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Call Me by My Name: How the lack of sex education in India is impacting society

Trigger warning: Rape, assault

In an Indian mini-series called Who’s Your Gynac, the doctor exhorts her patients to chuck euphemisms and say vagina and penis when referring to those body parts. A Hindi film, Oh My God 2, shows a father taking on the education system, the judiciary and the society at large for shying away from sex education. These examples, though, still remain the exception when it comes to accepting sex education as essential. While the conservative/religious views remain that marriage and reproduction are sacrosanct, even married couples face a lot of issues because they received zero, little or the wrong information about sex while growing up. Over ten such people in their thirties that Unbias the News spoke to confirmed that sex ed in their schools was absent or nervously glossed over.

“You probably already know from movies”

Reet Sharma* is a marketing consultant for American Fortune 500 companies and a mother of two. She recalled: “I distinctly remember my ninth-grade teacher [in India] skipping the human reproduction part of the book saying ‘no giggling and you probably already know from movies’. I did not know from movies.” Anya Vishwas*, an equity, diversity and inclusion manager in the UK with two kids, said: “I didn’t understand orgasms . . . And it did affect my sex life, of course.” Urmi Srinivasan*, a Bangalore-based digital marketing strategist, turned to porn in her teenage to inform herself. Yet, she added, 

“I did not know how condoms help prevent pregnancy until I was, say, 18. I don’t remember having such talks with anyone in the family who could help me learn about these things.”

But teachers who understand the importance of sex education also exist. Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) based Kati Cysarek, an educational psychologist and teacher-trainer who works for children with traumatic experiences, would teach about sex ed in the eighth grade as prescribed in the government curriculum. The task of sex education is not easy, admitted Kati, because it has to be culturally appropriate, and language wise it is tough. She had a hard time finding words in Hindi that weren’t either obtuse or abusive. But she kept working on her aim of “normalising bodies” and making her students understand that “we [men and women] are basically equal. I wanted them to learn that our bodies are not a matter of shame.” While some of these discussions were held separately, many were held in a common space for all genders. The result of all these efforts was that the sexual harassment of girls there stopped.

Union of equals or forced submission?

Soon the women in the school also started approaching Kati for advice. A teacher who had married a man of her choice was horrified when he came and sat on her bed after their wedding. “I did not know he was such a terrible person,” the horror-struck newlywed reported, though the groom had only approached her to talk.

In other cases, Kati’s married colleagues had to face what can only be termed as rape and coercion, after having fought off their husbands’ advances for weeks.

To one woman, her spouse had shown videos of rape and told her sex was supposed to happen in that manner. The man assaulted his wife several times till she finally divorced him.

After Kati’s wedding day, her colleagues were extremely sympathetic towards her for what she must have “suffered”. When Kati insisted that sex did not always have to be painful, they concluded that white women probably have different bodies. Ultimately Kati started a kind of communication therapy, which she called “the most important thing for a couple”.

Dr Ankeeta Menona Jacob, associate professor with the department of community medicine in K.S. Hegde Medical Academy in Mangalore, Karnataka, also stressed on the need for pre-marital counselling: “In some religions, people are taught about these things. I don’t know how much the couples understand but at least they get some idea.” Otherwise, she lamented, couples have an “inability to talk about their sexuality or their desire to have sex. It is seen as something you do before going to bed with the lights off.”

Know Thyself

This lack of knowledge even in married people is also something Aisha George noticed in her works. Aisha works with Hidden Pockets Collective, a non-profit “using various forms of digital tools to educate young people and advocate for policy changes around sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice.” Her frustration was: “Women did not know what was happening in their bodies. There should be a language to talk to them. Medical terms are complex and doctors are busy.”

There is an assumption that people with high, formal education would know more. But amongst the women who got in touch with Hidden Pockets, only about 15 percent had some knowledge about their own bodies. Aisha shared:

“Even married women assume that they can get pregnant anytime of the year if they are having sex. They do not know about ovulation.”

The taboo around education on sex, sexuality and reproduction has also led to women dissociating with their own bodies. Hidden Pockets found that when doctors asked women about the colour of their vaginal discharge or menstrual blood women did not know because they did not like to notice: “When it comes to something out of the vagina, it feels awkward and scary to women.” 

Challenges in accessing information

Organisations like Hidden Pockets might do their best to spread awareness. But the access route to this information is also full of hurdles.

For couples staying in joint families, even going out to get the information is hard as they are not comfortable telling their parents about it. Even with pregnant women, often the husbands or mothers-in-law query the doctors, and women stay silent.

To know about medical termination of pregnancies, young men would approach the organisation with questions. But it would be difficult to give specific answers without having complete information from the woman herself.

A small number of these men also had questions about how to keep their partners “happy”. Some asked about how they can help their partners through their abortions. “But they never ask about contraception,” Aisha fretted.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

But amongst those who approach Gytree, a women’s health and wellness platform, a greater number of male partners are willing to talk about sex related issues. They bring up a range of challenges from fertility to intimacy taking a backseat in the relationship. Swarnima Bhattacharya, Gytree’s co-founder, attributes these issues to a lack of sex education: “I am speaking of educated, well-to-do people who travel internationally. They can’t believe that something like vaginismus exists.

'If there's love, how can sex not happen,' they ask. They feel these issues are not Indian, and happen only in the West.

I have had to tell people, ‘When other organs have problems, you accept it. So why this stigma around sexual organs?'”

On the other hand, men also have difficulty accepting women’s sexual desires as being natural. Swarnima shared, “Two to three men said, ‘It makes me wonder about her [sexual] history.’ Other men were even violent to women who articulated their desires or initiated sex.

Since many men are opposed to using protection or contraceptives, again because of the myth that these things adversely impact “male sexual prowess”, the entire burden of sexual safety and avoiding unwanted pregnancies fall on women. When, because of it being a taboo subject, women cannot discuss this with their partners, let alone doctors, they are the ones to suffer the most. Hidden Pockets has experience with women who wanted to learn about contraception and had similar, uncooperative partners. When these women use contraception without their partners’ knowledge, they also have to live under the constant threat of being discovered and the subsequent violence they might suffer at the hands of the husbands and their families for taking a decision about their own bodies.

Women and pain

That’s why when early on in her career Swarnima met women with injuries it made her wonder if they were trying to hide assault: “But actually some of these were accidental injuries because of ignorance.

"There are women who have given birth but never had painless sex."

Swarnima also met women with endometriosis who had to suffer painful penetrative sex. The doctors they met also focused on solving the problem for the sake of fertility, instead of seeing the alleviation of pain as the primary and urgent goal.

This does not help especially when women have a tendency to be guilty and shameful of such problems, and have been conditioned to minimise or dismiss their pain.

Ruptured relationships

A trust deficit in couples interrupts intimacy. There is also no understanding of how intimacy can exist without sex as well. Plus in India, Swarnima said, “There is a desexualisation of married couples. They are seen only as sanitised family builders. Then there are phases when one might go without sex for various reasons. At such times, partners should be helping each other in their journeys.”

But where basic sex education is missing such nuanced education of each other as sexual beings hardly happens. The Gytree founder mentioned the rise of apps coming up for dating for married people, and the survey conducted by these companies showed sexual void and discontent in married relationships as a common feature. Despite that, says Swarnima, “The language around compatibility still does not include sex.”

When no one is watching

It is not like everyone is relying on porn and quacks to get their sexual concerns addressed. Swarnima mentioned that of the two companies she knows of working on sexual health, one has closed down and one is active. That one targeted men and women in its advertising, and 94 percent of their business ended up coming from men.

The problem is in the world of startups, if you’re a sexual health one you’re seen as perverted. There are advertising restrictions, and pages get banned. Google searches flag the businesses. Slowly these companies are trying to change the language they use so that the information they provide can still be accessed by people without the pages getting blocked by platforms.

Earlier such startups struggled with getting likes and comments. Now they have a metric of “secret engagement”, wherein people do not like the post because they don’t want to be seen engaging with such content. But they save these posts. Companies have now started seeing this as an accepted metric of growth.

Mend the gap

To mend the gap of sexual education in India, the experts interviewed for this article suggested several measures. The public messaging around health in India has grown more accurate. The same needs to happen around sexual health, which should not cover only reproduction. Gytree gave the example of Africa where some sexual health campaigns started with talking about rape because that topic was considered acceptable. Similarly if there is resistance in India to a discussion on sexual awareness, first an entry point has to be found. Discussions around menstruation have become more widespread than they were a few years ago. Kati Cysarek mentioned how she used comics like Menstrupedia to educate her students. Hidden Pockets noticed that contraception and abortion are subjects their audiences were relatively open to hearing about.

Some workshops might be organised separately for different genders. But many of these discussions need to happen with everyone togethers so that the shame and stigma around sex being publicly unmentionable reduces. These presentations must be clear and specific, and the audience should not be infantilised. If videos are shown with words bleeped out, the subliminal messaging is still one of shame.

There is a need for strong political will to implement many of these campaigns. A strong awareness of sexual health needs to be seen by governments as a life skill, something that is a part of physical and mental health, and can help prevent violence and abuse.

When there is talk of women’s health, the central point should not be only on fertility but on their sexual health too, which includes education on consent and bodily autonomy. Counsellors and therapists need to be trauma informed, and queer inclusive. For those not comfortable with talk therapy, art therapy can help. For awareness campaigns as well, Hidden Pockets used creative methods including podcasts where people shared real life experiences, and songs in the local languages. Going to schools for them still remains the toughest challenge as they have to hear things like “children are here to study” and “this is not part of our culture”. It would take time for the education system to realise that they cannot hope to have mature, well educated adults who do not cause harm to themselves or others if they bypass sex education.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.


This article is part of The Talk, a series of stories, each produced by a different newsroom or team, painting a picture of the state of sex education around the world. During the month of October 2023, stories were published by Unbias the News, NADJA Media, CNN As Equals, and Impact Newsletter. Kontinentalist, Suno India and BehanBox will also be publishing reports.

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