In the Indian context, pleasure and sex are rarely part of the same conversation. Pleasure is viewed as selfish while sex is shrouded in fear, or at best just a means of reproduction. Together, pleasure and sex has been seen as sinful and taboo. This perception has led to a misinformed, fearful and isolated generation. They are struggling to cope with raging hormones, curious about what’s normal and what pleasure feels like. Most often than not their curiosity is met with judgement and stigma as opposed to open communication. Experts say that is what we are doing wrong.
Growing up, the only sex education we ever received revolved around fear.
Sex is bad;it leads to disease, pain, pregnancy, and not to forget, shame. At best, ‘sex’ talk and home schools have been limited to the ‘good -touch, bad- touch’ and ‘where do babies come from’ chat.
Hush-hush conversations with equally curious and uninformed friends, non-ethical pornography, and basic biology classes are all that’s available to learn about sex. Today, the new form of information-based sex education, pioneered by online sexuality educators, offline workshops, and more, are trying to shift the narrative from fear to pleasure.
Sex is Meant to be Fun
Even though this fact may surprise you, the clitoris in female bodies serves one purpose: pleasure.
Erogenous zones exist for a reason. Years ago, the sanskrit text Kama Sutra was written for sexual-wellbeing and emotional well-being.
But somehow, over the years, the narrative shifted, and sex was viewed as immoral, corrupt, and only something reserved for married couples attempting to expand their family.
There is however, a growing chorus to bring the focus back on pleasure in sex. Pleasure-centred conversations also emphasize on sex being fun, beyond scary or just for reproductive purposes. It also moves away from making sex centred around a heteronormative script, to just letting people feel pleasure, in whatever way they define it or feel it. Sex in these conversations then stops being a goal-oriented exercise, but more of whatever two (or more) individuals define sex to be. Given that we don’t hear these discussions around us, the first step is normalising it.
“Pleasure is still viewed as selfish, greedy, immoral and even taboo in our culture. Open conversations about pleasure that are not just had in sexual settings but also in social settings - as casual as a dinner table conversation can definitely help normalise it. It doesn’t have to be another thing we need to excel at, pleasure can be confusing, intimidating, interesting, smelly, funny, boring, fantastic or simply just fun,” says Apurupa Vatsalya, a sexuality educator who goes by the username @inapurupriate on Instagram.
Apurupa explains, “it is human nature to seek pleasure. One’s self-pleasure practice is a brilliant way to connect with their own body, become aware of triggers - positive and negative and it has even been known to improve body image.”
Once people are aware of what their own preferences, likes and dislikes are, they are more likely to communicate the same to their partners, making all their partnered sexual experiences better.
“It is crucial to note that we are never too old to go on this journey of self-pleasure and it can start with an exercise as simple as gazing at our bodies in the mirror and gently running our hands across it,” she adds.
Fear-based Sex Ed Left Us Clueless
Sex ed barely even exists in a structured manner in schools or colleges. In 2014, Former Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that he wanted to ban sex education, said it was against “traditional values.” Conservative ideologies led to some states banning sex education. After years of being banned in many Indian states, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolled out a sex education program in 2018.
This lack of comprehensive sex ed not only has a direct impact on the relationships people seek and have, it also impacts their confidence, mental health, physical health, and other aspects of life.
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How little we know about sex and sexuality is evident from the regular questions sex educators get online. This is often the most preferred way of learning, given anonymity that the internet offers.
One look at popular sexual health educator and author, Seema Anand’s instagram feed will give you a decent idea of just how clueless a big proportion of the public is about sex and pleasure.
“Will I get pimples if I masturbate?” “Are my breasts normal?” “Is my penis too small?” “I didn’t bleed during my first time, is that okay?” and several other questions flood DMs of online sexuality educators that they often answer publicly for awareness. The questions range from basic anatomy to contraception to sexuality and fantasies.
Love Depot, a passion product e-store, partnered with Unomer Inc. to run a sexual wellness survey in the Indian market. A random sample of 1300 people and a booster sample of an additional 600 people were surveyed. It found that there is a common misconception in every male in two females that sexual lubricants help in birth control.
Non-ethical pornography has often been the most available resource around sex that people receive in their teens. Those not only show unrealistic sex, but also enforce patriarchal notions usually of men being rough, dominating, and controlling while women are the submissive ones. While all of it not only paints a very wrong picture of what sex looks like in real life, but also delivers wrong information addressing natural curiosities and fantasies around sex.
Existing fear-based models of sex ed keep safety and contraception at the core of it. “If you don’t use a condom, you’ll get pregnant,” and the like. Children are often not even taught the real names of anatomical body parts but they’re taught to call genitals the “shame shame part”. People, especially women, who ever openly talk about sex or having sex, are ostracised and seen as “sluts.”
Apurupa Vatsalya, a certified sexuality educator, summed up the effect by saying, “There's lots of public health research which indicates that fear and shame based tactics when it comes to sex ed have the least favourable outcomes. They don't provide us with the knowledge, skills, tools, resources and access to services to effectively navigate our sexual experiences.”
At Worst, We Were Left Feeling Lonely, Susceptible to Trauma and Stigmatised
“We not only feel alone in the curiosity we have, but also in the connections we want to share with other people. It isolates us even more if something goes wrong, say when healthcare issues arise or you face a traumatic instance,” said Tanisha, of Sangya Project, a pleasure store that sells toys, accessories and more. “What it also often does is, it doesn’t even let you associate those events with trauma, but leaves one feeling like they’ve done something wrong. Like it’s your fault, because you should have ensured this didn’t happen in the first place.”
This report by International Journal Of Policy Sciences and Law highlights data, and shows how more than one-third of new cases of HIV/AIDS in India occur in the age group of 15 to 24-year-olds. According to the NFHS-4 (National Family Health Survey), only 21% and 31% of adult men and women had a thorough knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Only 50% of women knew about safe sex practices.
This whole culture of shame, thus, results in isolation and stigmatisation. It makes people feel like they’re the only ones making mistakes. “When in fact, we’re all making mistakes together, so the conversation needs to shift to how we can support each other through it,” added Tanisha. It’s also unfair and unrealistic to expect that no mistakes will happen while seeking connections with other people. However, how we deal with those, heal from those and take accountability is the larger conversation that has to be driven by pleasure-focused sex education.
Now, several sexuality educators online are addressing these issues and educating people with the information and tools they never had while growing up. These include Dr. Tanaya (Dr. Cuterus), Leeza Mangaldas, and Karishma (Talk you never got) among others.
Curiosity Around Pleasure Starts Young
“The kids have questions, dozens of them. The concerning bit is that earlier the questions 16 - 17-year-olds were asking, now children as young as 11 and 12 are asking. ‘What are condoms’, ‘Why are they flavored’, ‘What is an orgasm’, ‘What is the G-spot’, ‘When can we have sex’, ‘What is gay’...these are queries by younger ones,” said Anju Kish, Founder, UnTaboo. UnTaboo offers age & grade-wise programs for children & teens on body safety, puberty, sexual literacy, and safety.
Several studies have shown that this curiosity can even start before kids turn two-years-old, when they discover masturbation, which is usually every person’s first encounter with pleasure.
Among Indians, more than 90% had their first sexual intercourse before reaching the age of 30, according to data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16.
So, How Do We Be Better?
By steering away from fear and focusing on making sexual curiosities and fantasies revolve around pleasure. Safety here, comes as an after-thought
“When we speak to adolescents and young people about pleasure, we centre their agency and enable them to build an understanding of their bodies, consent practice and look at contraceptives as pleasure enablers,” says Apurupa, a sexuality educator who goes by the handle @inapurupriate on Instagram. “Pleasure affirmative sex ed also allows us to question harmful gender norms and stereotypes that are used to justify gender based violence and instead foster a safer, healthier and more inclusive society.”
Given the present mindset around sex, these educators and the message they’re trying to drive, is sometimes met with concern, doubt, and even looked down upon.
Apurupa who often imparts her knowledge through Instagram and her work with The YP Foundation, elaborates that she does encounter comments where someone would accuse her of corrupting this generation by encouraging perverse practices or even disrespecting culture.
Anju adds, “In a country like India, where even the word 'sex' is frowned upon and sex ed is rejected by parents due to the presence of the word 'sex' in it, introducing pure pleasure based sex ed at high school level will be next to impossible. We instead opt for positive sex ed, which does not ignore pleasure but also talks about consequences and safety.”
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People who can really change how sex education is delivered and imparted, are parents and teachers. They shape young minds and have the most expansive access to teaching and training them.
Today’s 20-something-year-olds are the next set. They also are the next generation of parents who are now unlearning and relearning everything they ever knew about sex. This, after they’ve mostly been sexually active. Shweta Sangtani, co-founder of Sangya project says, “What we’re doing here, is just damage control.”
Healthcare providers are another set of people who need to be taught to deal with cases without stigmatising people. For them too, pleasure-focused sex education has never been part of their curriculum. Tanisha, of Sangya Project, elaborates by saying that their language needs to change, especially when they have such large impacts on public health and policy, they need to approach it with a more humane angle.
Lastly, governments and health policies too, need to be inclusive enough to drive change.
Sex-positive Sex Ed Doesn’t Make Youngsters Have More Sex
A common notion argues that if you start sex education early, it encourages youngsters to start engaging in sexual activity at a younger age, but that’s not quite true. A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) titled Effects of Sex Education on Young People’s Sexual Behavior has shown that sex education does not encourage young people to have sex at an earlier age or more frequently. On the contrary, the study shows that sex education delays the start of sexual activity, reduces sexual activity among young people, and encourages those already sexually active to have safer sex.
Anju, who conducts several workshops for different age groups of children, says, “Sex ed should start as early as two years, by teaching them anatomically correct terms, then talking about bodies, privacy, boundaries, consent, touches, safety, puberty, emotions, pubertal changes etc as they keep growing up.”
“Just like we wouldn't reach someone in the first grade complex algebra or trigonometry and we would instead begin with simple addition and subtraction, sex ed is also age-wise and incremental learning based,” added Apurupa.
Sex education in essence, is a life-long journey.
Say Hello to Pleasure
Pleasure begins with accepting that every human being is entitled to pleasure.
To say that the adult Indian audience isn’t ready for these conversations would be very wrong.
Sangya Project has a wide variety of not only pleasure products, but also accessories available on their site, and through their work and sales, they discovered the inherent eagerness and curiosity amongst the Indian audience. “The audience here might not know what they want but they are definitely eager. Some products don’t get much sales till we do an Instagram post around it, explaining how it’s to be used and what it does, and suddenly sales shoot up,” says Aashish Mehrota, the co-founder. “It demonstrates how the audience is not only ready for these, but also have the financial capabilities to invest in their curiosities.”
Adding on to the conversation, Vishal Vyas, AVP Marketing, TTK Healthcare that helms Love Depot, an e-store retailing passion products said, “India is on the cusp of a sexual revolution, so to speak, as awareness and demand for toys, lubes and other pleasure products has increased. At Love Depot, we are seeing female buyers swiftly outpace male buyers, with larger cart values and more penchant for experimentation. Men also aren’t far behind as we have specific products for them that are focused on pleasure and not on solving a problem.”
The need for pleasure-focussed, sex-positive sex education is best summed up by this analogy from Tanisha, co-founder of Sangya Project.
“When you tell a child, don’t cross the road because you’ll get hit by a car, the child gets scared. But soon enough, they’ll encounter roads nonetheless in life, and often needing or wanting to cross it. The better way to educate them, is telling them how to cross the road, what their options are, and how they can do it safely. They also need to know that if something goes wrong, it doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means a mistake that happened.”