The Bigger Picture: Groping In The Dark - Veronica George

A few weeks ago as I sat reading a Training Manual on Gender and Sexuality, my 17 year-old niece looked over my shoulder and wanted to know how much training is required for sex. My response, that it was sexuality training I was reading about, met with a look that said ‘What’s the difference?!” I wasn’t surprised by her reaction considering the opinions that are being expressed in the on-going debate around the Adolescent Education Program.

We got into a discussion on sex education or as I would prefer it to be – sexuality education. We spoke about sexual desire and choices; being sexually active and practising safer sex; the confusion that comes with being 16-17 years old and the desire to ‘fit in’; when and how to say ‘no’ and many other such things. As we talked there was a part of me that wondered at the situation.

On the one hand is my niece who would fit the profile of a bright teenager. She reads a lot and has many opportunities to witness and participate in discussions that can help her learn to analyse; she studies in a school that encourages her to think and show initiative; the significant adults around her are aware and sensitive enough to ensure that she can talk to them about almost everything under the sun. Like other young people in my extended family, my niece has read TARSHI’s Red Book and Blue Book from cover to cover, asked questions and giggled over it with her friends! Despite all this, she still was not sure about so many things. There was so much that puzzled her.

Then there is myself. I am no authority on matters of sex or sexuality. I do have the good fortune to have access to a body of literature as well as friends who work on issues of sexuality and sexual and reproductive health rights. As a result, I think I am fairly informed and sensible about the subject.

We got lucky – my niece and I – that we have a relationship that allows her to talk and ask questions about a subject that the average adult would rather avoid; that we have the time and the space to share thoughts and ideas. What about the thousands of other young teenagers, who find it difficult to talk to their parents or other adult caregivers and do not have access to information (unbiased or not) about matters of sex and sexuality. A majority acquire some information about the mechanics of sex by way of stories, rumours and innuendo or by way of a talk on duty and responsibility in which sexual behaviour maybe mentioned. In general though, I believe that on matters of sex, young people in their late teens rely more on the information their peers provide than what the ‘adults’ tell them!

Teenage is one of the more volatile stages of a person’s life. Not only is your body going through all kinds of changes but your mind and emotions are also confused. One day you like something or someone and the next day you could hate them with a passion you didn’t know you had in you. And your only true companions in this journey are your peers who are also on the same roller coaster ride. Parents and other adults are incidental. Their job is to feed you, to stuff you with information and hold your hand – to see to it that this rocky world you suddenly inhabit doesn’t fall off the face of the earth. As teenagers see it – parents really can’t do anything else because they don’t understand what’s going on with teenagers!

Thinking of this volatile mix I was reminded of a book Predictably Irrational1 by Daniel Ariely, a Behavioural Economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In this book, Ariely shares with us the results of many studies that try to understand “the hidden forces that shape our decisions”. Through a series of experiments, Ariely concludes that no matter how ‘good’ a person is, they can never predict the effect of strong emotion on their behaviour. I’m sure all of us will concur – we are witness to enough riots and violence that seem to break out at the drop of a hat. In our personal lives too, many of us can testify to acting ‘out of character’ when in the grip of a strong emotion.

One of the studies conducted by Ariely focused on the influence of sexual arousal on decision making among sexually active young men. The study, conducted among young male students in the University of California Berkeley2 was designed to test if a state of sexual arousal influenced three aspects of judgment and choice – preferences for a wide range of sexual stimuli; willingness to engage in morally questionable behaviour; and their willingness to engage in unprotected sex, and whether the young men could accurately predict these influences. The study shows that even the most level-headed young person, in the heat of the moment can switch from “Just say no” to “Yes’ in a heartbeat. It also underlines that people are not able to predict how they will behave when in the grip of a strong emotion.

Teenagers are susceptible to strong emotion. In their search to know themselves, in the questioning of and/or breaking the ‘rules’, they could engage in behaviours that are risky and dangerous for themselves and for others. The most attractive of these of course, are those that are considered so bad that people hardly talk about them – experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex.

Sex education as we know it now is somewhat like a biology lesson focused on the reproductive system. Most young people walk away from those lessons with a working knowledge of the reproductive system and safer sex behaviours, but remain confused about what to do and how to manage when faced with a situation that requires sexual decision-making. The ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom) model of education assumes that young persons have the ability not to give in to peer pressure; have the ability to switch off passion when required and if the first two fail, have a condom easily available just in case!

When two young people get together the last thing they think about is a condom and safer sex. On top of their mind is usually a confusion of thoughts – Does he/ she love me? Should I let him kiss me? Will my parents know? How do I let her/him know that I don’t like this? What am I supposed to do? Can anyone see us? Will he/she make fun of me? What if I don’t enjoy this? Will we be friends after this?

It becomes imperative therefore that the information that is provided to young people goes beyond the mechanics to address the emotions that go with sex. The focus should be on strategies to deal with the emotions that accompany sexual arousal. Young people should realise they have two options – to walk away before a situation becomes too difficult to resist or learn to deal with the consequences of saying yes in the heat of the moment.

To learn to walk away before it gets too difficult, the teenager has got to know himself or herself – what are the triggers that can set them off? As Ariely says “… to make informed decisions we need somehow to experience and understand the emotional state we’ll be in at the other side of the experience. Learning how to bridge this gap is essential in making some of the important decisions of our lives.”(pp 104) Put simply, self insight on matters of sexual arousal and sexual behaviour are important in sexual decision-making. This can be facilitated by ensuring that young persons have access to sexuality education that is comprehensive, affirming and accurate; sexuality education that leaves them informed and aware about sex and their sexual feelings and equips them with the power to act positively and sensibly in sexual situations. We need to remember that we are addressing young people not animals. They are on a steep learning curve, enthusiastic and anxious to get information that will help them make smarter decisions.

A couple of weeks after our talk, my niece came back from school feeling very superior – seemingly many of her class mates friends did not know half the things she knew about sex and sexuality! “How come”, she asked, “something like this is not included in our curriculum? Why isn’t all this explained to us? Why do have to grope in the dark?” What could I tell her?

1 Ariely, Daniel. 2008. Predictably Irrational –The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. NY: Harper

2 Ariely, D & G. Loewenstien. 2006. The Heat of the Moment – The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision Making. The Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 19, 87-98 http://web. Papers/Heat_of_Moment.pdf

After more than 16 years in the social development sector – working with a number of non-government communitybased and development support organizations such as the Urmul Trust in Bikaner, Dastkar in Delhi, PRIA, Delhi and Oxfam GB in Afghanistan, Veronica George set up practice as a Foot Reflexologist. She is based in Gurgaon, where in partnership with a friend, she has set up a space that offers different wellness therapies, to help individuals live healthy, happy and harmonious lives.