Talking intimacy

Sex education

Sex education, it is proposed, may prepare young people to handle the menace of sexual violence. So far, sex education in India is built on a belief that knowledge dissemination concerning human anatomy can potentially bring down sexual violence. There is some wisdom in it, but in addition to human anatomy, we need to develop a school curriculum on intimacy. 

Because intimate realms are private and less conspicuous, one tends to believe they are also benign and secure. This is anything but true. Human sexuality thrives, and is at times throttled, within the realms of the intimate. There is an urgent need to impart education on intimacy in our schools.  

Intimacy is an umbrella term with a wider range of meanings. For example, many treat home as an indisputable synonym for intimacy. Musicians consider their instruments as acoustic animations of an inner voice. Companionship, friendship, that private human universe which thrives beneath the skin in each of us, an endearing memory, are reminders that intimacy is hard to define. All that glitters is not gold, they say. Likewise, all that are nearer in physical proximity are not necessarily intimate. Also, one may be deceived into intimacy with no space for a retreat. For example, watch a child offering herself unconditionally to a teddy. Unfortunately, she may repeat this with someone who seems as endearing.

In a similar vein, sexual excesses do transpire with no manifest violence. It is time that schools acknowledge such a crude reality. Our schools will also benefit from the idea that intimacy is pretty much a trainable interpersonal domain; and that it is as important as skill-set driven formal knowledge.

For our purpose, formal school curriculum on intimacy may contain two components. First, training in the idiom of emotions, such as aggression. Children may find play-environment a most joyful place to learn the same. Second, a discussion concerning lived realities intrinsic to intimacy. This module may benefit students in their teens, provided they are enabled to treat a classroom as yet another playful environment.

Rote learning, lacklustre infrastructure and obsolete curricula are still a drag on Indian school education. An organised steal on students’ play-time is the latest addition. Caught up in a competition for a special place in the ‘skill-set raj’, parents push their wards into coaching centres, tuition centres and endless special classes. In the process, children do not get an opportunity to hit the playground.

Playground fun is known to encourage sportsmanship and tolerance. Further, amidst screams, scuffles, hugs, and tumbles, boys and girls may learn priceless human values such as mutual appreciation, friendship and caring. Playing also may aid children to discover the language of affection. Perhaps certain deep-seated human emotions as well, including anger, vengeance, hatred, jealousy, and pride. Children may also stumble upon the immensely valued art of self-defence.

One may ask what such discoveries have anything to do with sex education, and for that matter, sexual violence. Well, almost all children feel imploded due to predatory moves, especially those of a sexual kind. For this reason, communication of sexual violence seems something close to impossible. After all, one will have to speak out with a choked inner voice. A consistent training in the idiom concerning a spectrum of human emotions, such as aggression, may come handy in such a situation.

Perhaps, virtues such as collectivity and interconnectedness as well. Breaking open from a shell will require such virtues, not social isolationism. A play environment most definitely can facilitate the same, at least broadly. Neither textbook content nor gadget simulation can ever push little children that far. 

Playground method is good enough for children up to 10 or 12 years. However, for those who are already in their teens, we need to redeploy play as a symbolic icebreaker. For example, teenagers do not like being subjected to endless advice. They appreciate teachers who are willing to listen to their outpouring, yet remain non-judgemental. In fact, students may withdraw completely if something as sensitive as intimacy is packaged as a straightforward top-down instruction. They will need a classroom setting where they can play with ideas without inhibition. They will also need a teacher who can relate to their anxieties, unresolved conflicts and fears with a sense of reassurance.

A private mirror

How do we get there? Teachers may hold themselves like a mirror in place of an all-knowing instructor. A mirror reflects what is projected onto it. So can teachers during a class on intimacy. For example, one may facilitate students to discover themselves in their beloved teacher as though he or she were a large private mirror. This is easily said than done. For example, in dealing with topics such as masturbation, dating, body-care and marriage, teachers may feel weighed down by a generation gap. At times, they will also have to rebut teacher-fixation on the part of the students who now enjoy a freedom to open up. 

Stereotypes may be even more challenging. For one thing, stereotypes resist appropriate political interpretation; and for another, teachers and students alike may remain under their spell. Consider these seemingly realistic statements: blind people are sexually inert because they cannot see; lesbians are immoral people; the elderly are one foot away from the grave, and so need little worldly comfort. Such stereotypes are not ‘cool’ at all. In fact, they destroy the intimate lives of those who are directly targeted.

Letting students ride on such stereotypes may encourage them into believing that intimacy training is all about self-aggrandisement, and not necessarily a democratic process. That said, resisting, and subsequently mirroring back such stereotypes with some objectivity, will require sophisticated training in the politics of discrimination and exclusion. A teacher-training in intimacy will have to rise up to such a challenge. 

Sex education is still in its rudimentary stages in India. No matter how much it may flourish from now on, sex education will benefit by a structured programme on intimacy. Frameworks such as play or playfulness may enrich such a programme. 

(The writer teaches English literature in the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty at IIT-Madras)

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