I would have been about eight years old, when I asked my mother what sex was. My question, one of the many I had asked the seemingly more knowledgeable adults around me, was met with a hesitation, and silence. I did not know what it meant, yet I immediately understood from a grownup’s stern expression that such a topic didn’t make for appropriate dinner time discussion, or any sort of public discussion at all.

My curiosity implored me to seek answers anyway, and I scoured the internet (the curse and privilege of my generation) for answers to questions no one would answer, opening gateways that lead to misinformation, age-inappropriate, and frankly, abusive content. All of which could have been avoided, had I been explained the concept in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner.

I wonder what others from my generation, devoid of age-appropriate conversations with parents, lack of sex education at school, and easily accessible resources turned to for answers? Did they, like me, take to the internet, and stumble upon websites, including the ones, where sex was portrayed as brutality, voyeurism, and objectification of women?

The concept of consent non-existent? For many, this would have constituted their understanding of sex. What sort of adults would arise out of a curious generation fed on a diet of pornography? What will be the consequences of their understanding of consent, propriety, and intimacy, later in life?

Despite living in a society where sexual imagery is embedded in popular culture, from ‘item’ songs in movies marketed as family-friendly, to advertisements where scantily clad women ‘seductively’ enjoy mango beverages, there is no escaping the desperate sexual imagery permeating our conscious. Advertisers shrug their shoulders and say, ‘sex sells’! Yet there remains a lack of informed conversation about aspects of sex, that truly matter.

Having gone to a coveted private school in Delhi, my sex education was limited to the male and female reproductive systems in the biology textbook, which my teacher hastily told us to study on our own. The ensuing message being that sex was “filthy, shameful and beyond discussion”. From this prudish silence in schools to the sudden blast of vulgarised display of sex, is naturally disorienting.

Fast forward 13 years from the time I asked my mother what sex meant, I recently found myself in a jurisprudence class in law school with a professor discussing the topic with the same nonchalance he used to discuss any other topic. In all my years of schooling, this was the first time someone had introduced the subject to us in an educational and informative way, albeit in the context of legal philosophy. He likened sex, a biological activity, to eating. He probed us to think about why one wouldn’t be judged for eating different kinds of food, yet could be severely condemned ,socially and legally, for partaking ‘deviant’ sexual activities such as ‘pre-marital, homosexual, recreational sex’. Sex was still the elephant in the room, omnipresent, but existing only in the form of crass jokes and hushed conversations.

“But why are we studying about sex in a law class”, a classmate asked the professor, genuinely puzzled at the absurdity of such a topic existing in the sphere of academic discourse. I do not remember what the professor said, but I do remember a select list of statistics: 42% of girls under the age of 19 have reportedly faced sexual abuse in the country. One in three women in India have likely experienced intimate partner violence, yet marital rape still not considered a crime in the country. Half of all children in India will face sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

Who will they turn to? In the absence of sex education, will they even have the vocabulary to explain what happened? Having studied the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, I know that sexual abuse and rape laws, often referred to as ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’ in legal parlance, are a mere band-aid for the rampant culture of sexual abuse and shame, that presently exists in our society.

The erstwhile Health Minister of the country, Dr Harsh Vardhan, had declared sexual education to be banned in schools countrywide. He, a medical doctor, asserted the need to adopt a curriculum more suited to ‘Indian values’. To him, I would say, there is an unequivocal difference between sex as a scandalising, lascivious, ‘westernised’ imposition, and that discussing the topic is an urgent and absolute necessity to voice the pain of staggering numbers of childhood sexual abuse survivors.

When we talk of rape as an institutionalised mechanism with a stigma attached to it, no number of laws, legislative actions (even absurdities like ‘hanging’ perpetrators) will amount to as much, as a timely intervention by an educator (a parent or a teacher), starting an honest and age-appropriate conversation about sex.

I remember being taught to respect my elders as that was the foundation of behavioural values expected. In a country where a shocking 93% of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are those known to the family, including relatives, neighbours, friends and adults in close proximity to the child, why was it not equally stressed to say ‘no’ to an elder. Why was something as basic as consent and bodily autonomy not taught, either by parents or by educators?

To parents hesitating from starting such a conversation with their children, I would ask whether the possible discomfort preventing one from initiating such a conversation is worth the consequential risks and the lack of trust and openness in one’s child, in the absence of such exchange?

The shame and silence that follows a parent asked a seemingly ‘awkward’ question about sex, has the reciprocal capacity to convert to shame and silence that one’s child could feel, should they ever have to experience sexual abuse. No law will erase notions of shame and humiliation associated with sex, or the implications on the number of cases unreported, and those that will never form any of the staggeringly terrifying percentages of sexual abuse in this country. To answer my classmate's question, this is why we need to start talking about sex, much before we start talking about the law.

Cover Photograph - Farida Naz, WordPress