Sex education still taboo
Here’s how sex education goes in many Sri Lankan classrooms: one class period before the O Levels, a teacher, likely untrained in the subject matter, stumbles through biological diagrams of male and female reproductive organs, offering a vague, quasi-medical description of sexual reproduction – not sex. Sexual reproduction.
Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara, a researcher at the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies, who has written about cultural barriers to Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE), remembers one particularly hasty lesson, “The teacher would draw the two reproductive systems on the blackboard, and say, ‘The sperm goes from here to here and that’s how you get pregnant’.”
Hasini Jayawardena went to a government school in Colombo nearly 20 years after Gunasekara, but her experience was hardly any different: “The teacher drew an image of an ovary and sperm and said they were racing to the egg to fertilise it,” she remembers.
These descriptions, which offer cartoonish personifications on the one end and purely scientific explanations on the other, fail to talk about all of the other subject matter in between – contraceptives, sexually transmitted infections, consent, and sexual diversity (the LGBT community), to name a few.
And for all that biology may serve in traditional schooling, diagrams and textbooks are a far cry from the lived experience of sexuality – which is multidimensional, fluid, and can be looked at through subjects from sociology to psychology to history.
A 2013 study done by the Family Health Bureau found 50 percent of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Many failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health – only 45.6 percent of girls knew that pregnancy can result even from the first sexual intercourse and only 53.3 percent of the total sample were aware that missed menstruation could be an indicator of pregnancy.
Dr. Gunasekara said sex education in Sri Lanka is in crisis, calling the widespread lack of information a ‘sexual emergency’. And in a country with rampant gender-based violence and sexual harassment, not knowing the workings of the body and one’s right to consent renders women and children particularly vulnerable.
In March, this sexual emergency quickly escalated to a national emergency, garnering international attention. The hysteria around supposed female sterilisation pills (which do not exist) that fuelled the outbreak of violence in Kandy demonstrated the deadly consequences of sexual misinformation.
A proper understanding of sex and reproduction may have mediated at least some of the hysteria.
But the road to understanding is paved with longstanding taboos and blocked with sociopolitical barriers.
In Jayawardena’s school, discussion about sex wasn’t just avoided, it was actively punished. “Literally any book about sex or even love was confiscated. If a book had a heart on the cover, it would be confiscated,”she remembers.
As she and her classmates got older, a sort of sexual policing began to happen, but because of the lack of proper sexual education, girls didn’t know the rules.
Jayawardena said some girls were expelled for being caught in hotels with boyfriends, despite being under the age of consent (which is 18) and lacking the proper education. “The fact that students were punished for expressing their sexuality when its not even legal for them to consent to it is problematic, in my view,” she says.
This sort of sexual oppression has a long history. In an essay she wrote on the topic, Jayawardena said, “Sex is such a taboo in our nation that sometimes people fail to remember how each and every one of us got here.”
Dr. Gunasekara explains that female sexuality is often at the forefront of these issues: “There is a moral panic that the younger generation is getting corrupt,” she says, “but when you really think about the way the narratives are being articulated in society – it’s the sexual behaviour not of males, it’s the sexual behaviour of females, isn’t it?” And when reproduction is weaponised to pressure majority groups about the need to propagate their seed or minority groups not to reproduce, women are at the centre.
“One has to understand it also in the context of women being so visible and mobile. They’re no longer in the homestead, they’re no longer in the private sphere, they’re out and about,” she adds.
And that sort of liberation can be threatening. Director of Advocacy at Sri Lanka’s Family Planning Association (FPA) Sonali Gunasekara says that with knowledge about reproductive rights and sexuality, another kind of freedom comes, one society may not be ready for. “Once they feel that young people can take control, make decisions for themselves, the culture is going to actually be challenged and that is what they are scared of,” she says.
Thushara Manoj, a social worker who specialises in CSE and teaches modules around Sri Lanka, says he has run up against cultural barriers while working in the field. He remembers a teacher in a small village telling him, “We don’t want to have training from you because you are the people who destroy our culture.”
One of the main arguments against Comprehensive Sexuality Education, which includes family planning and contraception, is that it can be culturally insensitive. At a UNFPA event in July, some speakers suggested CSE could be enacted across the world in a way that is ‘culturally sensitive’.
But in many places, ‘culturally sensitive’ would mean nonexistent, so others are skeptical of this approach. “Some things are universal, human rights are universal. CSE should be universal. You can’t say ‘We should have CSE’ and then say, ‘But put it into a cultural context’. That’s nonsense,” says Sonali.
When a taboo prevalent in the culture seeps into the classroom, students miss out. Dr. Gunasekara says some teachers avoid teaching the subject all together, missing that day of class. Others rush through it. Just being able to get through the lesson with any bit of clarity is a feat to be lauded.
“I must give this specific teacher in the 7th grade credit,” Jayawardena remembers, “She was not embarrassed and would mention the reproductive organs by name. She even went out of her way to show us biological images.”
But even in this case, the topic is taught in biology lessons and shrouded in medical lingo. “It’s a very mechanical way of explaining what really happens,” says Dr. Gunasekara. “It is inadequate.”
Coming from an NGO background, Manoj has on-the-ground experience working with and educating different communities on reproductive health, but his on-the-ground experience is often overridden by the medical angle. He explained that most of the curriculum-makers come from a medical background, which can be a barrier to understanding for certain groups.
“Doctors know theories and biological diagrams, but they don’t know the ground level situation.” He explains that these lessons can be ridden with jargon and technical lingo. “When you go to rural areas, they don’t know what this person is talking about.”
Dr. Gunasekara suggests that the medical version of sex education may be more than a symptom of deifying doctors in Sri Lanka and also a way of pushing the subject behind closed doors. “I think that it has something to do with having this exclusive place for it and not letting it out into the open. The cultural taboo, the stigma related to it, supports that,” she explains.
And sending sexuality to the doctor’s office doesn’t just keep it behind closed doors – it also gives it a particular mood.
“Why do you go to a doctor? Because you think something’s wrong with you. So by assigning this off to the doctors you’re inadvertently or intentionally putting a certain label on this,”she added.
Curiosities will be satisfied
When Jayawardena moved to Sri Lanka at age 12, after going through much of primary school in the US, she quickly realised how much she knew that others didn’t. “I would share whatever I knew, but also now when I look back, I was so young, so a lot of what I knew was feeding the curiosity that my peers naturally had at that age.”
Some believe that avoiding satisfying this curiosity will prevent young people from having sex.
“But they are already having sex and they are having it in an unsafe way,” says Dr. Gunasekara.
And even if they were not, studies dating back to at least the 1970s have shown sex education does not have an effect on sexual activity. UNESCO and Planned Parenthood even found evidence that more information increases the average age of first-time sex. A cross section of studies across the world found that access to free condoms is correlated with an increased age of first-time sex.
As Jayawardena moved through school, she noticed curiosities rising. By ages 14 to 17, people were turning to other sources to learn about their bodies and desires. Porn, magazines and Google would have to fill the gaping hole in the education system.
Dr. Gunasekara explained that porn makes it particularly difficult for female teachers to face an all-boys’ class. “By the time they reach that stage where they have to be educated, they’ve watched all the porn they can watch, so they come with very crude ideas about what sex is.”
“They don’t see the various facets of it,” Dr. Gunasekara continued, highlighting the way in which these inevitable supplements to sex education portray sex as a one-dimensional thing – eliminating the complexities of STIs, consent, and sexuality, among other things.
One of the biggest misconceptions about CSE is that it is all about sex, when it is primarily focused on relationships and respect, the FPA said.
“If consent was taught to students, they would know that no one else is entitled to their body,” said Jayawardena. She explained that a lot of students wind up in toxic relationships because they do not have anyone to talk to for guidance. CSE could reduce stigma and open a dialogue.
It is not that Sri Lanka does not have the infrastructure in place for a healthy adoption of sexual practices and treatment of women. Harassment and violence laws are strict, yet public transit remains a risky place for many women and sexual violence is ever present. And while Sri Lanka has signed the UNESCO guidelines for sex education, studies show the education system remains insufficient.
The next and only step is implementation – tossing the biology textbooks aside for a real-world conversation, taboos and all.
In the age of the internet, no curiosity will be left unsatisfied. And now, it is no longer a question of sex education or no sex education, but a question of official CSE or make-shift sex education taught by the deep, dark corners of the web. (Kelsey Ables)