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Adolescent Sexuality in India

Image Credits: Spectrum

The particular topic of adolescent sexuality piqued my curiosity because of the simple fact that it is never spoken about in conversations centred around sexual health, reproductive rights, and sexual liberation in Indian milieu, not even by sex-positive social media figures or alternative media platforms. On probing further, I found a miniscule number of research studies on the sexual attitudes and relations of adolescents in India. Many of these studies did not take into account the socio-economic or cultural factors that play a major role in determining sexual behaviour of adolescents. They made insufficient attempts at understanding the role of media, primary socialisation, sexual orientation, gender roles, mental health, and sex education in development of adolescent sexuality. That is because most of these researches were conducted from the perspective of population control or disease control in the backdrop of a booming population and an increasing number of HIV-AIDS cases.

For the purpose of informing the content of this article, a short survey was done on participants aged 13-22 to determine several facets of adolescent sexuality. About 56% of respondents were females, 42% were males and there was one gender fluid person. Around 69% of them attended private schools, 20% were from public schools, and almost 10% were schooled from government aided institutions.

Morality and the Age of Consent

One of the most important questions asked was whether the respondents thought that engaging in sexual activity as an adolescent was immoral. It was found that about 72% of the respondents felt that it was not morally wrong.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

When asked whether they thought that the age of consent should be reduced, the majority of them felt it should not be reduced.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Arguments against reducing the age of consent revolved around three central themes. One being that a minor hasn’t matured physically and emotionally till the age of 18, and might engage in sexual behaviour that isn’t well thought out, leading to distress and regret later on. The responses which followed this line of argument opined that people under 18 years of age are not capable of making informed and responsible decisions. Second point of concern among participants was the lack of sex education in schools, which leads to a poor understanding of consent and sex related information among adolescents. As teenagers grow up, they learn about these aspects through a myriad of informal mediums, but prior to forming this awareness it is better to not have sexual contact. A sizeable number of people believe that age of consent should only be reduced after imparting comprehensive sex education in Indian schools as that would enable adolescents to engage in safe and consensual sexual behaviour. The third major reason behind the opposition to reduce the age of consent was based on a fear of exposing minors to sexual assault, pedophilia, and human trafficking. This concern was voiced by many respondents who felt that even if sexual offenders aren’t convicted under the Indian Penal Code, then there is atleast a direct punishment for them under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) of 2012, just by virtue of the fact that the victim is a minor. Lastly, respondents pointed out some other issues with lowering the age of consent such as distraction from studies, increased incidents of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), and teen pregnancies in the context of absent/ restricted sex education.

On the other hand, almost a quarter of the respondents believed age of consent should be reduced. The primary reason was their belief that adolescents already engage in sexual behaviour of some sort. Decriminalising it would help reduce stigma around sex and lead to more open conversations over adolescent sexuality. Those in favour of reducing the age of consent also believed that in a fast changing environment the laws need to keep up with changing attitudes and behaviours. The main factor behind favouring this change was said to be freedom of choice, which even adolescents should be given the right to exercise. Many believed that the age of consent should be reduced to around 16 or 17. Nevertheless, most advocates of age reduction emphasised on the need for comprehensive, widespread sex education to enable these adolescents to take responsible decisions.

Past and Present of Sex Education in India

While exploring adolescent sexuality, it becomes imperative to talk about the present and past state of Sex Education in our country. From the 1980s onwards there were attempts by several government authorities to impart sex education in schools, though restricted in nature. These educational initiatives were termed Adolescent Education’ in order to avoid controversy over explicitly calling it Sex Education. Initially, it had a population control perspective, but later went on to incorporate information on women empowerment, STDs, parenthood etc.

In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) brought together all government initiatives on Adolescent Education under the umbrella term Adolescence Education Programme (AEP). It was implemented in all government schools in India for students of classes 9 and 11. Earlier educational initiatives were aimed at family planning and were made from government's perspective of population control, thus leaving out a rights based approach to sex education. The AEP curriculum was developed by The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) & UNICEF for the MHRD because of their concerns regarding the increase in spread of HIV-AIDS. The curriculum was met with resistance from local teacher unions, schools, and State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) agencies. They had several issues with the words and illustrations in the toolkit.

Within two years, the Adolescence Education Programme had been banned in 12 states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Uttar Pradesh. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister recommended to the State Assembly that sex education should be replaced with yoga classes. All these stakeholders believed that sex education was unneccesary and inappropriate. A report submitted by the M. Venkaiah Naidu committee in 2009 recommended that the existing material of the AEP curriculum should be withdrawn. The report stated the AEP wouldpromote promiscuity of the worst kind and strike at the root of the cultural fabric, corrupting Indian youth and collapsing the education system by decreasing the “virginity age”. In 2008, NACO released a revised curriculum that dropped "explicit" pictures or "offensive words" such as "penetrative sex" and "sexual intercourse", and replaced detailed diagrams of human anatomy with animations. This version was opposed by civil society groups on the grounds that it had wrong or incomplete information in terms of how STIs occur, how to use condoms, or in context of prevention of child sexual abuse. Further, the manual now had an abstinence based approach.

Several states, including those which had earlier banned it, have now started implementing the AEP by making modifications to it. In the years after its implementation, there have been few programmes aimed at addressing the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents in the country, such as Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) launched in 2014. Several studies have shown that the implementation of these initiatives has been limited. Adolescent Friendly Health Clinics (AFHCs) were set up under RKSK which were spaces dedicated to adolescents’ needs. A study conducted by the Population Council in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand found out that only 5% of young men and 8% of young women knew about AFCHs, even though the clinics were just 5-10 kms away from their villages. According to a 2017 study, only about 1% boys and girls aged between 10 and 14 years, knew about RKSK.