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What Does Sex Education Have to Do with Gender Equality?

Sex education has become a hot topic in the past couple of months, ever since Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s hilariously delusional comments on replacing sex education with yoga classes. Badal Ja! has highlighted the misinformed understanding of sex that even well-educated youth have. This should be reason enough to institute sex education, in addition to the pressing need to warn adolescents about the risks of pregnancy and STDs. In fact, Douglas Kirby’s studies on comprehensive sex ed show that teenagers receiving sex ed actually delayed sexual initiation and frequency of sex.

Moving beyond the teaching adolescents the biology and mechanics of sex, a much deeper and more sweeping issue lurks beneath the surface: Teaching adolescents about their sexuality is necessarily the first step to addressing some of the most difficult barriers to gender equality that India faces today.

Let’s take a look at how sex education relates to gender equality.

Sex inherently carries more risks for girls. But when teenagers are educated about safe sex, girls are less likely to get pregnant.

A refusal to teach sexual education disproportionately affects girls’ lives for one basic reason: Girls can conceive, boys can’t. Regardless of, or perhaps because of, the silence surrounding sex, a huge proportion of Indian teenagers partake in it. Though they may know of contraception methods, they may not use them. And if there is an unequal power dynamic already at play between the boy and girl, the girl may not have a say in the matter. Guess which one of them gets pregnant.

Teaching sex education with consent as a central theme help boys and girls articulate and understand personal boundaries and sexual assault, which is long overdue in our country.

Stalking, sexual harassment, and violence against women is an epidemic in this country. Though sexual violence is rooted in misogynistic attitudes—which stem from everything from a lack of positive role models for boys to misogyny in popular culture to a lack of strong institutions to enforce laws and deliver justice—comprehensive sex education delivers the first necessary step of defining consent and sexual assault. For boys, this serves to re-define their understanding of how to flirt with and woo girls so they do not default to stalking and eve-teasing. And girls become empowered by understanding their right to set boundaries and to demand boys to respect those boundaries.

Once sexuality is not shameful, girls will speak up loudly and fight against harassment.

Victim-blaming is still an issue in our society. As long as girls are denied empowering information about sex, they will continue to internalize the shame and be afraid to speak up against harassment and violence. However, when given the right information about sexuality and consent, girls and women will begin to speak up in large numbers when harassed, and perhaps even begin to boldly occupy public space.

With comprehensive sex ed, the primary source of information about sex for boys will be accurate and gender-equal—not unrealistic and misogynistic pornography.

With a lack of role models or institutional sex ed, most boys are learning everything they know about sex—at an early, impressionable age—from pornography (and, similarly problematically, from prostitution). Not only does porn portray sex unrealistically—in types of orgasms, body types, unnatural acts—it is also devoid of emotion and often uses tactics of aggression and humiliation on women. What’s more, most positions enacted are strategically chosen for good camera angles: It is usually impossible for a woman to orgasm in them and are devoid of human contact besides genitals touching.

Is it any surprise that this detachment and aggression translates into real life? In his TED talk, Ran Gavrieli elegantly explains why he stopped watching porn, citing that lost his power of imagination and ability to be present with his partner. Make Love, Not Porn beautifully lays out the discrepancies between porn and real life. (Though feminist porn does exist, few know about it and should anyway not be a primary source of information to children about sexuality.) Human sexuality needs to be taught with care and human-ness—not through an industry that thrives on manipulating male minds.

When girls are educated on and accept their sexuality, they are empowered to broach conversations around the restrictions placed on her after reaching puberty.

Most families will start putting restrictions on a girl’s mobility and independence around adolescence, while actually loosening controls and increasing independence for boys. Parents are usually concerned about girls’ safety (e.g. the possibility of sexual harassment or violence being inflicted on her), but also about her consensual participation in a sexual act and “bringing shame on the family.” As a girl’s mobility decreases, she learns to take fewer risks and be less ambitious and independent.

Once we can accept girls to be sexual beings, we will be able to have frank discussions that will move from simply restricting girls’ movements to thinking practically about how to give her the right values and the tools to stay safe. This begins with being able to talk about sex.

Similarly, a positive puberty and sexual education breaks pernicious stigmas and shame around menstruation, boosting girls’ self esteem and keeping them in school.

Qualitative field work like WSSCC’s Yatra has shown that the majority of females in India have no idea why they menstruate, leading to stigmas that cripple girls’ confidence. NGOs like Goonj and Azadi paint a dire picture: When a low-income girl gets her period, she is simply given a piece of cloth and told not to speak to anyone about it, to sit in one place, and not to pray or touch food, babies, holy basil, pickles, or more, depending on how orthodox her family is. In most cases, that is the extent of the information she will receive in her lifetime. Even upper income girls face taboos in the home, and men often are ignorant to women’s experiences (like this tech entrepreneur who did not know what periods were). The silence, confusion, and psycho-social stress tied to menstruation is one reason 30% of Indian girls drop out of school upon reaching puberty [AC Nielsen].

These superstitions are borne of a lack of sex education: If taught the facts (e.g. menstrual blood is actually pure, being nutrients for an unborn child), girls would own their bodies without shame, and communities would move away from most of these harmful practices. Moreover, if boys were also taught and sensitized about what girls experience during menstruation, schools would become friendlier environments.

Watch → Dharavi Schoolgirls Question Period Taboos

Beyond gender equality, quality sex education plays a role in marriages succeeding (since couples will have the vocabulary to talk about their needs), public health, less stigmatization of homosexuality, and the basic ability for individuals to accept their own body-mind-spirit connection without repression or shame—in sum, the effects will be far-reaching.

Trust the youth. This is the age of information, and what they need is supportive, empowering information, not half-truths, repression, and controlling authorities. With the right information, the next generation will have the tools to take great strides to end misogyny as it exists in our society. Let them do it.

Further Reading