Earth to Harsh Vardhan: There's nothing vulgar about sex education

It was back in 2013, at the time of the Delhi elections, that BJP candidate and now India’s Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan outlined his “vision document” for school curricula in the national capital. His agenda starts off well. He suggests environment studies be made mandatory, that the teacher-student ratio be improved and that students be encouraged to pursue “independent study using library and Internet” instead of focusing on exams and rote memorisation. Then comes the googly:

“So-called ‘sex education’ to be banned. Yoga to be made compulsory.”

 Earth to Harsh Vardhan: Theres nothing vulgar about sex education

Representational image. Reuters

Technically, there’s really no reason to pay any attention to this document. Not only is it dated, there isn’t much by way of sex education in India (with or without the inverted commas that Vardhan appears to love so much). When there was a suggestion that it be introduced, a number of states went up in arms, protesting that sex education would destroy the local children's moral fibre. Even though private schools are free to include the topic in their curricula, most don’t because the prevailing belief is that if children are taught sex education, they will follow the way of the immoral West and fornicate like rabbits.

Considering the fact that the 2011 Census declared India’s population was at 1,028,737,436 in 2011, it looks like we’re fornicating like rabbits anyway. If the number of babies being born is any indication — 51 per minute, as of 2011 — then we’re the ones who are obsessed with sex; not the West. Not only do our ancient scriptures and art suggest that having an insatiable sexual appetite was the Hindu way, our contemporary birth rate suggests the same. We’re doing everything we can, including putting a chief minister’s face on a pack of condoms, to deter people from sexual activity. And it isn’t working. In contrast, Denmark has companies that are trying to seduce people into making babies by giving them "ovulation discounts" on holidays and three years of free diapers.

The reason Vardhan’s stand on sex education is in the news is the recent interview in which the health minister suggested condoms and abstinence were the best way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDs. Complaining that he was “disappointed” with how the New York Times had used his quote, Vardhan clarified in a public statement on Facebook that the reason he recommended abstinence is that condoms can break.

This is true. Condoms can indeed break, but that happens very, very rarely. Don’t believe the Mills & Boons. Condoms work way more often than they fail. Also, if you know how to use a condom properly, the chances of it breaking are reduced even further. And how would one know about using a condom? Well, you could go to a sex education class. There an instructor would tell you that you shouldn’t use old condoms, that you’ve got to be careful to not tear the condom while opening the packet, and that you must always leave space between the tip of the condom and the head of the penis.

Contrary to the suggestion in Vardhan’s document of replacing “so called ‘sex education’” with compulsory yoga, that ancient Indian practice does not offer these critical pieces of information. It does, however, improve your flexibility and focus, which, if Sting is to be believed, can help one’s sex life considerably. (As usual, his wife’s take on the whole matter is a little different.)

The problem with Vardhan’s stance on sex education is that like many in India, he’s confusing sex education with pornography. This is why the term sex education is described as “so called” and is in inverted commas. While it’s disappointing that a man who otherwise seems sensible and is a qualified doctor has nursed these misconceptions, this is precisely what is bound to happen in a country that has shied away from sex education and relied on fiction — from Debonair to YouPorn, it's all mostly lies, I'm afraid — and self-education instead.

For as long as most of us can remember, sex education has been informal in India. Despite what the defenders of conservative Hinduism and Islam may suggest, this wasn’t always the case. Manuals like the Kama Sutra suggest that once upon a time, some Hindus had a more academic attitude towards sex. Don’t get conned by the tag of erotica — theKama Sutra is proof that graphic sex can be extremely dry, almost-boring reading. Medieval Islamic poetry and Sufi texts have some beautiful and properly erotic writing in them, and these were celebrated rather than suppressed at the time.

However, in the modern era, India has clung to a fundamentalist conservatism and the colonial gift of Victorian prudishness with a vengeance. As a result, generations of men and women have learnt about sex from friends, secret stashes of dirty magazines, films as well as by trial and error. Anyone who has actually had sex will confirm neither pornography nor Mills & Boon are effective substitutes for the real thing, by which we mean sex education and sex. Yet, in the absence of real sex education, where else does one turn?

"Sex education necessary but without vulgarisation," claims our health minister in an attempt to backpedal his way out of controversy. But surely the good doctor ought to know that sex education is clinical, technical stuff. It's about knowing your body and understanding your future (or present) partner. Studies suggest that sex education is actually more likely to make girls and boys less eager to pounce carnally on one another because their questions about sex and sexuality are answered realistically and clinically. They don't have to opt for 'practicals' in order to get answers and neither do they need to glean tips from two actors faking orgasmic ecstasy.

The reason sex education as a topic needs to be encouraged in schools is that it informs children of the facts that they need to know in order to behave responsibly when they do become sexually active. The question of when children will become sexually active is beyond the scope of an education system to determine. Considering the highly sexualised popular entertainment all around us, children don't need to be introduced to the idea of sex. Plus, whether or not they're dancing to "Sheila ki Jawaani" or crooning Honey Singh songs, a lot of Indians are having sex, as is obvious from our population statistics. From traumatic instances like when children witness their mother being sexually abused to hearing or glimpsing adults having sex, there are countless ways that the young are introduced to sex and sexuality.

Under these circumstances, where sex is all around you but not talked about, it’s more important than ever to make sure children get the right end of the sexual stick. The scope of sex education goes far beyond talking about the mechanics of sex. Contraception, recognising abusive behaviour, the basic mechanics of sex, the idea of consent, normal physiological reactions of the body — there’s a lot of ground that sex education covers that neither yoga nor pornography can. One look at the questions that Dr Mahinder Watsa, Mumbai Mirror’s wonderful sexpert, fields and it’s evident that despite appearances, a large section of India is entirely clueless about sex.

Ironically, Vardhan’s statement is actually sound if you take “so called ‘sex education’” to mean the misinformation that has been peddled for decades in the country. It is indeed time that we dismissed all that nonsense and acknowledged that a country that’s producing a prodigious number of babies every minute needs to adopt a mature and reasoned approach to sex, and that will begin in the classroom. For all you know, it might just make us all as restrained as the Hindu right wing imagines we innately are.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2014 17:52:33 IST