To keep children safe, talk to them meaningfully about sexuality

Co-author – Srinidhi Raghavan

Our engagement with sexuality begins early, probably when we were caught scratching the in-between-parts of our body and heard, “chhi chhi, don’t touch there” from adults. This statement, inter alia, made  two connections: a) do not touch ‘there’; b) it is shameful to do so. Most children therefore encounter information about sexuality, sex, bodies through the lens of shame and violence. There is very little directed and intentional conversation on this.

The silence around sexuality has many results. For instance, we often read about bad sexual experiences ranging from using glue on a penis as contraception to using a pestle to masturbate. These stories may seem like comedic outliers but are a symptom of a larger problem: not enough conversation on sexuality. So, where are children getting the necessary knowledge from?  

Is it derived from romantic movies? Is it based on porn? Is the information available simplistic and medicalised? Currently, information on sexuality is either archaic or overly sexualised through inaccurate sources. A lot has shifted since the internet opened doors to talk about sexuality freely. But we are still to fully explore the ways in which we can meaningfully speak to children and young people. We should not just provide the information and leave. Along with Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), we should provide safe spaces to unpack the existing information, bust myths and (un)learn together.

CSE when provided properly attempts to address not just violence and lack of information around bodies and sex. It aims to build a culture where bodily autonomy, choice and agency are discussed. It also facilitates conversation on self-esteem that builds individuals who are more tuned with the choices they make about their bodies and sexual experiences. However, we live in an environment where most adults do not have this knowledge. This results in a legacy of silence and ignorance resulting in children seeking information from unreliable sources. Adults are also not comfortable with discussing sexuality because of the unfounded fear that it may lead to promiscuity or risk-taking behaviours. Thus, when we begin to speak about bodies – the go-to is violatory experiences. This is because we approach it as “awareness for children” or “protection from violence”. 

But even our attempts to protect children are not solidified. We agree that we need to prevent child sexual abuse(CSA). But we have not unanimously agreed upon what is abuse. Unless the violence is gory, there seems to be room for “nuance”. Earlier this year, a Bombay High Court Judge dismissed a case  stating “groping without taking off clothes is not abuse” because of “lack of direct skin to skin contact”. This case brought back the discussion around CSA into the ambit of mainstream conversations, asking: what counts as abuse? 

Is that thigh grace or that pinching of breasts abuse or is it not violent enough? This assumption is situated in the belief that the act of violence perpetrated is not located in the violation felt in the body but in the intent of the accused. This is especially worse when the victim-survivor is a child because of our assumptions about who can make decisions on one’s own body. In everyday life, the guardian has the authority to give consent on behalf of the child – schools, homes, in relationships with others. So as a practise children are heavily discouraged to say “No” once an adult has given consent on their behalf. It is presumed that they can never give consent which is reflected in the law which presumed that anyone under 18 cannot consent to any sexual activity. 

The law was legislated to protect children from CSA. Has the legislation been able to fulfil its aim? According to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) reports from 2016 to 2020, the number of reported CSA cases have increased 31% in 5-years. Even this number is merely the tip of the iceberg. In 2020, 36% of crimes against children were registered under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). Yet, this legislation is seen as a move in the right direction and further complying with India’s international commitment.  

The name of the legislation itself points us towards one of the glaring loopholes in our response to child sexual abuse: our aim is to protect children from sexual offences. But the statute primarily focuses on prosecution. The question remains then: Is prosecution enough to protect children? Can governments prevent child sexual abuse?  

Studies show that providing CSE will promote a culture where sexual violence can be prevented. But the path to providing children and young adults with CSE is full of hurdles and assumptions. There are other concerns around freely providing this education because of  mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. Schools are not ready or even equipped to deal with the consequences of discussing consensual and non-consensual sexual experiences of children – especially if they will be punished for not reporting. 

It really brings us to the question at the heart of work around sexuality education: Is there a way we can provide necessary vocabulary to children? 

Experts working with children say we can. Age-appropriate solutions do exist and must be sought after to not only prevent violence in their lives as children but also build better understanding of their bodies for the present and the future. The discourse being dominated by adults yet again forces children out of the centre of discussion and places our (dis)comforts in the centre. Are we ready to break this legacy of silence and ignorance?

This article was first published with The Indian Express.

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