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Protection, yes. What kind?
The bees do it, the birds do it, and whether parents and school teachers like it or not, 16-years-old Indian kids are doing it too. Given the reality, how should adults react?
A few months ago, Mumbai's most beloved 'sexpert' Dr Mahinder Watsa found an unusual query in his inbox. "I love my wife but I have also been having sexual relations with my pet goat, Jameela. What should I do?"
He had several options. He could ignore the question. He could react with disgust and sermonise. Or, he could treat the issue with compassion, even humour, and a nonjudgmental understanding that sexual behaviour is often bizarre, yet very real. "Why don't you ask Jameela?" he wrote back, tongue firmly in cheek.
Of late, the 90-year-old sex counsellor's clientele has become younger and the questions more bizarre. He routinely gets questions from 14- and 15-year-old youngsters that reveal both a high level of experimentation and a high level of ignorance.
Recently, a young boy and girl came to his clinic, lying about their age. The boy wanted to know how much blood to expect the first time a girl has intercourse. "I asked them, 'So, do you think it's a bucketful of blood, or a mugful?" recalls Dr Watsa, eyes twinkling. "I finally told them that they can expect a few streaks of blood. Basically, the boy was trying to find out whether his girlfriend was a virgin and the levels of ignorance were astonishingly high. After explaining the issues, I finally got around to talk about values - like respect for the partner, love and responsibility. These kids really need to understand values more than sex. "
Indeed, the recent controversy over the legal age for consensual sex does not address the more serious underlying issue: whether a person is 18 or 16 or even 25, he or she needs to be better informed on matters ranging from hymen rupture to safe sex to understanding the idea that no means no. High levels of ignorance, especially on the emotional aspects that underlie the sexual act, can lead to deeply dysfunctional behaviour.
The debate over what should be the correct age for sexual interaction is clearly complex. But there is no doubt a growing discrepancy between policies and the social reality. Research reveals that the onset of puberty has moved back a couple of years, so children are becoming sexually mature earlier. Besides, the overwhelming exposure to the Internet and global media has spawned a cultural schizophrenia that has left the young especially vulnerable.
Given all this, many liberal adults believe that young people should be granted sexual autonomy and not be subject to arbitrary punitive measures. At the same time, there is concern that school children, already stressed over academic competition and absentee parenting, are scarcely equipped to deal with physical intimacy and the emotional demands of another human being. As Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal Springdales School, Delhi, says, "Children are walking a tight rope here. So, why introduce a new stress point?"
The larger problem, regardless of the age of consent, is that we still live in a highly repressed society mired in denial and the absence of the most basic sex education, both at home and in schools. "If at all the age of consent has to be brought down then adults need to create a suitable social and emotional scaffolding for children, " says Mulla Wattal. "Far more essential than the issue of age of consensual sex is making young adults understand the importance of safe and responsible sex. "
Says Dr Shelja Sen, child and adolescent psychologist and family therapist: "Though I do believe the age of consent needs to be lowered to 16, I think that emotionally, 16-year-olds might not be ready for a full-fledged sexual relationship. It can be extremely confusing for them and it might lead to severe emotional problems. However, this issue cannot be addressed through laws but more through sex-education programmes, like skills training and empowerment programmes for girls. " She and her husband, Dr Amit Sen, have been working with issues related to adolescents in Delhi through their organisation, Child First. They routinely meet children from all kinds of backgrounds, rich and poor, and from the metros and small towns, who are sexually active before the age age of 18.
While on the one hand, teenagers today are experimenting more than ever before, most adults - policy-makers, school administrators as well as parents - remain in denial about the fact. According to Nishit Kumar of the Childline India Foundation, a few years ago, a BJP-led Parliamentary committee submitted a report that actually said that sex education was a tactic to make prostitutes out of children.
"There is an urgent need to ensure both boys and girls undergo sex education as soon as they enter their adolescent years and also undergo sessions on understanding the concepts of love/marriage/family, " says Kumar. "Both are a must. Both are lacking. Unless we build a premium in children's minds on family/marriage/love we will not be able to wean their impressionable minds away from sex. And unless they have knowledge of sex in a correct way they will never understand the consequences and the responsibilities that go with it. They will end up thinking of sex as a pleasure and leisure activity. "
Over the past two years, Childline India has been conducting sex abuse programmes in schools across Mumbai, in which certified volunteers use unique story-telling formats and visual aids to talk about basic concepts like good touch/bad touch and personal safety. In a first, the Mumbai municipal corporation has just given the organisation permission to conduct this class in all 1, 400 of its schools. However, this is an exception and most schools, especially those in smaller towns, still cringe at the idea of talking about sex.
Parents are wary too but a few enlightened ones are beginning to see the writing on the wall. Says Ambika Pant, the mother of two boys: "Today, 16 is the new 18. Kids are exposed to so many different sexual experiences - through advertisements, Bollywood, the Internet - and their development also happens much faster, especially with girls. So, if sex is happening before 18, I wouldn't not surprised. Am I okay with it? Well I don't think we have much choice. So, I think the larger issue really is whether we're giving them the right sexual education, telling them about condoms, or emphasising that no means no, even if it comes after a yes. "
But for most, sex is still a word better left out of the family lexicon. Dr Watsa says, "Schools are focusing way too much on mathematics or geography. There was a time when they used to have a values or moral science period thrown in. We need to bring these inputs back into the lives of children more than ever before. "
Additonal reporting by Shobita Dhar in Delhi and Joeanna Rebello in Mumbai
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