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Birds, bees and relatives

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By There isn't a lot a shy parent can tell his children about sex these days, says Prita Maitra
  • Published 26.10.04
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My son was 11-and-a-bit when I nerved myself to the task of, you know, er, explaining that thing people do when they want to, like, have babies. So I backed him into a corner and told him we needed to talk. ?If it?s about sex,? he shot back, surveying me with his clear-eyed gaze, ?I know more about it than you do?. You could say I was relieved, in a way, but also a trifle taken aback. Where had he picked up that kind of language from?

Remembering the incident, I called up old friend Dr Prakash Kothari the other day. He is, as you know, professor of sexual medicine at the KEM hospital in Mumbai and the country?s best-known sexologist, what with a Padmashree and all. He wasn?t very reassuring. ?Your son was probably right,? he said. ?There?s a wealth of sexual information around these days.?

Forty-four-year-old . Rajaram, a father of two boys, agrees. The commander of the Port Trust Sagar station has hit on a device to deflect any ?embarrassing questions?. He surrounds his children with books. ?I used to read to them from the Childcraft series from when they were as young as four or five years old. And my younger son is even more frank on the subject than the older one.?

The world may believe that all the ballyhooing of the need for sex education is unnecessary, given the preponderance of books and television and the Net in the lives of young people these days, but Kothari doesn?t share that view. His own take somewhat subverts that pleasing image. Sexual information, he believes, is in fact not shared enough, nor is it thorough. ?There are parents who may be educated, but they?re not exactly learned on the subject. There are others who know quite a lot but are unapproachable to their children. What is the use of a parent who is a walking encyclopaedia if one is not askable?

Clearly, Kothari believes, the world of medicine has not proved itself very ?askable? either, at least not in India. ?Do you know that mine is the only government hospital with a department of sexual medicine? And this in a country of a billion people!?

New Delhi psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Chugh, who is founder chairman of the International Institute of Mental Health, couldn?t agree more. ?Children do get exposed to matters pertaining to human sexuality at younger ages,? he acknowledges, ?but the information that they get is inadequate, incorrect, superficial and ? here?s the real danger ? titillating?.

The ignorance works (or doesn?t) the other way, too, says Chugh, who is a parent himself. ?When a child says what he or she does to the parent about possessing adequate knowledge, the parent usually accepts it at face value without bothering to verify the correctness of the statement. And so, very often, the child becomes an adolescent with what are at best, distorted views on sexuality, sexual anatomy, physiology and functioning. Eventually, most of us know about the birds and bees in a correct perspective but for some children who did not get the correct inputs from their parents, the damage could already have happened.?

Then there?s the other thing. The simple, human squeamishness children experience about giving shape to the thought that their parents know about sex at all, far from indulging in the act themselves. There isn?t a child in the world who doesn?t prefer to believe that he was conceived immaculately. A poll conducted by the Careergraph earlier this year asked students the question: ?Should parents be included in sex education classes?? Every child responded with a resounding ?No!?

Not that every parent is comfortable with the reverse flow of knowledge. And not that that is peculiarly an Indian situation. Dawood Ali McCallum, the 50-year-old author of The Lords Of Alijah, and co-founder of Eunoia, a group that works on achieving freedom of information around the world, fights shy of sharing any information with his 10-year-old Shamma or seven-year-old Ali.

?Have I talked to my children about sex?? he echoes your question in horror. ?Certainly not! Why? Because I?m English, and can thus only talk about sex through euphemism and innuendo. Sex for us, like our other great source of popular humour, going to the bathroom, simply can?t be spoken of seriously. Ever seen a Carry On film? If so, you?ll know what I mean. Sex is funny, rude, vaguely embarrassing and, when it?s other people doing it, infinitely fascinating.?

For McCallum the thought of handing down sexual knowledge to his children is too daunting to even consider. ?Would you fancy being a 10-year-old trying to comprehend one of life?s great mysteries when the person explaining it to you can only do so through uncomfortable references to how dooh-dahs, thingies, willies and bits interact? No, I thought not. And nor would I, thank you very much. This is clearly a job for an adult,? he says. ?I think I?ll leave it to their Mum.?

One can safely expect that ?Mum?, college lecturer Kauser, will not oblige. And that Shamma and Ali will be none the worse for it.

Meanwhile, I?m wondering where to go for answers to questions I still have on the matter. I suppose I should ask my son.