When Did Sex Become a Dirty Word?


The Blue Book: Image courtesy TARSHI’s Facebook page

In middle school, I can’t be sure of the year, my aunt, an eminent cultural psychologist, gave me a thin book to read at the start of summer vacation. The cover was azure, and a clutch of bubbles surrounded its title – ‘The Blue Book.’ It was my first formal introduction to sex, menstruation, sexual organs and urges. The book was informative, detailing the most basic suggestions on personal hygiene to the more complex information on male and female reproductive systems, masturbation and sexual intercourse.

In school, from grades eight to ten, classes on biology provided my peers and I the most watered down and pedantic information on our own physiologies. The lessons on mitosis and menstruation blurred together, the diagrams in our biology textbooks were headless and legless figures packed full of stomachs, pancreas and livers; the reproductive systems fought for space to be viewed and recognized, leaving larger gaps open in our minds, primed for ideas of active imaginations to take root.

As an adolescent, The Blue Book gave me information on what the education system I was part of failed to. It made up for the uncomfortable conversation my parents had perhaps planned to have with me over that summer. A few of my classmates were intrigued by what I told them about The Blue Book, but none of them wanted to borrow it to take home; they were reluctant, concerned about how their parents would react to the ‘explicit’ nature of its content.

I’m being spurred to write these thoughts down for all the wrong reasons. Allegations of rape against a reputed journalist, the conversations in the global media on the unsafe position of women in India, and of course, a legal intern’s account of molestation by a retired Supreme Court judge, have all made me think of sex and assault in the same breath; an unfortunate scenario to say the least. Why should the conversation around sex only occur when public discourse is engaged in addressing the penalization of sexual aggression?

Image courtesy TARSHI's Facebook page

Image courtesy TARSHI’s Facebook page

In an earlier post, I brought up the idea of the importance of raising our children to believe that they are indisputably equal, to check attitudes of gender bias at their most nascent stages. The inclusion of dialogues on sex and sexuality are an imperative part of that process. Unfortunately, with a limited number of educational institutions incorporating sex education as part of their curriculum, the onus of informing our children falls on family. The decisions of how and when exchanges on gender, emotions and sexual urges should begin in a child’s development are sensitive in themselves. Burdening a young child with too much too soon is as detrimental to their understanding of humanistic ideas of sexual health, equality and gender, as is the absence of any dialogue altogether. Organizations like TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) which publishes The Blue Book, among other relevant literature, helps fill in the gaps with informed material that is sensitive to the age and experience of its reader.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Jacqueline Bhabha from the Harvard School of Public Health rues the fact that for “over 20 years, leading Indian research bodies have been developing excellent adolescent education syllabi. But this excellent work is just sitting on a shelf.” As per Bhabha, the reason behind the rejection of this material by some state governments is because they felt “‘sexual education equals encouraging sex.’”

Ironically, this is perhaps not the most ridiculous presumption regarding sex education and its role in an adolescent’s life. The taboos surrounding sex, the stigma that has made the word dirty, are deeply entrenched in our social systems and almost impossible to pinpoint on a single class, policy or attitude. The discomfort the word engenders automatically negates the possibility of its discussion, making the dissociation of sex from its innuendos tremendously imperative. The quality of conversation surrounding sex goes a long way in determining how it is manifested, psychologically and physically. For adolescent boys and girls, in the throes of hormonal change and physical development, the absence of dialogue or literature or even popular media dealing with their physiological growth keeps them ignorant of the dimensions of intercourse outside the purely physical. With scant information available and limited access to even that, sex remains a subject of embarrassment, secrecy and repression. For sex to become un-dirty the confluence of societal, cultural and policy change is essential; yet, within each of these larger frameworks, we find ourselves, influencers in our own right, as parents, teachers, siblings and/or friends, capable of contributing in our own way and affecting what may hopefully become a sea change.

© Ayesha Sindhu 2013


5 thoughts on “When Did Sex Become a Dirty Word?

  1. I think the blue book was/is excellent literature and should be a part of the curriculum but for some prudes who are stalling it, if memory serves me right there is a book for boys as well

    • I agree, it is a great resource! The book has information for both boys and girls. In fact TARSHI has a series of books, each meant for a different age group. They also address the importance of recognizing individuals of genders outside of male and female, as well as different kinds of sexuality.

    • Thanks @the mad momma! It is tragic that the agencies we look to for more informed approaches on issues of social and cultural importance, are the very same ones that espouse archaic views and convoluted justifications for them.

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