IN BENGALURU, the staff of a large old-fashioned Catholic school for boys clutched their heads when they found a 9-year-old distributing porn. “There was a picture for every sexual position,” said the young counsellor called in to talk to the class. He was both shocked and amused. His shock was largely reserved at the elaborate nature of the gifts the boy had handed out — a copy for each of his classmates, downloaded and printed at home and even spiralbound like a school project. The counsellor had accidentally stumbled into the highly sexualised subculture of schoolchildren — a world few adults have maps for.
While one may like to bemoan the loss of a halcyon, innocent childhood, the truth is that children have always been sexually active. Honesty and a decent memory would have most of us confessing to at least one bumbling childhood experiment with a cousin or neighbour. What is new is not that young children are having sex. Nor can we prove that more children are having sex. What is new is that urban Indian schoolchildren are growing up in a sexually charged atmosphere and that sexual activity is directly related to social status. The mating rituals of adolescence — the wooing, the stringing along, the rejection, the acceptance, heartbreak, which have always been difficult enough — are now closely documented and scored by the mean world of children without an adult in sight. Think Lord of the Flies meets the Internet.
Unlike the counsellor, the staff of a south Delhi Barista are more exasperated than amused. Almost every week they have to roust out children who have snuck into the coffeeshop’s loo to make out. A few hours away in Jaipur, a bunch of 15-year-old boys in an international school joke that, “if they don’t ‘get some’ quickly duniya hum pe thookegi (the world will spit on us)”. Some months later, a few seek sex workers to speed up the loss of virginity. Across the country in Mumbai, the only child at a dinner party, an 8-year-old, shuts down conversation when he casually tells the table that his two ‘bus friends’ were kissing on the way home that afternoon.
A lecturer from Bengaluru’s Mount Carmel College heard that her 19-year-old student had checked into a hospital for an abortion and offered her support. She was surprised to see the girl alone and urged her to summon the boyfriend to the hospital. She was congratulating herself until the ‘father’ arrived — a confused 16-year-old boy in school uniform.
Mini’s1 parents, two Delhi-based artists, might get some cold comfort in hearing these stories — from knowing that at this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.
Unfortunately for Mini, her parents found out through the grapevine. The horrified couple sent her to a psychologist to find out ‘what was wrong with her’. She’s been in therapy for two years. Mini has no social life, no cellphone and a crushing weekly reminder in the psychologist’s office of that impulsive evening. Today, while Mini opens up with some encouragement she remains silent in the presence of most adults, particularly her parents. The shaming she received from her parents and the now long-lost friends two years ago has left its mark. It does not help that her erstwhile boyfriend did not even receive a rap on the knuckles from his parents.
While Mini’s parents found solace in cracking down harshly, other parents feel more helpless. Ten-year-old Nitin’s mother, a Delhi-based psychologist, shares her anxiety: “There is only so much you can shield them from. I have asked my son not to surf the web except when I’m present. But then he comes home from school and tells me about the kind of things he hears elder kids in the bus talking about. Where do I draw the line?” Most parents, however, are like Soma, a Kolkata-based insurance professional who is absolutely sure her 14- year-old daughter and friends are not sexually active, but uneasy at the amount of time they spend online. It may well be that Soma’s daughter is simply playing Farmville on Facebook. However, according to Dr Shelja Sen of Children First, a Delhi-based NGO, urban middle-class parents know little about the social lives of their children. She says grimly about school romance, “It’s not all about innocent handholding and pecks on the cheek. There is a darker, grisly side most parents want to ignore.”
GOING ALL THE WAY
THE ADULT truism that ‘these days children know so much more than we do’ is often in with pride (in knowledge of cars, brands, computers) and sometimes bewilderment. Parents would probably be terrified if they realised that the urban schoolchild, often long before her teens, is acquiring sexual experience at the same pace as other knowledge. In March, the Supreme Court of India had to state (while ruling on the Khushboo case) that premarital sex between consenting adults is not illegal, that live-in relationships are legal. While the discussion that followed used the same old depleted words — repression, prudery, freedom, hypocrisy — the ruling indicated a changed landscape of sexual conventions that adults are struggling to understand. People leave home earlier, marry later, marriages break up sooner, young men and women have more disposable income than ever before. It is relatively acceptable to be gay. There are still rules, but they are all new. Parents of adult children are reluctantly coming to terms with these rules. Are parents of schoolchildren ready? Can they understand their 10-year-old floating about the house, nerves jangling because her first make-out session has been scheduled for the weekend? How do they deal with finding raunchy text messages on the cellphone of their 12-year-old son?
Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD and charas will enhance their sexual experience.”
A Bengaluru lecturer urged her pregnant student to call her boyfriend to the hospital. The ‘father’ arrived: a confused boy in school uniform
Think of the obvious and eye-popping implication — children who seem confident enough to seek advice on how to increase pleasure where once a generation of men had to be trained by television to go into stores to demand, “Moods, please”.
To parents who think that curtailing technology, and therefore access to porn, will slow down these juvenile juggernauts, Dr Shekhar Seshadri, a leading child psychiatrist at NIMHANS, Bengaluru, points out drily that children are not merely exposed to porn. They are also growing up surrounded by mainstream culture which is full of inappropriate images. More importantly, he points out that there is a difference between a child who (through conversation with adults) is processing what he has seen and one who has just fragments of strange images and ideas floating in his head. He says, “Children growing up without processing what they see restrict the idea of sexuality only to the body or only to the act. They do not understand how women are commodified in porn.”
Those who have grown up in the decades since the Moods ad know that Seshadri is right about sex becoming ubiquitous in popular culture. We’ve chosen to be shocked and then be ‘cool’ about premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, teen sex. We have revelled in sex surveys, used sex to sell everything from toothpaste to tyres. You can also be sure that at this moment somewhere there is a young man taking deep breaths, preparing to demand, “Moods please”. For the urban upper-middle-class in their 20s and 30s, though, the biggest shift has been the dethroning of sex from mysterious and allimportant to just another part of their complicated lives. These young people wince at the gnawing, narcissistic space that sex occupies in the lives of children. Take 14-year-old Akshay. He is tall and lanky, the son of a Delhi-based doctor-lawyer couple. For our conversation, he arrives at a friend’s house in a chauffered car. Like many of the children interviewed, he puts on a show of being amused that anyone could be interested in something so passé. He is the acknowledged leader of his pack, thanks to the ‘full-on’ distance — penetrative sex — he claims he has gone with a former girlfriend.
AKSHAY GAVE the interviewer a full once-over and informed her that he was into “older women — especially ones with dusky skin”. Ask him if he thinks people should wait to be married to have sex and he replies, “These ideas are outdated, man. If it makes sense to you at 14, who’s to say you’re doing something wrong?” A group of girls from posh Mumbai schools are amused when asked why they are having sex at 16. “What’s the big deal?” asks the most vocal of the gang, Anita, the heir of a large family business, throwing up her hands in disgust. “If you have a connect, why should you wait?” Children like Akshay and Anita are making rules for themselves while adults continue to avoid this phenomenon in their peripheral vision.
The conventions that govern children’s sex lives are just as complicated and contradictory as those of adults, but the first and clearest directive is — ‘You should try to get some’. Not having a boyfriend or girlfriend and not ‘getting some’ sends you plunging to the bottom of the social snakes and ladders game. The second directive is that penetrative sex is still the Big One. At 16, you will often need to justify to your peers about going ‘that far’. Holding hands and hugging is a nonissue. Kissing is normal by the time you are 12.
After this steady ground, it gets complicated. The rules are different for the other pit-stops — handjobs, oral sex, taking all your clothes off. There’s no uniform code. What is ‘too soon’ or ‘too far’ is judged by peers, based on how many people are doing the same thing in your class or circle of close friends. In our interviews, the boys rarely talked of ideal relationships, but when they did it was about only in terms of celebrity couples such as the Beckhams or Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Mumbai girls talk about who in their circle is their Blair or Serena (from the television show Gossip Girl) or who is more like Marissa and Summer (from The OC). When children experience a generation gap even with people a few years older, they certainly do not turn to their parents’ marriages for a relationship roadmap. Neither do they have Indian pop culture to help them make sense of their lives. But at hand is that fickle mother of noise — television.
AMERICAN REMOTE CONTROL
In a story about children’s behaviour, it’s almost tiresome to see television being blamed — but in this case, television is the only source of role models. Some of the most popular programming on recent American television have been shows about teens with million-dollar lifestyles — from the eternal California summers of OC to the New York chic ofGossip Girl. “It’s not like we want to be like them. We are just like them. And when they have sex, it makes us realise it’s okay for us, too,” says Mona, a shy and quiet 16-year-old from south Mumbai.
Eighteen-year-old Alisha and 16-year-old Shivani are Delhi girls, the fashionable daughters of a programmer father and nursery school teacher. Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend afterOC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.
Mini was 12. She and her first boyfriend wanted to say ‘Been There, Done That’ about oral sex. One evening they tried it out
PSYCHOLOGIST THOMAS Szasz said decades ago of America that “there is a pervasive tendency to treat children as adults, and adults as children. The options of children are thus steadily expanded, while those of adults are progressively constricted. The result is unruly children and childish adults”. As American pop culture becomes ubiquitous, this phenomenon becomes true for all of us. Adults are seduced by these cynical, status-obsessed shows as much as teens. Take Serena, the blonde and perfect protagonist of Gossip Girl. She lives in a five-star hotel. Her every move is blogged by peers. Limos to drive her to school, haute couture, expensive clubs, impulse holidays, and of course, the tangled, glorious sex life — adult viewers lap up the fantasy of flawless teen bodies and wealth without responsibility. For kids, there’s the added attraction of a show that ‘gets’ them. These shows understand ‘important things’ like you can’t be too thin or too rich; the coolest guy ought to be with the coolest girl; there is a thin line that separates the cool girl from the slut.
THAT’S MY SLUTTY FACE
Gossip Girl particularly understands a world lived through the ménage à trois of the digital camera, cell-phone and broadband connection. What sets apart the sexual experimentation among children from an earlier generation’s bumbling experiences is that it goes public instantly. Sixteen-year-old Shivani, Alisha’s younger sister, logs into to her Facebook account dozens of times everyday. Especially after she has posted a new profile picture. The latest is a self-portrait in front of her bathroom mirror: she’s dressed in tiny shorts and a midriff-baring T-shirt, pouting suggestively at the camera. “That’s my slutty face. It took four shots to get that one right,” she grins. Sample some of the 17 comments on this new profile picture: “OMFG you look soooo hot, biatch you’re the best, that’s my sex toy.”
Ask her how her friends managed to get on Facebook on a school day and Shivani exchanges a patient smile with her sister Alisha who waves her iPhone in response — an old gift from her parents. Welcome to the tangled webs where everything from your new boyfriend to the colour of your bra is a status update. This is not just the old school grapevine magnified: it is a whole new beast that dislikes reflection and abhors waiting. As soon as a feeling arrives, it needs to be online. Every moment is a potential new profile picture.
Most importantly, the television shows understand what Margaret Atwood once said: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” Adults who grew up before Facebook may be baffled by the instant and continuous online curating of minutiae that Gossip Girl characters and real-life children indulge in. But a more important clue about children lies in Gossip Girl’s cruelty, manipulations and obsessive status charting. If one thinks the public morality of Indian adults is particularly messy, then step into the private microcosm of the pseudo-liberated schoolchild.
RULE NUMBER One: If you want to keep your friends, then before having sex you must say you are in love, no matter how quick and sketchy the courtship. Good old lust has to be dressed up in fine clothes before it can be taken for a walk. Announcing you’re in love justifies the ‘intense passion’ that led you to bed and sets you apart from other boys and girls who ‘randomly make out with each other’ or ‘sleep around’. (The criteria for love among children can be startlingly materialistic. Boys talk of wanting girlfriends with the requisite model statistics. A girl barely past puberty will tell you she wants her boyfriend to be on chummy terms with the managers of clubs and restaurants.)
Rule Number Two: Boys are players. Girls are sluts. Children play out the same antiquated sexual politics that India and seemingly modern American pop culture suffer from. The old idea — of boys naturally needing sex and girls needing to be coaxed or bullied into it — still prevails. As Rashmi, a 17-year-old girl from a literary family in Jaipur, says, “The boy says, ‘I really feel for you baby’ and the girl caves.” Few girls admit seeking sexual pleasure themselves. How can they? At 13, your peers will laugh at you if your 15-year-old boyfriend dumps you for not giving him a blow job. But they’re just as likely to shun you if you don’t display the right amount of reluctance.
Anita, the outspoken 16-year-old from Mumbai, is one of the few girls who acknowledged that she values sex for its own sake and doesn’t need an elaborate performance of love. Each time she spoke up, the others in the group looked uncomfortable. For many girls, it genuinely is the seduction that interests them — games played out through endless Facebook wall posts and news feeds making them the object of desire. Getting sex is a social victory rather than a personal one. As Dr Seshadri points out, “Children also feel pressure to say they are sexually active when they are not. In the same way that a woman once needed to be married and a mother to be acceptable, today’s children feel the pressure to say they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. They do not know that love and sex is only one part of life.”
Teachers are ignoring events raging like forest fires among the students— pregnancies, forwarded MMSes, messy break-ups, attempted suicides
Rule Number Three: No display of emotion unless you can make it cool. When relationships run into troubled waters, an intense performance is played out — feigning nonchalance (“She was just a bad f**k”, “He never really got me anyway”) to being lovelorn and depressed in angst-ridden Facebook status messages (“You broke me so I broke you back. How does it feel?”). This circus — the constant performance of sexual cool — almost, but not quite, makes you long for the furtive and thankfully private gropings of all our ‘repressed’ generations.
While the emotional equivalent of walking on broken glass has always followed young hormones, some of the crises are particular to our times. As the world criticises the Catholic Church for its enormous cover-up of child abuse, and as the rules about child pornography get tighter, we also have to deal with something newer than child abuse or pornography — for the first time, children have access to technology through which they can accidentally or deliberately produce and share porn. They can commodify themselves and their friends. Dr Shelja Sen says this sort of ‘exploitation’, where kids make their intimate photos and videos public, is extremely common in urban schools. Children mostly fail to see what the fuss is. Girls who become vulnerable to vicious gossip are tagged as ‘asking for it’.
I MAKE KIDDIE PORN
Sexting — sending SMSes with sexually explicit messages or pictures of oneself — is a strange ethical issue. One can argue it’s a natural extension of sexual expression. Think of the passage from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty where Howard, the middle-aged professor in bed with the gorgeous teenager Victoria Kipps, is astonished by her acrobatic comfort with her body. The mildly mean narrator explains this as the ease of a generation which grew up photographing itself in the nude.
MMS scandals are the stuff of tabloid dreams, but they begin with the intimate impulse of wanting to share your body. On the other hand, there is the obvious problem of these photos or videos escaping the closed pod of couplehood. One group of Delhi teens discussed how ‘retarded’ their 14-year-old classmate was who agreed to strip on the webcam for her boyfriend. They saw nothing wrong in calling her a ‘slut’ and saw no grounds to criticise the boyfriend who forwarded the video to all his friends.
ANOTHER EQUALLY big issue — the severe assault on children’s body image — is not limited to occasions when kids photograph or shoot videos of themselves. All of global pop culture ensures that even those whose bodies conform most closely to the ideal feel pinpricks of dissatisfaction. Early sexual activity and self-photography ensures that the anxiety begins much earlier too. Dr Prakash Kothari, who talks of the confident children who come in demanding to know how to enhance their pleasure, reports that the oldest enquiry of all — ‘is my penis too small?’ — continues to be posed frequently. And the elaborate defoliating, exfoliating, dieting of the modern girl now begins at a ridiculously early age. Girls barely past puberty are braving the pain of Brazilian waxes. Fragile, little girls talk continuously of being ‘too fat’.
Says Dr Shelja Sen, “While these adolescents may consider themselves physically mature from the moment puberty begins, they are emotionally fragile. This shows up in post-relationship trauma in the form of slashed wrists, depression, eating disorders among girls; drinking, drugs and racing among boys, and a general lack of interest in things like academics, sports, extra-curricular activities.” Mugdha Raut, Mumbai-based gynaecologist and counsellor, sounds bemused when she says, “The youngest case I’ve seen is of a girl who got pregnant at 13.” But Raut indicates that pregnancies have reduced on her watch. “Teenagers now pop emergency contraceptives pills all the time, and that leads to many other problems. Sometimes teens even come to us as late as after five months, when an abortion is illegal. The reasons that some teens give for getting pregnant, though, are bizarre: one girl told us that she got pregnant because she wanted her boyfriend to love her more!”
Leave it to Rashmi, the 17-year-old from Jaipur, to bring up what is considered the modern business of childhood — studying. Rashmi explains that in schools where academic performance feeds into social status, there is additional peer pressure to maintain the soaring love story without allowing marks to plunge. Vinita, who teaches at a Gurgaon school, looks back at a 15-year career to tell a story many teachers can tell: “Once we used to rarely see kids even holding hands. Now, there’s pressure on all of them to spend their recess time in twos. And kids don’t try to hide it. We don’t get involved. But usually we know when they’ve started dating since they’re either missing classes or sleeping in class — because they were on the phone or the computer all night. You can’t blame them. They are young and this consumes their thoughts.” Vinita’s school calls in children who they think might be in ‘trouble’ and talks them through it, calling in parents when necessary. In most schools, though, teachers are more likely to ignore the events raging like forest fires through the student community — pregnancies, forwarded MMSes, massive and messy break-ups, attempted suicides — to the extent of not bothering to explain to a class why one of their group has suddenly ‘disappeared’.
SCORING ON THE SEX QUIZ
In contrast to their swagger, children continue to have halfbaked knowledge about sex. Everything you ever wanted to know about sex — and its accompanying myths — is just a click away on the Internet, but watch while a group of teens are given a sex quiz. What is pre-cum? Pre-ejaculatory fluids, anyone? Confused expressions. How do they deal with pregnancy or STDs? Blank looks all around. Do they know anyone who got pregnant? How did they deal with it? “There was this guy who was apparently drunk and he did it with this girl who got pregnant, and then she had to eat that abortion pill,” 15-year-old Meera says in a matter-of-fact tone. “Didn’t they use a condom?” Akshay, (the 14-year-old who likes older women) pipes up: “D-uh. You’re supposed to eat a pill before, then use a condom and then eat another pill after having sex. That’s how you don’t get pregnant.” Meera agrees, “Yeah, or if you do it while you’re on your period.”
Alternately, there is the Chandigarh group of teens who explain how pregnancy is not such an uncommon phenomenon after all: “When my girlfriend told me she missed her period, I immediately arranged for the money to take her to a doctor and get everything taken care of in a proper way.” Where did you find the doctor? “My brother had the same problem when he was in school, so I went to the same doctor. I’ve even sent two friends there.”
Is ‘strict’ parenting the answer to all this? No. Love laughs at locksmiths. Love plus working parents plus disposable income plus technology knows no locksmiths. Kids manage to hide their adventures even in smaller, more vigilant cities like Jaipur and Chandigarh. Doing it on school premises, movie theatres and public loos is common. Several kids describe making out in parked cars after bribing their chauffer. The most popular venue continues to be that grown-up staple: a cheap hotel room for a couple of hours or a whole night, after telling your parents the requisite fib of a sleepover at a friend’s place, making sure the latter knows enough to receive their calls. Children will find their ways as they always have. Even if you actually lock down your child, as Mini’s parents have, you’d only have a deeply unhappy child and continue to feel paranoid.
PARENTING BOOKS will tell you that long, cherishing conversations are the solution. Conversations through which your child will learn that she can tell you anything. Bengaluru-based children’s writer Sneha describes her observation of her 6-year-old son’s discovery of the word ‘snogging’ while reading the Harry Potter series. On another occasion she heard him using the word ‘gay’ as an insult. She chatted with him and got him to consider what these words mean. These may be possible for the alert and leisured parent, but not for most harried adults. And even the most liberated parents don’t want to hear their kids confess everything. They sometimes wish that the job of dealing with their child’s messy sexual pleasures could be outsourced.
Many children reveal that parents or relatives have sat them down for ‘the sex talk’. Unfortunately, they found they already knew far more than was filtered down in that awkward conversation. Should schools be the source of sexual information for children? Sex education in schools is either glaringly absent or bordering on the ridiculous, given in a language and tone so far removed from the pleasure-seeking and sensual world of raging adolescent hormones. ‘Good touch, bad touch’ conversations protects them from predatory adults but not from themselves. Sex education is thus the object of much derision amongst children. “Man, I should have taught that class!” comes the universal joke. And this presumed knowledge gives embarrassed schoolteachers an excuse to skip even the basic lessons on sexual organs in Biology class (as opposed to separate sex education sessions), saying: “You don’t need me to tell you anything. You know everything.” All this is apart from the states — Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala — where sex education has actually been banned. While India’s raging HIV epidemic has already affected over 2.5 million Indians, knowledge of HIV is often limited to the red ribbon logo among upper-class children.
The truth is that parents on their own or schools by their bureaucratic selves are not capable of looking after the needs of sexually experimenting children. Much debate awaits on what kind of sex education would work in this country. In India, where we live in multiple ages simultaneously, one can be sure that right now children are being married with the blessings of their parents. That there are poorer households where the simple fact of adults and children sleeping in the same, cramped space ensures its own variety of sex education.
But there can be no doubt that intervention is necessary. Dr Seshadri says, “Children who are not helped to build knowledge of what they see or hear do not know how to form happy, healthy, responsible relationships.” Seshadri is part of a growing movement to include sex education as only one thread in lifeskills education — a way in which children can understand and deal with the world, question what they see and hear. However much of the learning will happen outside the classroom. Which is why we need to first acknowledge that children (like adults) seek sex both for pleasure as well as more complicated social reasons.
As a culture, we have to ask ourselves what we are saying when we say that children know everything. We need to examine how closely the miniature subculture of urban children resembles the adult world — increasingly materialistic, exhibitionist, love-starved, anxiety-stricken. And it’s our culture — especially its pop variations — that needs to respond to the special, particular needs of children. Because children don’t know everything.
(With inputs from Aastha Atray Banan in Mumbai)