Young people today are faced with a unique contradiction when it comes to sex and sexual experiences. On one hand, an older generation of parents, mentors and teachers largely believe that pre-marital sex is wrong, and that young people should not express their sexuality in any way at all. We all know that look of horror on an Indian parent’s face if a sex scene comes of television, followed by a clamour for the remote and a thunderous silence. Or worse, if their child is found to be dating someone, it is usually met with hysterics like confiscating their mobile phones, enforcing a break-up and preventing them from leaving the house unsupervised.
Most Indian youth have never had a real, meaningful conversation about sex, sexual safety and sexual consent with their parents. This silence about sex is woven intimately into the family structure, and has been passed down through generations, like an unbreakable family tradition. We are all predecessors of silence and shame. But with the onset of the digital turn, we have inherited something else as well. The Internet. There is no keeping young people away from it. On the cusp of puberty, I ventured into the internet and I was spoilt for choice. There was erotica, sexual fan-fiction, sexual fan-art, Q/A about sex, and of course, there was Pornography. Those often poorly shot, lazily scripted videos had the power to reel in an entire generation, secretly.
And this is how we got stuck between two worlds. One produces a looming silence about sex. And the other constantly bombards us with sexual stimulation, easily becoming addictive and unrealistic.
In this liminal space, the question of when to become sexually active becomes a ridiculously complicated one. We are equally informed by the shame and stigma we were born into, and by the parallel universe of Tinder, porn and hook-up culture, swirling beneath our fingertips. So when should you have your first sexual experience? Or if you’re a parent, when should your child have their first sexual experience? If you stumbled into this article looking for a definitive answer then you might be disappointed. Of course, there is no singular age limit or event-based limit (like marriage) that can be imposed on everyone. The answer is long drawn and complicated.
To arrive at anything resembling an answer, what we need as a society is good, comprehensive and enduring sex education. No, not the boys-separate, girls-separate good-touch bad-touch, hush-hush kind of sex education. But one that is thorough, relevant and relatable.
Good sex education does many things at once. To begin with, it provides correct and reliable information without judgement or stigma. It touches upon fears that adolescents may have- like body image, violence or peer pressure. It recognises the vast nature of sexuality and sexual expression.
For instance, the understanding that sexuality isn’t limited to the act of intercourse, but also manifests itself in clothing, in flirting, in fantasies, in insecurities, in art, music or writing that young people create, and in a myriad of other ways.
Good sex education realises this, and helps young people with healthy expression in all these different facets. Good sex education is scientific, not clouded by religious sentiments or ideas of morality. But at the same time it is not limited to science- it explores consent, pleasure, boundaries, safety and the variety of ways in which young people can safely and joyfully understand their own bodies.
For instance, it could discuss masturbation as a safe, harmless and risk-free way of exploring one’s body, and learning more about one’s sexuality, sex drive and desires. Talking about masturbation as valid form of sexual knowledge and expression may actually dilute the pressure that young people face to sexually experiment with others, without feeling sexually repressed or caged. Finally, good sex education allows questioning, and helps adolescents feel more at ease with their sexualities, bodies and gender identities- even if these identities are non normative.
Sex education is a fraught terrain in India, having been debated, cross-examined and even banned in several states. Opponents of sex education believe that it will promote reckless sexual behaviour that are at ‘odds’ with Indian morality. Parents may worry that their children will jump into sexual activity if they learn about sex. Evidence contradicts this. The first thing that worried parents need to realise is that their children already know about sex. Unless your adolescents live under a rock, they will learn about sex- from peers, movies and the world around them. And they will be curious. So the best thing is to provide them with a realistic world-view about sex.
Additionally, it is necessary for parents themselves to have realistic expectations about when or with whom their children will have sex. As the average age of marriage increases across the country, it isn’t always reasonable to expect young people to wait until marriage. The best way for young people to be safe, is to have a sex-positive enivironment that doesn’t force them to hide, be coerced or do anything unsafe. This can only be grounded in good sex education and a healthy bond with educators, instead of shoddy pornography and parental silence.
It is only once this happens that adolescents can really ask themselves the right questions- am I ready for physical intimacy? Am I ready for physical intimacy with this particular individual? Am I mature enough to communicate my needs, boundaries and desires? Is the other person mature enough to be receptive?
It is a well known fact that comprehensive sex education actually delays the first age of sexual intercourse. According to American data, states that had abstinence-only education had the highest rates of teen pregnancy and the worst STI outbreaks. On the other hand, states that promoted sex positive education saw that their adoloscents actually waited longer to have sex. When teens are given options and information, they are able to complicate their own understanding of sex. This helps them make deliberate and well-thought out choices, instead of acting on impulse, pop-culture and rebellion.
So have I answered your question about when you should first have sex? Probably not! This is because there is no one answer. But, when you have an environment that is conducive to learning about sex and intimacy, it becomes easier to answer this question for yourself. Good sex education should help you prioritise your body, safety and emotions over everything, including what social norms, morality, porn or your peers may tell you. At the same time, it should teach you to be sensible and empathetic towards those you may sexually desire. Good sex education gives you a context to make decisions, no one else can decide for you. It is your body and your life. Neither rushing into sex, nor cowering in shame and fear are ideal situations. What is important is being curious, being informed and most of all- being in touch with yourself, so that you are equipped to make the decisions that matter to you.