When Union Minister of Health made some statements about sex education in schools to be culturally sensitive ensuring that crudity and inappropriate graphics be kept out, predictably the social media erupted in anger and puns. So we had some funny jokes on twitter and a lot of ranting on FB. Are we still discussing ‘culture’ in the same breath as sex education in the 21st century in this country? Apparently we are as we also discuss gender bias, female foeticide and child marriages which should have got edged out on their own if education was indeed the tool that led to a progressive mindset. India is a country of disparities. Not only do we have many religions, languages and cultures rubbing shoulders with each other and living in a sort of uncomfortable communion but we also are straddling the old with the new in more senses than one.

How many of you remember your sex education classes from way back in school? I do. I didn’t have any! I studied in one of the premier schools of Bombay. What I do remember is the uncomfortable silence and nudging that we all faced when we studied human reproductive systems as a part of our ICSE curriculum. Our biology teacher, a very strict lady, before she began the class started with the warning that any child who sniggered, laughed or asked ‘inappropriate’ questions would be dealt with strictly. Thereafter, the discourse was an exercise in vain as the boys and girls struggled to keep their eyes glued to the blackboard hoping that the period ended faster. Did we feel exposed or shamed in some manner? Yes, we all did. It was terribly embarrassing, and I am very sure that we did not pick up any knowledge then. Of course, in those days of no internet, our sources of information were limited and confined to ‘dirty’ magazines or chit-chat with friends.

I can safely say that most of us could not breathe the word ‘sex’ in front of our parents let alone ask any questions that usually baffle adolescents. It certainly has changed in one generation because both my husband and I have made an effort to be as open as possible with our children and answer their questions in the most age-appropriate way possible. That is not to say that it was easy getting rid of the cobwebs from our own minds. I must say that our exposure to literature on this subject, discussions with other parents and exposure in general has helped. We are mindful of the fact that parents are not the only source of information for the youngsters today; they never were. By becoming clammed up and uncomfortable, we are cutting off their access to one of the most accurate and supportive sources. But I know a lot of parents in my age group who are extremely uncomfortable in discussing sex with their children. After all, many of us still carry our conservative mindsets no matter how many large cities and continents we may leave a footprint in.

So, in a way, the word ‘culture’ will always continue to be invoked in the same breath as the word sex in India for a long time to come. Even though we all recognize the importance of teaching about safe sex to our children, no one wishes to handle the hot potato. So the parents pass the buck to the school and the teachers to do the needful. The teachers of course come from among us. They are extremely embarrassed to handle these sensitive topics among boisterous teens. Hence this ‘culture’ raises its ugly head again. The Health Minister despite being a doctor also comes with the same ‘cultural’ baggage and starts viewing this information from the prism of cultural suitability.

I think the only way to handle this issue is by first admitting that it is a cultural issue in our country to openly talk about sex. It is another matter that double entendres, heaving bosoms and inappropriate lyrics along with bawdy comedy is the order of the day. Innuendo is fine but never a direct approach. Thus, the Education Department needs to first address this issue of embarrassment. Clearly, they cannot do anything about how parents interact with their own children. But what they can do is train teachers or use professional counselors in schools especially when they handle these sensitive topics. There are teaching aids and methods in which you can speak to children in a manner which conveys information that they must have.

Separate sessions for boys and girls help. This enables the children to ask questions in a more comfortable environment. Other relevant material like literature and online material can be shared with the children for additional reading. And, this has not happened so far in schools but perhaps a session can be held by the Counselors to enable parents to cope with their own confusion and also aid them in the approaches they can use to discuss these topics with their children. Information like appropriate reading material and books can also be shared with parents.


Hopefully, a slow and systematic approach will ensure that our children will got well-rounded education from their schools. In times when the world struggles with deadly diseases like HIV, AIDS, STDs etc., it will be criminal not to let our youngsters have the relevant information from the most reliable sources – their schools!

Let’s bring the elephant in the room — culture on the table and approach it heads on!

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43 Thoughts on “Sex-ed out?

  1. Valid point Rachna – culture and sex somehow always end up together. Not to mention that our country has the highest population in the world. How then, we wonder 😛
    But the change is coming, albeit slowly!

    • I think the issue here is more how to we deal with the topic of imparting the right sex education to teens. Of course, no one is doubting our ability as a country to reproduce. There are multiple issues at play here than what meets the eye. Thanks for reading, Ghata!

  2. A well thought-out post, Rachna. I think media and some politicians have a way of creating controversy about topics that need serious attention and careful thinking through. It is too bad that when controversy happens, nothing worth doing really happens and things just stay the same or get even murkier. Hope the recent debate doesn’t end up like all the previous ones, and some meaningful change does happen this time.

    • Thanks so much, Beloo. Yes, I agree media and politicians just create noise and TRPs. Hence we have media digging out old statements and views. I agree with your view that when a controversy happens, everyone gets carried away by the noise created. Does anything worthwhile even come out of it, I wonder? In this case, I do hope something meaningful can be done. It is not so difficult either if the will is there.

  3. Rahul on June 30, 2014 at 11:36 am said:

    Actually, there is a lack of will at every level be it governance, schools or parents! There are a handful like you who are keen to see the change in light of changing realities! Till this awareness comes first among the educated class, little will change like other ills like dowry, preference for male child etc! At least you have the courage to take the bull by the horns:)

    • You have expressed it very well, Rahul! But I feel that it must be a collaborative effort — both parents and education system need to fight their demons to impart decent sex education to our kids. I guess I had no choice. For me it is only normal that I communicate with my children on all levels. Thanks for reading!

  4. A very well written post, reflects your balanced beliefs as well. I agree with all that you have said here but I truly wonder if our government will be able to take those steps because frankly they are the first ones to be close minded and embarrassed about the topic 🙁

    • Thank you, Seeta! Yes, can we not have normal, liberal folks for a change in policy making, I wonder. I would have thought that a doctor as a Health Minister was an ideal choice and he isn’t that old either. Yet, instead of bringing changes that makes sex education even better, he is diverting the issue by getting into culture debates. Sigh!

  5. I remember those classes and like you my biology teacher was a lady and OH BOY she was BEAUTIFULlllllllllllllll 🙂

    she was good and had come from abroad so i guess she was more at home with the subject unlike us teenagers ..

    I am not sure about the cultural thing, it is mostly in the minds of OLD people, the youngsters in the nation, i doubt if they care.. the problem is the people who are making these policies or governing them are Way tooo OLD.. and no disrespect to them.. We need to be more realistic..

    how do i put it .. well sorry if this is a bit blunt .. Sex is something everyone knows about, everyone is thinking about tooo.. No matter how Religious or cultural one is . it has nothing to do with culture – religion etc etc.. So why do we bring all that pallava into it ..

    It is natural like many other things we do , that are natural, so Till we the people start to accept it as Natural such embarrassement will occur every time the topic is brought up..

    proper teaching staff, and as mentioned above in a comment genuine work by the authorities is required.. we lack that a lot ..

    • Yes, the teens of any generation do not care about sex or related issues. With raging hormones, they will find out one way or the other. The issue is with the parents, the teachers and the society at large which is unable to accept these changes and openly discuss them. The problem happens when they feel that not talking about the issue to hide their own embarrassment will somehow make it go away. Culture has got nothing to do with sex. But discussing sex openly has got everything to do with culture. That was my point! And that part needs to be addressed with better trained teachers or counselors imparting this education at school. But is anyone listening?

  6. We need to handle such issues heads on indeed. There still are people who change channels or walk away when a sex scene is aired. Its about time we came out of the closet regarding few issues.

    Lovely post Rachna. Post this on women’s web, its worth a read for everyone.

    • Thanks so much, Soumya! Exactly my point. What you pointed out happens in many families. How many of us are comfortable watching such scenes or discussing such issues with our children in our living rooms even in liberal families? It is about time we addressed this hesitation both at the level of parents and teachers.

  7. Some of the ideas you have provided are extremely doable and simple to follow in almost all schools across the country. I guess the only hurdle is to actually sensitize and train the teachers themselves as to how to handle this topic correctly with teenagers, that’s all.

  8. Tell those culture nazis that Khajuraho is Indian culture too. But more seriously, I feel that sex education can’t be left in the hands of inept teachers but should be handled by sensitive and trained personnel if at all. I would however suggest that parents be the first educators as we had been and as you are now. For we can give age appropriate replies and stop them from looking for answers in unsuitable sources. I remember giving the boys a book on sex education in a QA format, written by an Indian woman in the most practical and no-nonsense manner, when they stepped into adolescence. I forget the name of the book and the writer, only that it was good.

    • Exactly, we need sensitive and trained personnel to handle sex education in schools. That can only be addressed if the people in power think that this is an important area that needs important changes. As far as parents are concerned, it is but natural that they be the first source of information for their children. But I know of many many parents who cannot be this open with their children because they feel ashamed, inhibited or embarrassed. I think it is high time we acknowledged this as well instead of beating ourselves blue as to why parents are not doing this? Socially and culturally we are not similar. And I have seen enough conservative educated folks living in the city to know the truth about this.

      I have bought a lovely book for my elder son called “Just for Boys” that handles puberty. Thank you for your comment as always!

  9. Great post Rachna ! Liked the succinct way you have articulated your thoughts. There is definitely an elephant in the room and the sooner we all look at it, the better. Even me and my husband struggle with my son’s questions, given the parental and societal influence we also have, as we too have been in the class when the chapter on reproductive system was never taught and we were asked to read it ourself. But we decided, that we have to do what is required and it is important he hears it without giggles, just like he studies any other topic in school.

    • Thanks so much, Ash! Thank you for sharing your own experience. It is high time we accepted these facts about our own society and culture that makes it difficult for some to overcome their embarrassment. You and I have managed to overcome this but not everyone, unfortunately!

  10. Thanks to the internet, children these days have more access to material on sex. It’s all around us, in movies, ads, books, media….Which is why it becomes imperative that we talk to them about it rather than have them nurture fanciful notions about it.

    • Yes, parents must be communicating with their children anyway. But that cannot be a substitute for a formal sex education given in schools by professionals and trained teachers. We also have to understand that despite wanting to, some parents find it very hard to broach these topics with their children. I know many of them around me.

  11. janu on July 1, 2014 at 10:32 am said:

    I remember that biology class too. We were too embarrassed to look at the boys after that class…and only one lecture was awarded to that class…no notes nothing.
    When I thought I couldn’t tell me daughter the way it supposed to be told, I took her to a lady doctor who explained. I elaborated when it was necessary. Guess I too came of age while dealing with them with the subject of sex.
    It is not a taboo…but, we attach a stigma to it.
    Agree with your points.

    • You did good! I remember asking other parents for which books to buy my son. I have been very open with him but that is not to say that I did not feel hesitation. I just hope that they can rehaul the method of giving sex education in schools.

  12. Keep everything under covers and let those little minds wander here and there for information and catch hold of all the wrong information that they can and assume everything sex is not about. Isn’t that what our Health Minister wants? Crazy fellow!

    • No, apparently he is not against sex education. He is against crudity and inappropriate depiction — whatever that means :). My post wasn’t about that, Rekha! My post was more about why discussing sex with children is difficult even for parents and teachers in our society, even today even in large cities. And I hope that sex ed in schools will be done more systematically through trained professionals. I have an adolescent son and I am keen to see what they teach him in school. Of course, I am also discussing age-appropriate stuff with him already. But there are many parents in my age group who wince even at the thought of doing so :(. The issue is so much more complex.

  13. Hehe.. our school days were fun, lot of confusions in some biology chapters. Parents were also confused, they don’t dare to touch or hug each other in front of their children. But in today’s world when any kind of information is just a click away, children are aware of things that we only came to know after our 9th grade. In such an internet age a minister should be able to distinguish between a textbook and Savita Bhabh type of books 🙂

    • hehe Jahid! All valid points. Seriously, he did lose his marbles there :). All I was trying to say that the entire system of sex education in schools needs a rehaul. I have an adolescent son and I came to know that the teachers are still as awkward and there is a lot of giggling and tongue tiedness that still happens. Shouldn’t the approach to sex education get better? Are these important issues even getting addressed?

  14. I wonder how in this age of information and internet our ministers can be so ill-informed and ignorant and advocate such regressive ‘vision’. In fact in the times we live in, sex education is needed like never before. Very valid and totally implementable suggestions you have shared. Hope they become a reality soon.

    • You are absolutely right, Shilpa. Instead of addressing issues like hesitant parents and untrained teachers, they are asking for censorship of content. Seriously crazy!

  15. It only shows that likes of harsh Vardhan odnt ahce access to internet nor have thier children confided in their parents.
    Tell these Dumbos,not only infotrmation is on net…you can see the damn think live

  16. It is high time we take a call Rachna and not supress the whole thing about sex or else it will be just counting bees. I remember Biology class being soo awkward, dunno where to look, as if someone branding his gun at my temple, don’t move away from the book..or one DCH scene, watching with parents and went to my room for few minutes..remember Saif in Goa with gf Christina…some excuse that I need to find a book. We need to educate people or else the shame thing will grip us..was so disappointed with Dr Harsh Vardhan.
    Wrote two related articles on my other blog

  17. Will read your take too. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  18. The Health Minister would do well by simply reading this post and figuring out a way forward, rather than walking in that bubble where “values” are supposed to be the answer to everything. But, of course, that will not be.
    I am terrified by the fact that India is continuously dumping hundreds of millions of educated-yet-ignorant youth into the world where competition is already fierce, and will get more so in the coming years.

    • Absolutely! There is a lot to be desired from the education system, I agree! I wonder if anyone is even trying to do anything. Every damn thing gets lost in media frenzy and loads of social media cacophony. People rave and rant and move and things just continue to be the way they are in every sphere of life :(.

  19. The cultural aspect is tricky. Thousands of years of social engineering can’t be just wished away by some neo-liberals. Even when doing management consulting assignements, the biggest aspect is change management. So in doing these kind of things, one needs to understand the cultural baggage the nation carries and how the people will react to change. Additional complication for a BJP government’s core constituency is the culturally rigid elements.

    • I agree. And we cannot ignore the cultural aspect in our own country. Unfortunately a few rabid people think that they replicate society and that what they say is the eternal truth. Sometimes I wonder if these people have been brought up in the same country. If they were, they would analyze the issue instead of going berserk with their rant. BJP government is going crazy with its rigidity. I hope they start reining it in.

  20. Very well written! It’s sad that people are not open about sex education.

  21. I sometimes struggle to understand how we in the land of Kamasutra became this way?! Well, whatever the reason, it is high time we broke out of this cycle.
    I know I will feel embarrassed when addressing the topic with my boys, but I am determined to answer all their questions and concerns in the most truthful and matter-of-fact way. I agree that separate sessions for boys and girls by trained teachers will greatly help!

    • I actually undergo that struggle every single day. It is horrifying how things and people have deteriorated in every sphere of life here. I am sure you will do a good job at it, Rosh! I must say that I am proud of how I am handling it with my elder son. He is very open and both of us casually can chat with him. I hope someone can implement some of these suggestions. They are not difficult but someone needs to have the will. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  22. Sex education is very important aspect of education and growing up. The more it is covered up, greater is the curiosity in young minds. IMO, it should not be solely left out to the teachers or school etc but parents should also be able to answer and educate on an age-appropriate basis. If parents are uncomfortable, maybe they need counselling sessions for themselves, and counselling is not a bad thing. Some of your pointers are extremely doable Rachna, like separate session for boys and girls, or a repository of online and offline resources for children to read, and view.

    • I agree about parents becoming the first resource for their kids but you know how some conservative families. That is why I believe parents need sessions too. I hope someone out there who can make a difference is reading these suggestions!

  23. Thanks, Rachna, for bringing up this topic. In the age of increasing rape incidences, sex-education is the most important. Hanging a juvenile by treating him as an adult isn’t right way to deal it, in my opinion.

    I clearly remember that my biology teacher was a female and she blankly refused to teach reproduction system to the class. The school had to arrange a teacher from another section. The strange thing was the teacher who finally taught us the chapter was also a female. And she was very good. I liked the way she handled the subject. Before entering into the syllabus, she took one class only to make us comfortable with our body parts.

    I don’t remember exactly who she was, probably Divya, I guess. She was in agreement with the necessity of sex-education but she wanted to do it herself. She didn’t have trust on school teachers for such delicate issues.

    During my school days, I also worked with an NGO regarding uplifting of street children who were affected by HIV/AIDS. I believe open sex-talk is a must to deal with such incidences in a better way.

    I think I should stop now, otherwise, I’ll write a complete post here itself. Once again, thanks for activating my brain cells in this direction.

Do not leave without commenting. I love a good conversation :).

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