How to tackle teen sexuality

DOES a 16-year-old boy or girl have the right to have sex or not? Based on the recent Union cabinet move to raise the “legal” age of sex from 16 to 18, the answer is no.

The move to criminalise sexual activity in youngsters below 18 has forced everyone to sit up and confront their dilemma over the issue of teenage sexuality and how to tackle it.

Many say the step to increase the legal age of sex is regressive, and represents a denial of the changing sexual climate. “Is the idea to create safety for teenagers or is it to police and control?” says counsellor Komal Mathur. Yet another group lauds the motion, saying it is the right way to preserve the morality of our society, which is being eroded by values that are intrinsically wrong for us Indians.

Whatever the stand, there’s no escaping the fact that the issue of teenage sexuality is laden, and debating the “legal” age is one way of getting away from solving the real problem: “Focusing on the legal aspect of sexuality is short sighted, as adolescent sexuality is a complicated issue with social, emotional, medical, and demographic aspects,” says Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

A TUMULTUOUS TIME


LET’S face it, the teenage years can be an emotional assault course for all concerned, as this is a time of rapid physical development combined with deep emotional changes. “ The dramatic changes of adolescence can be very worrying to some teenagers, especially to those who are shy and don't like to ask questions. At the other end of the scale, some express their concern with excessive bragging about sexual ability and experiences,” says Dr Sanjeev Kalra, Consultant Psychiatrist and Sexologist, VIMHANS, New Delhi.

It’s not surprising that teens are having sex much earlier than before, given the sort of messages and images they are exposed to in the media. Combine this with early puberty and you have an explosive scenario to contend with. What makes the situation even more combustible is that we really aren’t prepared for it: Educational institutions still don’t impart the kind of sex and life skills education that kids need and most parents haven’t overcome their own inhibitions around sexuality sufficiently enough to have “ the conversation” with their adolescent offspring.

Since adolescents tend to be more dependent on their parents and the process of individuation happens much later in our society, denial is the usual recourse of parents when they are confronted with the hard fact that their daughters or sons are sexually active. “Sexuality is seen by parents as an “adult” activity, and they are insecure about adolescent sexuality. Also, they fear the consequences their child may suffer, if he or she has sex with a person who’s ‘not right’, at a time that’s ‘not right’,” says Dr Parikh.

NON-JUDGMENTAL ATTITUDE WORKS


“PARENTS, schools and family doctors need to provide sensitive support and clear guidance about puberty and sex, and accurate information about different aspects of sex and healthy relationships to adolescent children,” says Dr Kalra. Adults need to be a source of advice, sympathy and comfort and kids need to know that their parents will not automatically jump down their throats with judgment, criticism or routine advice. Listening is crucial, and the relationship between parents and their teenagers should allow for free communication.

Either or both parents should be able to talk to their adolescent children about sexuality and neither they nor counsellors should propagate any form of gender stereotype. “Parents need to give an open space for their teenager to talk to them on topics related to sexuality. This must enable their kids to express their thoughts completely and freely without hesitation, only then will they be able to help the teen filter and assimilate views that would help in responsible decision making. Parents should use Media for ‘teaching moments’,” says Dr. Parikh.

MAY BE A BACKLASH

EXPERTS feel that an authoritarian and rigid style of parenting can only lead to rebellious reactions.

"Kids will hide things from parents, and be more exposed to errors of judgment,” says Dr. Parikh. While parents must promote abstinence, feels Parikh, as “careless permissiveness” would be detrimental, this needs to be done in a sensitive manner which encourages teens to make responsible decisions based on an understanding of the consequences. The conversation should be supportive rather than threatening. “It should be about safety, a ‘don’t drive if you have been drinking, use condoms if you have sex’ sort of dialogue rather than ‘Let me not find out that you are having sex. In our family we don’t do it!” says Mathur.

Only if rules are jointly made with the teenager are they likely to be accepted and followed, so both parents and teens need to sit, discuss and make boundaries.

Life skills, family life education, media literacy and accessible counselling services are all essential to helping adolescents develop a healthy attitude towards sexuality.

“Media literacy needs to be a part of our educational milieu. This is a collective responsibility of educational institutions as well as parents. Let’s spend less time on algebra and geometry and more on teaching children life skills. Government agencies need to evolve policies that give mental health of our children top priority,” concludes Dr Parikh.

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