Karnataka has been in the news for the last couple of months, ever since condoms and contraceptive pills were discovered in the bags of teenagers in a school in Bengaluru last November. While the government banned and then rescinded this ban on the sale of condoms and contraceptives to minors, it became clear that the problem lay deeper. Sexuality continues to be a taboo topic in the country, leading to a lack of knowledge about sexual health that has other major repercussions. Clearly, there is an urgent need for sex education in Indian society. Bengaluru-based Dr Meghna Singhal, a clinical psychologist and an internationally certified parenting coach, must agree. In her opinion, sex education and having an open, ongoing conversation with children and teenagers about sex is essential both in school and at home.
So, how does one start to have this conversation, especially in a society that continues to be fairly sexually repressed?
Understanding your teenager
It starts with understanding the mind of an average teenager. As Dr Madhura Samudra, a Pune-based consultant psychiatrist and sex educator points out, burgeoning sexuality in teenagers is inevitable. “While I understand this transition in children can be uncomfortable for most parents, it is completely normal,” she says, something that Dr Singhal reinforces. Being attracted towards the opposite or same sex, and being curious about each others’ bodies is a normal phenomenon after puberty hits. “Teenagers will be sexually active, there is no way that they won’t be," believes Dr Singhal, adding that the problem is more about them having sex without taking into account their own safety.
When they don’t receive adequate sex education or when they can’t have open conversations with their parents, when they don’t have safe spaces to have these conversations, and they’re exposed to porn and explicit media too early, sexual activity becomes unsafe for them. Dr Sheba Singh, the founder of TalkSpace-A Mental Health Studio, Mumbai points that that often sexually active teenagers are not fully aware of what they are doing and the mental, emotional and physical consequences of sex. “It is scientifically proven that early initiation of sexual intercourse is linked to multiple sex partners, increased sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and increased risk of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy during adolescence. These children are also likely to carry weapons to school, indulge in alcohol and drugs, and fight,” says Dr Singh. Mental health risks related to early sexual intercourse include depression, anxiety and trauma with long-lasting effects.
Creating safe spaces for sex talk
Teenagers being sexually active isn’t wrong but what is wrong is our lack of efforts in giving them the kind of scientific knowledge that they need. Dr Singhal shares that research has proven that parents who talk to their teens about reproduction, sex and puberty have kids that delay being sexually active and losing their virginity. And whenever they do, they use protection and the incidence of teenage pregnancy is lower. In her opinion, discussing sex is not a one-time talk but an ongoing conversation.
Her view is supported by that of Dr Samudra who firmly believes that having open conversations about sexual practices and building a trusting environment, will lead to the development of more informed and responsible young adults. “We are now moving into times where our youth is exposed to all kinds of information around the world, so it’s only fair to find a middle ground rather than implying strict rules or fighting against them,” she says.
As Dr Singhal points out, in the absence of structured sex education, children will end up turning to their peers or the internet. "This isn’t where we want our kids to get information from,” she says.
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Instead, it is better to introduce proper sex education in schools as early as possible. Dr Samudra believes that sex education should be included as part of the basic curriculum, right from the pre-teens. “Gradually incorporating correct information about human anatomy, changes expected during puberty, and safe sex practices will prevent teenagers from seeking the same information from other invalid or incorrect resources.” She adds that parents too, should be a part of this curriculum and be able to understand that the changes their teenager is going through are normal and should be taught how to combat them in a non-judgemental and accepting manner.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist