Does sexuality require teaching?

Members of both Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committees, Women & Gender, and Education & Human Resources listening to submissions on the Hathe Ape Potha during recent discussions on introducing sex and reproductive health (SRH)to students. (Courtesy Parliament Media)

HGS Prematunge

In the 1980 American movie The Blue Lagoon, based on a 1908 novel of the same name, Richard Lestrange succeeds in getting cousin Emmeline Lestrange knocked up, sans any sex education, despite being marooned on a tropical island for the better part of their childhood and young adult years. Albeit fictitious, this begs the question, does sexuality actually require teaching?

The Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education recently recommended a series of supplementary books for children from pre-school to A/Ls to raise awareness on child abuse. A committee comprising of health and education experts is to be appointed, who is tasked with developing the framework for the supplementary books.

The decision comes hot on the heels of ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ fiasco, a book intended to be distributed among 7th graders. The contents of the book were deemed inappropriate by some, rendering the four years of discussion on the teaching of reproductive health to school children, fruitless.

While some stakeholders opposed the text book on the basis of the damage it may cause due to exposing children to sex related information too early, the opposing group complained that education on reproductive health and sexuality is often stigmatized and attempts to counter this lack of knowledge demonized. Supporters of the book are quick to cite various sexual abuse statistics as reason enough to push for sex education. Statistics aside, there is no tangible evidence to suggest that lack of sex education, without a doubt, leads to sexual abuse, sex related violence, sexually transmitted diseases and mental health issues, as most who are quick to praise the ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ argue.

Besides, the existence of sex education does not relinquish parents of their responsibility of protecting their children from sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies that could, in turn, lead to unsafe abortions. This is not to say that it is the mother’s fault if a child is sexually abused. No parent can watch a child 24X7, but they know their child best and therefore are the best persons to educate kids on matters of sex.

In fact, in western countries it is ill-advised to rely on sex education provided by schools, because kids are exposed to sex related information from sources such as friends and the media at a much earlier age than parents or educators for that matter, expect. Schools should not step into impart sexual education to children who are reluctant to speak about it with their parents due to cultural conservatism, which would deepen the gap between parents and children. What should ideally happen is that parents should be encouraged to speak about sexuality with their kids early on.

Although some may consider it archaic and even backward to criticize any effort at sex education, as family Health Bureau, Director Dr. Chitramalee de Silva pointed out during the discussion, what’s most important is how best to introduce the subject of sex and reproductive health education to students and pre-schoolers in particular. The method of introducing such sensitive subjects like bodily autonomy, consent and sexuality, must be taken into serious consideration.

Some sections of the clergy as well as society are divided on whether or not SRH should be introduced to students. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thero (left), Department of Pali & Buddhist Studies, University of Sri Jayawardenapura opposes the introduction of the Hathe Ape Potha to students, while Dr. Akuretiya Nanda Thero,(right), Chief Sanganayake of the Western Province, and Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna supports it. (Courtesy Parliament Media)
Some sections of the clergy as well as society are divided on whether or not SRH should be introduced to students. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thero (left), Department of Pali & Buddhist Studies, University of Sri Jayawardenapura opposes the introduction of the Hathe Ape Potha to students, while Dr. Akuretiya Nanda Thero,(right), Chief Sanganayake of the Western Province, and Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna supports it. (Courtesy Parliament Media)

Certain passages on masturbation reportedly ruffled some clerical feathers. Although critics have questioned the prudence of inviting clerical dissection of the textbook, the prudence of introducing masturbation to 7th graders also comes into question. Ardent supporters of the book claim that it is ‘age-appropriate’. However, the important question is, does reproductive health and sexuality require teaching at all? In an age where any child with a computer, can access any information related to any subject, including sex, irrespective of age, the exercise may seem futile. Shouldn’t sexual activity come of one’s own volition instead of it being forcibly imposed on kids?

There is innumerable research on the detrimental effects of unrealistic sexual expectations caused by porn addiction. The same can be said about sexual activity kids maybe exposed to, perhaps too early. Although such sexual activity may be deemed ‘natural’ by experts in the respective fields, it is not so if it’s at an inappropriate age. Even western educators emphasize on developmentally appropriate information when educating kids on sex. The ‘appropriate’ age may differ for each individual. Boys and girls will invariably learn about sexual activities such as masturbation, whether parents, educators and the clergy like it or not. But different people sexually mature at different ages. Who is to judge that all 7th graders should become sexually aware simultaneously?

Referring to the objection of the clergy on the subject of masturbation, University of Peradeniya Medical Faculty, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, Dr. Pabasiri Ginige is reported to have said that masturbation was not deviant behaviour and something everyone indulges in. With due respect to the reputed Lecturer, just because most do something, that does not make it right or acceptable. A 7th grader being addicted to masturbation definitely does not sound right, and introducing such a subject at such an early age may achieve just that.

True enough, the book just conveys the idea that masturbation is not a sickness, it causes no physical harm and therefore is ok to do it as long as you don’t get addicted to it. This in itself does not cause kids to get addicted to such sexual activity, but after being exposed to such information, what is the guarantee they would not?

Those who support the book say that ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ is far less descriptive than its foreign counterparts. But should Sri Lankan children, who differ considerably culturally as well as in sexual behaviour, be imparted the same sexual knowledge? True, in western countries child abuse, gender based violence and sexual harassment rates are very low. But, kids younger than 12 engage in sexual intercourse in these countries. Is this the bar we want to set for Sri Lankan kids?

Let’s hope that educators would have better sense than to make sex education in Sri Lanka LGB-inclusive as well as transgender and intersex-inclusive, as some supporters of the ‘Hathe Ape Potha’ recommends. If equality must be inculcated in a society let’s not force subjects such as LGBT on children, but by facilitating a paradigm shift in societal attitude as a whole. After all, children lead by example.

(This article is the 26th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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