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.

The lack of comprehensive sex education in schools leads to a number of social issues such as rapidly rising cases of sexual assault. In the survey conducted, respondents were asked whether they received adequate sex education in school. There was a significant difference seen in the responses by those who are currently 13-17 years old and those who are between 18 and 22. In the age group of minors, about 45% said that they received adequate sex education, whereas in the age groups of young adults only about 21% of them believed that they received adequate knowledge in school. This shows a positive trend with respect to the extent and depth of sex education in schools changing for the better over the years.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Informal Sources of Sex Education

Even though the Indian education system might slowly be catching up to the need for comprehensive sexual education, there is still a dearth of information on sex-related topics. Because of this, adolescents turn to other informal sources of information such as friends, movies, shows, social media, and pornoprahic material. In the survey, on being asked what the most common sources of knowledge about sex-related information were for them, most respondents gave social media as their 1st choice, with 2nd and 3rd being peers and older friends, respectively. The 4th most common choice were school textbooks, 5th were teachers and 6th were parents. The fact that school textbooks featured 4th and teachers 5th in the list is a matter of concern as they alone serve as the most correct and reliable sources of information for students of all backgrounds.

Nonetheless, social media featuring as the 1st choice is not surprising at all, especially with the recent surge of sex positive content and content creators on these platforms. Social media has played a crucial role in democratising information in many spheres, including this. There are several international and even Indian brands, influencers, and activists talking about every topic which is otherwise considered inappropriate in Indian society—sexual desire, pleasure, reproductve anatomy, queer sexual experiences, contraception, sexually transmitted dieases, masturbation etc. Most of this content focuses on female pleasure and desire, encouraging more women to take control of their bodies and sexual needs. Social media is also serving as a platform of expression for the LGBTQ+ community to share experiences and information on these topics. Nonetheless there are few undeniable issues with relying on social media for information on these topics. The first issue is that such social media spaces are inaccessible to a large number of people because of a pervasive digital divide plaguing the country. Even for those who can access such content, the information provided isn’t always complete or accurate. In many cases even gynaecologists, or brands selling certain products such as sex toys, menstrual products, and contraceptives have been found to be propagating myths or misinformation around these topics.

On being asked whether their peers spoke freely about their sexual encounters, only 12% of minors responded with a no. Whereas among the adult respondents, about 24% said that while they were in school their peers did not speak freely about this topic.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

The issue with having peers and older friends as primary sources of information is not only rampant misinformation but also perpetuation of narratives that dominate locker room talk. These often hypersexualise women, undervalue the importance of consent, and leave little room for non-heterosexual experiences and desires. These knowledge sources can also reinforce problematic notions and stereotypes related to sexual behaviour. Another informal source of learning about sex is viewing of pornographic material. When asked about the age at which the respondents began watching porn, the responses mostly ranged from ages 12 to 14.

Pornography and its Effects on Sexual Behaviour

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

There have been several studies to examine the effect of viewing pornographic material on adolescents. The results have been mixed, but mostly negative effects abound. About 64% of the respondents in our survey believe that watching porn has a mixed impact on adolescents, whereas 32% believe there is a purely negative effect. Watching porn may lead to insecurities about one’s own body, appearance, and sexual performance. Most of such content is based on deeply entrenched stereotypes in society which contribute to rape culture. They often perpetuate deeply problematic notions such as 'women play hard to get' or 'women mean yes when they say no'. Porn also shows women as sexual objects to be acted upon or passive receivers and men as the dominant sexual actors. Viewing porn often influences the viewer’s sexual expectations and behaviour, where individuals try to imitate what they watch. Since a large chunk of this content undervalues consent, is degrading, shows aggression, and promotes violence against women, imitation of this behaviour has many negative consequences. Most pornographic content is based on and reinforces the power dynamics between men and women. It also propagates unsafe sexual practices as it is associated with greater sexual gratification and manliness of the male partner. Most porn also fetishizes queer people and relationships.

Among the responses received, there were individuals who had been exposed to porn when they were as young as 7 or 8 years. In the absence of formal sex education, adolescents seek knowledge on these topics from porn from when they have barely even hit puberty of 12-14. Pornographic content can form the very basis of one’s sexual behaviour later in life.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Realities of Sexual Behaviour Among Adolescents in India

Exploration of the various facets of adolescent sexuality begets the question of whether or not are Indian youth as sexually reserved as their parents would want them to be. Several studies have shown that Indian adolescents are sexually active, even though country-wide comprehensive statistics are lacking. In a study conducted in two co-educational schools of India, it was found that 30% of boys and 17% of girls of grades 9th-12th have had sexual contact at least once. The average age of first sexual contact was 13.72 years for boys and 14.09 years for girls. Another study among school-going adolescents in Pune, revealed that though they lack adequate knowledge on matters related to human sexuality, yet up to 22% boys and 5% girls had premarital sex. In Bihar, out of more than 10,400 adolescents (15-19 years) surveyed, 14.1% of unmarried adolescent boys and 6.3% of unmarried adolescent girls had premarital sex according to a 2016 report by the Population Council, an advocacy group. As per the National Family Health Survey, one in four Indian women (26.8%) is married before 18, and 7.8% of women aged 15 to 19 are pregnant or mothers. About 2.7% of boys and 8% of girls reported their sexual debut before the age of 15.

In the survey conducted by us, it was found that about 38% of the respondents had engaged in sexual intimacy of some kind as a minor. Among those who had been sexually active, about 13% said that it wasn’t out of free will and 12% were unsure of whether or not it was consensual.

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

Image Credits: Srijani Datta

In spite of such a large number of adolescents being sexually active, the POCSO Act of 2012 criminalises sex with a minor, and between minors. Any person who has sexual contact with anyone below 18 years is said to have committed sexual assault. Additionally, in a case where both participants are minors, usually the older participant or the boy is held guilty. Recently, on 4th February, 2021, the Bombay High Court said that consensual sex between minors is a grey area under POCSO Act since consent given by a minor is not considered to be valid consent in the eyes of the law.

It is time our education system, healthcare facilities, and judicial and legal systems recognise the overlapping issues related to sexual behaviour among adolescents. India does have a growing adolescent population that either is or wants to be sexually active, yet educational, healthcare, and other related facilities do not make space for a nuanced understanding of adolescent sexuality primarily because of the social stigma attached to it.


By Srijani Datta

Sociology, Ist year

Hindu College

Srijani Datta is an 18 year old eco-feminist from New Delhi who likes to talk about all things politics,gender and society. She is currently pursuing her undergraduation in Sociology and wishes to contribute to society’s understanding of social phenomenon through it.

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