Many of you may know the critically acclaimed Netflix series ‘Sex Education.’ The show does what most schools regrettably fail to do - it answers questions of curious teenagers about sex and their sexuality.  In this piece, Ananya HS highlights the adverse consequences of mainstream media and pornography becoming the only source of sex education for young adults and advocates adopting a comprehensive curriculum in schools and other allied programs.

One of the most common experiences shared by young adults across India relates to sex education programs, or, more often, the lack thereof. The ultimate objective of having a sex education program in place is to equip children with the information and skills surrounding sex and sexuality, necessary to make healthy decisions in their personal lives. Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of such programs is not to teach young kids how to have sex. In India, since sex is considered a taboo, sex education is rarely touched upon, with the health ministry even suggesting a complete ban on the same in 2014. The sad state of affairs reflected in this parody video has seen little improvement in the last few years, leading to a broad range of issues.

Young adults seem to be paying a steep price due to factors such as inadequacy in teacher training and discomfort in dealing with topics relating to sex. A friend recounted that their biology teacher refused to teach the entire batch of 15-year-olds the chapter on the reproductive system as a result of her discomfort coupled with incessant snickering, which left the students to fend for themselves. Even the recently rolled out New Education Policy 2020 makes no mention of sex education, despite alarming reports that over 100 children in India are sexually abused on a daily basis. Therefore, this piece will focus on the role of better sex education in fighting the war against sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, with a specific focus on the hidden consequences of the narratives perpetuated through pornography and other mainstream media.

An important and often ignored aspect in this regard is the role played by mainstream pornography in the normalization of abuse and violence. Several studies have shown that a high percentage of adolescent children are exposed to pornographic material very early on. Further, such exposure is almost always unintentional, with children either stumbling across it online or receiving it unsolicited. For instance, as an ignorant 12-year-old looking for pictures of hamsters on the internet, one of my friends was redirected to a fairly mainstream pornographic website. This experience was amusing to hear until I found out that this was my friend’s first time being exposed to sex, an experience that can be confusing or even traumatic.

Media has been found to have a tremendous capacity to teach. Excessive use of media, especially to access violent, sexist and/or sexually explicit content, could adversely impact a child’s world view, thereby increasing proclivity to high-risk behaviors and altering their capacity to form healthy relationships. Sexuality is expressed in a wide range of forums – in new media through pornographic material, through gender-stereotyped sexual myths, and through the construction of sex in a specific, harmful way. With physical aggression and the display of a man’s prowess being defining characteristics of most mainstream narratives, and children using porn as a substitute for sex education, it is vital to highlight the distinction between healthy and unhealthy practices. It is also often noted that producers of this material tend to fetishize LGBTQIA+ relationships. This fetishization can be seen across platforms including movies and TV shows – for instance, Joey and Chandler from F.R.I.E.N.D.S gave away their significantly nicer apartment to Monica and Rachel only because they agreed to kiss each other for a minute. Even the critically acclaimed movie ‘Call Me By Your Name’ has been called out for being an oversexualized and fetishized representation of the gay community. There is also the problematic usage of the term “interracial” for certain pornographic films, to provide consumers with combinations of racialized characters and racist scenarios. All this leads to the worrisome situation of greater legitimacy being lent to homophobic, transphobic, and racist messages. It could have a deep impact on young people who identify with any or all of these marginalized intersections of sexuality, as well as privileged young adults, who could potentially perpetuate these problematic concepts.

How can sex education help tackle this epidemic of abuse, violence, and phobia? The measure of any good sex education program has usually been assessed in terms of numbers and rates. While these are important goals to be achieved by such a program, a focus beyond mere physical health is the need of the hour. Policymakers across the world have begun to make the connection between the sexual assault epidemic and the need for comprehensive sex education at the school level.

What can policymakers do to ensure sex education in schools?  

  • For starters, India’s policymakers need to take the subject more seriously and prioritize developing a concrete sex education framework. All relevant stakeholders - teachers, parents, sexual health professionals, counselors, representatives from the LGBTQIA+ community, and members from any other minority communities whose views ought to be considered - should be consulted during the design process to produce more efficient results.
  • When sex is considered a taboo, it often results in the discussions surrounding the subject being viewed through a negative lens – for instance, when consent is taught or spoken about, it is phrased in terms of how it is imperative for self-preservation and not much else. An important tool in this regard would therefore be to facilitate open discussions with students about matters like the objectification of women, the skewed power dynamic between men and women, and the common occurrence of violence and abuse in pornographic films. These conversations can be facilitated in innovative ways - by screening informative videos or short shows, introducing the kids to YouTubers actively working in the area as the first step towards peer-led sex education, or modifying popular trends to make learning more enjoyable.
  • Organizing sexual health assemblies or establishing clinics with frequently visiting medical experts could also go a long way in helping young adults talk about any doubts that could need clarification. Hospitals could contribute to this process as part of their corporate social responsibility models as well. Since some students could be embarrassed to broach certain topics with family/doctors/other known professionals, it would be useful to provide a platform where students could anonymously ask these questions, thereby creating a safe space for discussion.

Encouraging students to develop healthier sexual attitudes and empowering them with information will enable them to make informed decisions about the content they consume. The inclusion of these aspects in a reformed curriculum with an emphasis on ethics, respect, consent, and safety, could help young adults make healthier choices regarding sex and sexuality. This could be implemented with the help of trained professionals or counselors who could more effectively introduce these ethical questions into the conversation.

Illustration by Denise Jane

Edited by Sahej Marwah