March 22, 2020
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Early To Bed

Teenagers grope with sex in a society steeped in secrecy

Early To Bed
Illustration by Sorit
Early To Bed
Why Teenage Sex Is On The Rise
  • With increasing exposure to 'western' cultural mores through Hollywood teen-flicks and teen-centric TV serials, dating and premarital sex are considered 'cool', leading to peer pressure to become sexually active early
  • Easy access to cyber porn
  • Increased opportunities for interaction between boys and girls, with more places to 'hang out' unsupervised, such as cafes, malls, pubs and discos
  • Easier access to drugs and alcohol
  • With both parents often working, less parental supervision at home
  • Lack of credible sex education both at school and home. Studies prove that those who receive comprehensive sex education delay their first sexual encounter.


What Parents Can Do
  • Understand that sexual curiosity and increased interest in the opposite sex are normal symptoms of adolescence
  • Keep the channels of communication open at all times
  • Take out time to spend with your teenager
  • Know his friends. Stay in touch with their parents.
  • Place limits on spending and pocket money. Insist on bills for credit card expenditure and mobile phones.
  • Instal a Net Nanny so there are limits on net surfing
  • Support and partner with your child's school to make sex education available in an age-appropriate manner
  • Answer every question that a child asks. If you don't have the answer, do get back with an answer later.


Losing her virginity was 15-year-old Isha's ticket to social acceptance. "Varun was easily the most popular guy in school, and he was coming on to me," says Isha.* "That made me feel special. So when Varun wanted to go all the way, I couldn't show how scared I was. I wanted him to think I was cool and with it." Two months later, Isha missed her periods. She called Varun—"We were both too shit-scared to tell our parents"—and the two teenagers found an abortion clinic that didn't seem to care that Isha was under-age.

"We don't even acknowledge each other now, we're both so embarrassed," says Isha. "But I used to cry all the time and stayed in my room so much that my mother took me to a counsellor. Now I'm working out my problems, but of course, my parents don't have a clue what set it all off. I could never tell them."

While every parent wishes it were just a myth, every child psychiatrist knows this from clinical experience; and teenagers like Isha and Varun are standing proof of it—teenage sexual activity in India is on the rise. It isn't a purely Indian phenomenon either: with greater opportunities to study and work away from home, increased exposure to global media, easier access to spending money and a change in youth culture, more adolescents are engaging in premarital sex worldwide. What makes this treacherous terrain in India, though, is the fact that sexuality, even more so adolescent sexuality, is shrouded in secrecy.

Apart from a few localised and not entirely scientific surveys of teen sexuality, experts have precious little to go on, save for what they see unfolding before their very eyes. "The absence of a national health survey is one of the biggest obstacles," says Dr Sunil Mehra, paediatrician and founder of MAMTA, a Delhi-based NGO. "If we don't have statistical evidence for this behaviour, how do we convince people that it needs to be addressed urgently?"

How's this for an argument? Around 40 per cent of all new HIV infections in India happen in the age group of 16-24 years; and clinic-based evidence suggests that a third of abortions in the country takes place among teenage girls who are unmarried. Indian teenagers are having sex earlier—and it's riskier.

Dr Rajan Bhonsle heads the country's first public-funded department of sexual medicine at Mumbai's KEM Hospital. It is in his private practice, though, that he has seen teenage pregnancy cases double over the last five years. "These are middle-class and upper-middle class girls who would not normally come to a public hospital like KEM," he observes. That's not all. Teenage couples come in to resolve their differences, typically because the boy wants to initiate sex and the girl isn't ready. They also often come in fearing they have contracted HIV after unprotected sex—and often, their fears aren't unfounded. Adolescent girls come in after their first sexual encounter sporting genital injuries. "The boys are too eager, they're also in a hurry, and they have no concept of foreplay," says Bhonsle, "so injuries are bound to happen".

Moreover, exposure to pornographic material sometimes fuels the perverse notion, particularly among teenage boys, that good sex is violent sex.

According to child and adult psychiatrist Dr Zirak Marker, every ninth- and tenth-grader has visited a pornographic website at least once. "I'm talking of kids who have their own rooms and computers," says Marker. "They lock themselves in, saying, 'It's my space.' There's no internet monitoring at home, and even if there were, these kids have enough money to head out to a cybercafe."

When Komal Moorjani, 43, walked into daughter Pooja's bedroom unannounced a year ago, she found Pooja visiting sex-chat rooms on the internet. "I was shocked at the sort of language she was using on those chats," says Komal. "How could my child be doing something so vulgar after all the values we had given her? But she didn't even feel guilty, I was the one feeling like I had done something wrong."

That's when Komal went for counselling with her daughter. "It is the parent who needs to be counselled even more than the child," says Bhonsle. "I find parents telling their sons that masturbation is a bad habit instead of accepting that it is normal. When a girl gets herself pregnant, the parents are so busy having an emotional blowout that they can't help their daughter prepare for an abortion."

Too often, parents aren't around to pick up signals from their teenagers. With the growth of double-income families where both parents are working long hours, it is an easier option to dole out wads of pocket money than to carve out that extra hour of parenting time. "Even the non-working mothers are too busy socialising while their husbands are travelling," lashes out Marker. "How many housewives spent so many hours at the gym when we were children?"

Within the confines of home, there's often no one to keep tabs on how a teenager spends his money—or his time. There are no systems in place outside the house, either: nightclubs routinely serve alcohol to under-18s without a drinking permit; hotel concierges rent out rooms to underage couples; and the teen culture makes it increasingly acceptable to do party drugs.

"Heavy petting begins by the age of 13," cautions Dr Pervin Dadachanji, psychiatrist and author of Recipes for Parenting. "By 13 or 14, there's a huge pressure to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and by 15, they're making out in the loos of five-star hotels."

On the one hand, an increasingly permissive youth culture colludes with easy access to money, drugs, alcohol and pornography. On the other, teenage sexual activity takes place in the context of limited information on safe sex practices, a lot of it coming from spurious pornographic material. Mehra calls it a "potent combination".

As Anya Damani, 16, discovered for herself after a night out partying with her beau, Arjun. "We were shooting tequilas at a club and chasing them with vodka mixers," she recalls. "Arjun was drunk, too, and on the way home, we parked in a quiet bylane. He got aggressive, and I wanted to say no, but I don't think I said it loud enough. I was almost unconscious, I don't know, when he had sex with me, or whether he used a condom. I only remembered what had happened two days later." Anya refuses to get a check-up from her doctor for fear of her mother knowing.

"The controls that we have in place result in impulsive and secretive sexual activity in an unsafe setting," says Mehra. "There's no access to sex education, no access to condoms, no access to safe abortive care."

According to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, an unmarried woman below the age of 18 can terminate her pregnancy only with the written consent of her guardian. If Anya were to get pregnant, she would have no choice but to get a cheap abortion at an uncertified clinic far from home. Or to confide in her ultra-conservative parents. "I won't be telling my parents," she says.

"Parents need to avoid getting too moralistic," advises Sujata Babar, programme director, Abhivyakti Media for Development. This Nasik-based NGO has been running 'Conscious Parenthood' workshops since 1990, to equip parents to become educators and initiate sexuality talks with children.

Too many parents don't understand that sexual curiosity is a natural occurrence in adolescence. "Medically speaking, teenage life is a growth-hormone spurt," says Marker. "Secondary sexual characteristics develop, sexual attraction is experienced, there's bound to be some experimentation, masturbation and fantasising." But teenagers rarely receive the necessary information to enable them to make responsible and informed choices regarding their sexual and reproductive health needs.

"Sex education is the right of every adolescent," says Mehra, adding that international studies have repeatedly proven that "wherever sex education is well-entrenched, it always results in delayed initiation of sexual activity. Sex education is a vaccine."

But who is going to do the talking and the teaching? School teachers are far from equipped—and far from comfortable—talking sex in the classroom. When they bring in experts from outside, parents object, as Marker found out when he tried telling class XII students that being gay or lesbian was a preference and not abnormal. What's more, sex education in school is not age-specific, says a counsellor at a leading South Mumbai school on grounds of anonymity. "Should boys and girls be taught together or separately? Should parents be informed in advance? There are so many questions about how to do this."

Parents are no better equipped, observes Mehra. "Parents 30 years ago and now are facing different child management issues," he says. "In a joint family setup, with its massive controls, parents could get by without becoming sex educators to their children. But with the sort of exposure children have today, and the fact that families have shrunk and controls have relaxed, parents need as much counselling as adolescents."

Every moment needs to become a teachable moment, says Dadachanji. When she conducted a workshop for 11-year-old boys and another for 14-year-olds, she found the younger boys were more open and asked more questions. Like, "What's the difference between a blow job and a boob job?" So she told them. It was a small beginning....

*The names of teenagers have been changed.
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