When Culture Meets Medicine: Sex Education in the Indian Classroom

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

There are many reasons why I am proud to be an Indian but the growing numbers of my fellow Indians who are infected with HIV and AIDS saddens me. The Government has suggested sex education in schools as a way of tackling this epidemic. Unsurprisingly, they have received a mixed response. Critics of the proposal believe that such a move will encourage young people to have sex and that education of this type does not sit well with Indian culture and values. Others believe that sex education is an essential part of the battle to curb the problem of HIV and AIDS.

Before we can discuss whether sex education and Indian culture are compatible, it is important to understand what we mean by Indian culture. This is difficult because India is a land of many cultures. Sexual values can differ from family to family, even from person to person, and are not even consistent across the same socio-economic group. One cannot claim that certain sections of society are more promiscuous and others less, or even claim that children from certain types of families engage in more sex than do those from other types of families. To try to classify sexual behaviour and identify patterns is near impossible. For anyone to claim, therefore, that sex education is offensive to Indian culture is inaccurate; it can only be offensive to those Indians who don’t like the idea of it and believe that they, themselves, do not need it.

Still, the critics do have a point when they talk about Indian culture. Preserving Indian culture in relation to sexual behaviour usually means that one ought not to have sex until one is married. But there is nothing special about this approach being Indian. The fear that sexual education will lead to "Western morals" is somewhat confusing because it would be untrue to say that everyone in the West engages in pre-marital sex. Traditional and liberal values exist in all societies and, ultimately, what the individual person does only he or she knows. The Government can, therefore, only help keep people safe and healthy should they decide to engage in sex at whatever point in their lives.

Sex education ought, of course, to be culturally appropriate. To this extent, the critics are right. However, sex education in the India of today is entirely appropriate. The stark truth is that, like anywhere else, there are Indians who engage in sex outside of marriage. I grew up at a time in India where most children didn’t know what sex was until they reached their teens. I also grew up at a time in India where there was no Internet, access to the media was restricted and parents had far more control on what their little ones were doing than do the parents of today. Sex education at that time may have been inconsistent with Indian culture, perhaps even unnecessary, but it is both consistent and necessary in India today. It is far safer for our children to learn about sex from trained educators than from porn sites on the Internet.

Sex education does not have to be awkward or vulgar. It ought to be age appropriate and gender appropriate. More importantly, sex education and relationships ought to be discussed together. Teaching children about sex is just that; it is not a way of encouraging promiscuity, promoting infidelity or undermining monogamy. Part of the education could include discussions of when it is appropriate to have sex and address the issue of sex outside of marriage, in addition to the health-related issues of HIV and AIDS. It is worth pointing out that HIV and AIDS ought to serve as an incentive for us to have sex education in schools but the discussion of sexually transmitted diseases ought to be broadened. Children ought to be taught that without the right precautions, they may contract syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted infections as well.

Although sex education in modern India is essential for our youth, one cannot help but ask why this sort of education cannot move beyond the classroom. Sex is not talked about freely in India and yet, given the size of our population, it is obvious that we engage in plenty of it. So why is it morally repugnant to discuss sex? Parents and older siblings should help complement the education that children receive in schools and discuss these issues freely with their children in the same way that they would provide help and support with the child’s homework. The schools of India alone should not be shouldering the burden of sex education, especially in light of the AIDS epidemic.

Sex education has been proposed as a means to curb the AIDS epidemic. However, it is important that we also tackle other factors that contribute to this problem. A large number of AIDS cases are linked to prostitution that is, in turn, linked to poverty. Perhaps some solutions to the problem of poverty will also help address this problem.

It might be easier for us to believe that the Indians of today live in an India of the past where there is more innocence than there really is, where children know less about sex than they actually do, and where everyone waits until they are married before they have sex. For us to adopt this view would make the public face of morality inconsistent with its private face. To deny our young people the opportunity for sex education would be for India to live in a time warp. To embrace the attractions of the present like the media and the Internet, and combine that with the attitudes of the past will only make for a bleak future. If young people are having sex, they ought to talk about it and we ought to talk to them about it. And if we are embarrassed about giving our children basic information about sex, not to mention vital health information in India, let us remember that the very country that is afraid to talk about sex also gave the world the Kama Sutra.