Stating the Obvious

Morality lessons dressed up as sex education are both dishonest and dangerous.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

January 13, 2013

Also published in the Bangalore Mirror

The light hung low, the air was pleasant, the bottles at the bar counter of Mumbai’s Press Club gleamed warmly on that winter evening as we talked about women, rape, fear, sex at an event called Voices Against Violence organised by poets Menka Shivdasani and Anju Makhija. It was interesting to see the variety of perspectives, the intriguing shifts in tone and register, as diverse women grappled with this horror they had in common. There is much to be learned from such gatherings, especially about the ways in which each of us choose to face or elide our fears. Smriti Ravindra, co-author of The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl, read an essay about expecting a girl child, having a boy instead and feeling faint relief. She talked about the fear that prompted the relief, the guilt and anger that crashed over her later. Writer and surgeon Kalpana Swaminathan talked about seeing the horrors of rape up close. We have not all been raped; we cannot know; we cannot take on that mantle. There was an argument about fear versus fearlessness, whether turning to the attacker and demanding to know his business could work. Somebody talked about being a survivor of child sexual abuse, the nightmares and the struggle. Somebody else said: “I just stay home.”

As the discussion warmed, so did one of the audience members, the principal of a reputed school in the city. She emphasised the importance of “sex education” — and I am deliberately putting it in quotes — then went on to talk about how she teaches her students about the sacred bond of sex between husband and wife. “All of them made good brides,” she said, speaking of her students. “Good wives.”

Some nodded or expressed other sorts of muted agreement. Some of us, stunned by this declaration of hetero-normative ‘morality’, may have rolled our eyes. We may have raised our eyebrows. But she seemed so genteel, so gentle, so altogether harmless. And if we, the liberals, do not respect everyone's opinions, then who will?

But this possibly well-intentioned teacher was judging (in her gentle, lovely manner) a whole range of life choices ranging from premarital sex to homosexuality. She was placing them outside the purview of “respectable” concern. She was tacitly saying that sex outside the marital relationship is profane. Any of it. All of it. What disturbed me is how many people seemed undisturbed by this so I’m going to spend some time stating the obvious.

Firstly, marriage is not the ultimate goal or answer. It is not the Holy Grail. It is not for everyone. By ratifying sex within marriage as “sacred” and everything else as its opposite (profane?), this sort of ideology preaches one road to salvation that we must all walk, hand-hand, in a neat column. The truth is we all make our zigzag ways to whatever semblance of fulfilment we choose. And there are more paths than you or I can count.

Secondly, people own their bodies, within or outside marriage. By glorifying marital sex and dismissing every other type of sex, this person is preaching to women that they do not own their bodies. That they must wait for their one golden prince to come and unlock its pleasures with his singular golden key. This is the stuff of fairy tales, romance novels and garbage. It demonises healthy, consensual sex between two adults UNLESS it follows a script. Demonising sex or sexuality is one of the easiest ways to take away women’s agency and freedom. In these times, religious zealots from every community are trying to do exactly that. We need to resist.

Thirdly, sex between a husband and a wife is not always “sacred”. It is not even always consensual, pleasure-giving or non-violent. Violence can happen anywhere and shutting yourself within the fortress of old-fashioned morality and bolting the doors is not going to protect you. Violence can creep out from under the bed; it can lie down in bed with you; it can even have breakfast with you the next morning. It often does. Marital rape needs to be recognised and deterred but elevating marital sex to an otherworldly position prevents open, healthy discussion around it.

If any ‘sex education’ in schools has to be useful, it must include these messages. It must be real. Otherwise, it’s just moral science jazzed up with anatomy pictures. It would be both dishonest and dangerous to call it anything else.

Anindita Sengupta is a 2013 IRP New Media Fellow.