misinformation out there that needs clarity. Sexuality is a word so diverse in itself and an aspect that is so dynamic and integral to our lives, that a session or two on sexuality in schools or in homes, cannot do justice to it.
A few snippets from ‘sex expert’ columns will give you an insight enough into the kind of anxieties, pressures and doubts people experience with regard to sexuality. Some of the snippets given below on anxieties around nightfall, erection, penis size and male masturbation, reflect the effect of misinformation and myths. Girls may still receive a talk on menstruation by the school or by parents (even if inadequate), boys, on the other hand, are seldom spoken to regarding changes happening in their bodies at the time of puberty. The only discussion I remember having at school was in an auditorium full of girls, (with curtains drawn) on how life changing menstruation is going to be. Moreover, the discussions around sexual attraction and changes in the body were strictly hetero-normative. I did not know what ‘nightfall’ was till I was 20!
There is lack of conversation around issues like nocturnal emission, erections, etc. This further ties in with patriarchal pressures of upholding ‘masculinity’ that men experience, which keeps them from talking about these issues and leaves many of them embarrassed and confused. If only sexuality education is provided at home or in educational institutions, men may start to question the constant pressure of meeting the ideals of ‘masculinity’ and the risk of being referred to as ‘not man enough’.
The anxieties around marriage are unaddressed too, by the assumption that ‘go-with-the-flow’ is the best way to learn and avoid any uncomfortable conversation. There is a need to replace the ‘crash course’ on sex that is usually imparted a few nights before the wedding with sexuality education that caters to the unaddressed anxieties around consent, conception, contraception and right over one’s own body.
It is time we looked at these questions as a reflection of how we have created norms around something as vibrant and subjective as sexuality. The need for answers clearly highlights the pressure people feel to get things ‘right’. The ‘right’ that is so elusive and subjective, that time and again it gets pushed into categories of ‘yes, no and maybe’. On one hand, we are surrounded by sources aplenty to seek answers from, but if they all fit perfectly in the jigsaw of sexuality is what we need to answer. While a medium that exists as a weekly column in the newspaper or a forum on the internet at least creates a space for conversations on sexuality; but the lack of information reflected on the these mediums clearly highlights that sexuality education is indeed required to join the dots.
Information alone is not enough. Sexuality needs to be celebrated and spoken of without check-lists and certainly without shame. The education around it needs to be relevant to emotional and social development of individuals and their relationships.
Featured image credits: oc fernando