I went to school in Sri Lanka, and over there, sex education was limited to that one friend who was way ahead of everyone else. Pre-marital sex is still considered taboo, and most of the country clings on to the belief that young people are only going to have sex if a teacher tells them where they can get contraceptives.
I vaguely remember an attempted sex-ed session in Year Six, which was gender-segregated and involved a 3D cross-section of the female reproductive system that no one would look at directly because we were ten and thought that looking at a vagina would make you a lesbian.
In Year Ten, we covered reproduction during biology.
It was the one topic everyone looked forward to, even though we couldn’t read that section of our textbook because someone had drawn nipple rings over the diagram of a woman’s breasts. The descriptions were scientific and clinical – we knew that penetrative sex involved an erect penis entering the vaginal canal, culminating and terminating in orgasm during which the male expels semen, the production of which is dependent on his androgen hormones.
We didn’t learn anything about protecting ourselves, about consent, about our reproductive rights.
For that, we needed field experience.
Our sex philosophy, as a result, was ‘just wing it’, which is a great philosophy for a lot of things, but not for sex.
We didn’t get what we needed in a classroom, or from our parents, and so we did what brown girls have been doing for years now – we improvised. We learned from our friends’ and our own experiences after we’d had them, rather than going in fully equipped. None of this was cause for alarm for us – we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We were lucky that our unpreparedness only yielded minor inconveniences.
Often, in South Asia, a lack of awareness, particularly concerning notions of consent, has the potential to ruin or completely end lives.
Our pursuit of sex education was slow and sporadic.
Someone would have to experience something for it to come up, and then they would have to work up to the level of vulnerability it often takes to share it with others, even if they’re your closest friends. Talking about intimacy is scary, and the act itself feels like a betrayal of that intimacy – is sharing something so private a breach of trust? Should what happens behind closed doors really stay there? Am I the only person in the group – nay, the world – who felt a certain way or did a certain thing?
If my friends and I had answered ‘yes’ to all these questions, we would all still be pretty clueless.
I would not know, for example, that side effects of the contraceptive pill may include bleeding non-stop for two weeks and then not at all for two months.
I wouldn’t have discussed standard blowjob procedure at a South Indian restaurant, nor would I have sat in my living room and watched my friend teach me how to fake an orgasm (“it’s all about the breathing,” apparently).
I would not know that consent is trust, and that this trust can be built over two years or one night.
I wouldn’t have a number of suggestions on how to ask for what I want, ranging from subtle hints to step-by-step instructions.
I wouldn’t have realized that pleasure wasn’t a dirty word, and that sex was to be enjoyed – yes, even by brown women.
Were these informal sex-ed sessions more effective than what I’d have gotten sitting in a classroom? Yes and no.
No, in that everyone should receive thorough and compulsory sex education at school. Yes, in that our shared experiences answered questions I never thought to ask, in ways that are more memorable and more familiar than anything any teacher could have taught me. They taught me that sharing experiences make big mistakes a little less likely, decisions a lot more responsible, and disasters a whole lot funnier.
That is not to say that these discussions are appropriate replacements for a comprehensive sex-ed syllabus, nor should they have to be. But as far as accompaniments go, they are to formal sex education what strawberries are to chocolate and what peaches are to cream.