There are many issues related to the problems of growing up that we face in school. The following piece on the background need for a broadbased course on sex education in Indian schools, along with suggestions for a course content, calls for responses from interested readers. Any articles on this theme would be welcome for the next issue of the Journal. - Ed.

In recent times there has been a lot of thinking and discussion in our country on providing ‘sex education’ for growing children. Though it is difficult to pinpoint when the need for formal sex education courses was first felt, I feel one can safely say that it was concurrent with certain changes in the family and society—to be specific, the breakdown of extended families (joint families, tribes, closely interrelated village communities and such) and the emergence of nuclear families with few or single children, not to speak of single parent families.

Growing up in an extended family, the child was part of a network of relationships, involving people of all ages and both sexes. One felt part of a cyclical process— everything had happened before and would happen again. One took in all aspects of life at one glance, as it were.

There was birth (which probably took place in one part of the house or nearby), followed by a leisurely childhood. Naked children and breastfeeding mothers were a common sight. Coming of age was marked by rites of passage: when a girl crossed the threshold to womanhood it became common knowledge. Young men and women married early and this was usually quickly followed by conception (in fact, delay elicited comment) pregnancy and birth again.

With so many cues from the environment it did not take long for an alert ten-year-old to put two and two together and arrive at the basic ‘facts of life’. Growing up among domestic and farm animals too probably helped. These facts were absorbed not as isolated clinical facts but were taken in as a package, along with emotional and social overtones.

A child growing up in a small nuclear family misses all of this. Its own physiological and emotional changes may appear in stark isolation with no precedents at hand to relate to. The ‘facts of life’ learnt objectively, often as part of a biology course in the 8th or 9th grade, do not help the young to deal with the associated emotions or to appreciate the social implications. In addition plenty of stimuli and disconnected images available from the media (and now increasingly reinforced by the peer group) may also leave the young adolescent with much undigested information that he or she has to piece together and respond to. Apart from increasing parental responsibility for keeping communication open and providing a perspective on life ahead, there is clearly a need for schools to offer a broadbased ‘sex education’ course.

It is suggested here that a ‘sex education’ course should have at least three components—biological, emotional and social.

Biological aspects could be dealt with in an evolutionary perspective, starting with discussion on why nature hit upon sexual reproduction quite early in the march of life. This could be followed up by a description of how the sexual process itself has evolved—from external to internal fertilization, from oviparity to viviparity, and so on.

Many courses just stop short with describing the sexual organs and the sexual act in objective terms. It is felt that a description of the marvellous orchestration of the (reproductive) hormones of the human body that keep the whole process going—from puberty, through conception, pregnancy, childbirth and even beyond to lactation—along with an outline of the development of a fetus in the womb from a single cell to an entity ready to be born and face the outside world (literally!), would create a sense of wonder and respect for the whole process.

Emotional aspects could be addressed through an introduction to the psychology of emotions. This could be supplemented by relevant extracts from literature, since literature serves as a mirror to emotions. Folklore and mythology have developed in response to human needs to express strongly felt emotions and helped individuals to come to terms with their emotions by a process of catharsis. Many emotions spring from the basic sexual urge—not only infatuation, possessiveness, jealousy, aggression, etc. but also devotion, sacrifice and such altruistic feelings (though the ‘selfish-gene’ theorists may say that altruism is only ‘disguised ’ or ‘enlightened’ egoism).

Perspectives from sociology and anthropology could help the student see the social dimension of sex. Sex is not just a private matter between two individuals. It has a far-reaching impact on society at large. Abandoned mothers and unwanted babies are a burden on society, while sex-related crimes and sexually transmitted diseases are a threat to the social order. All societies therefore seek to regulate the sexual activity of their members—through ritual and taboo, religious injunction, legislation or social pressure. A balance is sought to be achieved between individual urges and society’s concern for stability and continuity.

This brief note seeks to give a raison d’etre for introducing a sex-education course (or probably one should call it a lifestudy course) and make broad suggestions as to the course content. It is hoped other readers of this journal will respond to it and generate an exchange of ideas from which a more concrete curriculum andmethodology could emerge.