Opening Up … Conversations about the Human Body and Sex Education

Many years ago, the management of a school asked me to make a curriculum for the Kindergarten classes in Literacy, Numeracy and Environmental Studies. While doing the curriculum for EVS on the topic — The Human Body — often limited to the parts of the body, I asked the management if they would permit me to include the names of parts of the body that are generally termed, ‘private parts’. Management felt that parents need to be consulted on such a ‘private’ matter.

So, a questionnaire was sent out. I continued with the curriculum without the words (see how nervous I am to even mention ‘the’ words in my, ‘my’ blog) as I knew the outcome of that questionnaire. Right enough, over 90% of parents said it was not necessary for children of that age. They would rather use some weird names than call the bottom ‘buttocks’. My objective was simple, when I can call all other parts of my body by their actual scientific names, why not these parts of the body. So from the very word go, it is mystery, hush-hush and arousal of curiosity.

In 1986 along with a couple of other teachers from the school and college, I was deputed to attend the First Conference in India on Respect for Life. On completion, we were asked to share our learning with the rest of the staff of the school and college. One session led to another and commenced a new journey of speaking to high school students on Sexuality and Sex Education. When school managements were approached, most were not comfortable with the term ‘Sex Education’. Hence, we had to be devious and name the programme ‘Growing Up’. That was accepted, and sad to say not many bothered to ask what the contents or methodology of the programme would be.

Let us go back to the arousal curiosity that I mentioned earlier. I must tell you this story. A few of us from Bangalore had gone to Kerala to attend a conference. During a session, I needed to use the restroom and asked a 16 to 17 year old volunteer to point me in the right direction. He said he would accompany me. In those days, my saree blouses were always sleeveless. While walking along he touched my arm and asked, ‘What it felt like to wear sleeveless?’ Quite nonplussed, I stammered something to the effect that it was a choice for comfort. He showed me the restroom and said, ‘you don’t need to lock the door.’ I innocently asked whether the latch was not working. He mumbled an answer. I went in, locked the door and was on the job when I heard a chair being dragged. I looked up only to find that the toilet wall did not go up to the ceiling. I quickly rushed out, quite shaken only to be faced with a dilemma. Do I report the matter to someone or keep quiet. In order to prevent a future peeping Tom, I decided to speak to someone who would explain the female anatomy to him, not just to satisfy his curiosity but to inculcate the values of respect and understanding for the opposite sex and himself.

How do most Biology teachers teach the Reproductive System? Often they skip it by asking the students to staple the pages or teach it with no emotion and values as though the system belonged to an alien species.

So, you can see that we are cautious, prudish and afraid to bring out into the open what is just as important as any other part of the body. What would happen if a tween or an adolescent had a genuine question, an anxiety or a worry about the changes occurring in his/her body or even an attraction — whom will this young person go to? You are right, before the days of ‘google-toogle’ as a friend called it, they would ask their friends. Now, would a friend know much more than them?

So that is how myths, half-truths and plain misinformation are perpetuated. After I attended the conference, I was shocked at my own ignorance, that is after being married and also giving birth to a child.

My intention in writing this blog –

  • Children need to get the right information from the right sources and who better than parents. To be on the safe side it would be good if both parents did the education together in a loving, caring environment. Children’s questions need to be answered honestly — of course in language that is appropriate for their age.
  • Talking about good touch and bad touch is not enough. They should be able to stop behaviour that makes them uncomfortable — even if it is pulling chubby cheeks. So it has to be about a comfortable or uncomfortable touch.
  • Children need to have the vocabulary to convey if they are being abused or molested or even harassed.
  • Boys need sex education just as much as girls. They have worries and anxieties and questions just like the girls do. They cannot learn the right attitudes and values while sowing their wild oats. I was asked to speak to the 7th standard boys of a co-ed school. They had taken a sanitary napkin from a girl’s bag and were throwing it around to each other like a ball. I spoke to them about menstruation, and how it was the life-giving ability in a woman’s body by comparing it to soil that is prepared for the growth of a seed. I also told them that they would not have been born if their mothers did not menstruate. I told them about menstrual hygiene and the use of a sanitary napkin. I hope they went away better young boys to grow into caring young men.
  • Young people need to understand the difference between love and infatuation. People get into relationships and marriage and then realize that they were in love with love and not a person. You know that, ‘Mere samne wale kidki me, mera chand ka tukda rehta hai; …’

In conclusion, we as adults need to create an environment that allows for appropriate learning and not judgemental discussion of thoughts, worries and anxieties. Let not our young people get into trouble due to ignorance because we did not dare to care.