'Indians don't talk about sex - so I help them'



Lifestyle Desk, Barta24.com
Photo: Collected

Photo: Collected

  • Font increase
  • Font Decrease

Many Indian schools provide no sex education, leaving it to parents to talk to their children about sex and relationships. But often they are unsure what to say, sex coach Pallavi Barnwal tells the BBC's Megha Mohan.

Looking back, my conservative Indian upbringing was actually the perfect grounding for someone who would end up as a sex coach.

The earliest influence on me, although I didn't realise it at the time, was my parents' own relationship.

There were rumours about my parents' marriage for years. When I was around eight years old, I started getting questions about it. At parties, if I was separated from my family, an infantry of breathless aunties would corner me for an interrogation.

"Do your parents still share a room?"

"Have you heard any arguments?"

"Do you ever see a man visiting?"

I would be standing by a dessert table, about to spoon a scoop of ice cream into a bowl, or wandering through a garden looking for other children to play with and before I knew it, I'd be surrounded by excited women I barely knew, asking questions to which I definitely did not know the answer.

Years later, after my own divorce, my mother told me the full story. Early in my parents' marriage, before my brother and I were born, my mother felt a deep attraction to a man that turned into a physical affair. Within weeks guilt set in and she ended it. But in Indian communities, there are eyes and mouths everywhere. Over time, rumours reached my father.

It took my father 10 years, and two children, to finally ask her about it.

He promised her that any answer would not affect their relationship, but after years of murmurs he had to know. She told him everything. It was less about sex and more about intimacy, she said. It had happened at a time before they had started a family, when their marriage hadn't yet found its groove.

As soon as she stopped talking she noticed an immediate chill in the room. My father had instantly withdrawn. My mother's confirmation of a story he had suspected for years immediately severed any trust between them and their relationship rapidly decomposed.

This showed me very clearly that our inability to properly talk about sex and intimacy could break down families.

My family is from the state of Bihar in eastern India. It's one of the most populous, and largest regions in the country, bordering Nepal and with the river Ganges slicing through its plains. I had a conservative childhood. As with a lot of families, sex was not a subject that was openly discussed. My parents didn't hold hands or embrace, but then I don't remember seeing any couples in our community being physically affectionate either.

My first exposure to anything to do with sex came when I was 14.

Bored one afternoon, I went fishing through a pile of books in my father's cupboard when a thin pamphlet stacked between his novels and history books fell out. It contained several detailed short stories about a secret world where men and women explored each other's bodies. This book was definitely not literature, it was naughtier than that. One story was about a curious young girl who drilled a hole into a wall so she could watch a married couple she knew in bed. I had to look up the meaning of a Hindi word I had never heard before, chumban, which means a passionate French kiss.

I had so many questions but there was no-one to talk to.

My friends and I had never discussed anything close to this.

Engrossed in the book, it took several moments to come back to the present and hear my mother's voice calling me from another room.

At this time, in the late 1990s, I didn't know that I hadn't done anything wrong, that many children over the world had begun to learn about intimacy at this age, mostly in school. In Belgium, children are taught about sex as young as seven. But India isn't a place where sex is a mandatory part of the school curriculum. In fact, it wasn't until 2018 that India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released sexual education guidelines for schools. More than a dozen states out of 29 have chosen not to implement them. According to The Times of India, more than half of girls in rural India are unaware of menstruation or what causes it.

Source: BBC