Dance bar ahead: Keep out: Part 2: The right to sexuality

By Maya Indira Ganesh

The ban on dance bars in Mumbai is ostensibly to protect youth from the sexualised environment of the bars. Instead of keeping the shadows and silences around sexuality intact, we need a rights-based approach to young people's sexuality, giving them the right to information that has a direct bearing on their health and well-being

"When these girls wear skimpy clothes and leave home, why don't the elders of the house object? Why don't they correct the misunderstanding that being modern does not mean wearing skimpy clothes? Why is the young generation modern in attire but not modern in thought? One after another, these questions are at the forefront. Those who argue that there is no connection between women and girls wearing skimpy clothes and rape should keep the social structure in mind. Besides rape, it is the evil eye of men provoked by the culture of skimpy clothes that is harmful. Why encourage these perverse tendencies? In the name of remixes, the wave of 'sex appeal' is ruining entire generations. If an adolescent boy develops perverse tendencies because of such hot movies and their obscene posters, and an innocent girl falls victim to that, then who is to blame." --- Translation from the Shiv Sena's Marathi mouthpiece Saamna ' s front-page article on April 25, 2005 .

"It's a tough time to be young. There is so much sex around, and yet politicians are getting more and more conservative," says 19-year-old Tara, a college student in Mumbai, candidly. Tara 's disenchantment is not new, every generation of young people have felt oppressed by the world of adults. But she is right, we do live in a different world. A generation ago a teenager could not have watched Will & Grace with his family. There were no malls to hang out and canoodle, skimpy clothes and sexy innerwear were the stuff of private fantasies, and there were no cell-phones to send sexy pictures and messages to lovers.

One of the primary objectives of the ban on dance bars in and around Mumbai has been the protection of youth who are likely to be corrupted by the sexualised environment of the bars. Over the past few years there has been a significant increase in sexual content in public spaces and the media, ensuing censorship battles, and much finger-wagging at low waist jeans and underwear as outerwear. Unfortunately, and predictably, no one has been able to look at what young people's sexuality is, and respond to it with the needs and interests of young people in mind.

Youth and its desires have always confounded adults. Often unable to reflect on their own growing up, adults approach the issue of young people and sexuality with caution and rules. It is a delicate business, just as being young is. There is a sense of vulnerability as well as agency; a body that responds and feels in adult ways, and a mind and heart that can still be as sensitive as a child's. At the level of parents and children, it is perhaps this straddling of two worlds that leads the former to react with protectionism. But at the level of the State, youth are seen as a precious resource, the future and body of the nation. So their typical response is to protect and preserve national identity through the vehicle of young people.

"Youth is a period of change and, consequently, one of stress, characterised by uncertainties in regard to identity and position in the peer group, in society at large and in the context of one's own responsibilities as an adult. The compulsions of parental approval often encounter the emerging aspirations of independence. Young people exhibit mood-swings and might even indulge in self-destructive activities, such as use of alcohol, drugs and violence-(1)

This is a gloomy definition of the adolescent experience. And it does not mention the sexual evolution of young people, and not surprisingly. Advocating for the rights of young people to a state of sexual and reproductive health is a delicate issue, one that raises strong emotional responses from adults in general. By endowing young people with a notion of 'rights' there is an implication that they are capable of self-determining actions and thoughts with regard to their sexuality.

Sexual and reproductive self-determination is threatening to many societies, even the most technologically advanced ones. In the United States abstinence-only sex education is increasingly becoming the policy norm. Most US government development aid for HIV prevention is now available to programmes and countries that do not promote condom use.

Since the early-1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to grow in India , development aid for HIV prevention started to increase as well. As did the realisation that young people have sex. Roughly 86% of HIV transmission in India occurs through the sexual route, and 34% of all HIV infections occur in the 15-40 age-group. It is only more than ten years on in August 2004 that the Ministry of Human Development, NCERT and NACO have made school-based sex education mandatory across the country (2) . Before this the focus of HIV prevention efforts by the State had been on groups that are thought to be at high risk - truck drivers, sex workers and men who have sex with men.

The sexuality of young people

* In New Delhi last year two high school students used a mobile phone camera to record an act of oral sex. Within days it was being bought and sold on the Internet.

* In Bombay last year a winner of the Femina Miss India beauty pageant was divested of her title because she was found to be married, which disqualified her. It was later found that she had faked being married in order to rent an apartment with her boyfriend.

* In Ausa taluka in Latur district during the Ganesh Chaturthi and Dussehra festivals, there are special screenings of pornographic VCDs for boys from the age of 10 to 24 years (3).

Cultural norms that censure young peoples' sexual expression or curiosity have not stopped them from being sexually active. Pornography, premarital sexual experimentation, visits to sex workers, are all part of the adolescent sexual smorgasbord today. And this is not limited to urban India alone. In rural Maharashtra even in poor drought-affected villages, young men have access to porn VCDs. In Sangli district of Maharashtra sex workers say that their earnings take a dive in March when the school final exams are on (4) .

The recent MMS scandal involving students of Delhi Public School is another example of how young people's sexual exploration is received. In the aftermath of the scandal no one asked the two young people involved what it was all about. In the noise of the moment no one was able to create a safe and non-judgmental space for them to talk about sex. Was this experimentation? Was it sexy to be recorded? Was it an act of rebellion, identity, or just plain fun? That technology and globalisation have changed how young people access and experience sex is clear. But why isn't there any inquiry into what this is? Similarly in the Lakshmi Pandit case, there was only self-righteous umbrage at her 'lies' about being married. In fact, Lakshmi was single, and should not have been stripped of her title. She faked being married so that her middle class neighbours in the suburb of Malad wouldn't interfere in her private life.

All these unasked questions reflect a situation where young people make uninformed sexual choices that could affect their lives and health in a serious and irreversible way. In addition it means that sexual behaviour is cloaked in shame and guilt and the important aspects of trust, sharing and intimacy with partners, and the receiving and giving of pleasure, are largely ignored.

Notions of gender and relationships are also propagated through the meagre sources of sexuality information. It is likely that boys who grow up learning about sex and relationships through pornography could have terrible insecurities about their sexual prowess, or expect their wives to be porn stars. Girls will think of marriage as the centre of their existence, that rape is a woman's fault, and that to stray outside the margins of respectability will be met with ostracism.

The right to information

A rights-based approach to the issue of young people's sexuality would mean that young people have a right to information, which has a direct bearing on their health and well-being. It would also affirm that sexuality is a rich and positive area of life and that young people have a right to grow up understanding their bodies and being able to make informed and consensual choices about sex.

According to a WHO study in ten countries, young people aged 15-24 years who had complete and correct information about sex and sexuality were more likely to delay their sexual debut and have lower rates of STDs and HIV/AIDS (5) . One of the main points of resistance to sexuality education programmes for young people is that too much information will lead to wanton experimentation (and thus further destabilisation of the institution of family as we know it). Studies show however that education does not necessarily lead to more experimentation, rather clamping down on curiosity tends to whet the appetite for experience.

Denial of sexual health information or an abstinence-only (6) approach to sexuality education interferes with fundamental rights including the right to "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds" (7) and the right to the highest attainable standard of health (8) , which can have dire consequences on the right to life. Sexual health information is key to the right to life (9) . The failure to provide accurate information about the prevention of HIV transmission, for example, puts young people at risk. However this important right is restricted by obscenity and censorship laws in India (10) often justified on grounds of preserving public decency and morality. (Lawyers Collective, 2004)

All these words however are open to diverse interpretations, but the end result often is that the right to information is compromised in the name of protecting an arbitrary notion of Indian culture. For example, pictures and graphic representations of a condom out of its packet or about its use cannot be shown publicly on television or hoardings according to current obscenity laws. So unlike Thailand which is reining in its large HIV epidemic through massive condom promotions, parades, and advertising, India is choosing to protect its culture instead.

Censorship regimes "...deprive youngsters of the ability to confront and work through the messiness of life-the things that are gross, shocking, embarrassing, or scary" (11). Moreover, censorship frustrates rather than enhances young people's mental agility and capacity to deal with the world. It inhibits straightforward discussion about sex. "Finally, to be fully involved and functioning adults in our democratic society, youngsters need access to information and ideas, not indoctrination and ignorance of controversy, precisely because they are in the process of identity formation." (Heins, 2004)


The aim is not to further obfuscate issues, but to encourage young people to develop an independent index of sensitivity to the nuances of sex, gender, and relationships. The media is one of the most powerful generators of images and scripts of sexuality, and has the potential to create real changes in mainstream moralities.

But censorship is not the solution, neither is complete freedom of speech. Our debates have become far too polarised, without the parties involved providing solutions or alternatives. Yes, young people do need sexuality information, they cannot be shielded from human realities, and pornography cannot be the only source of information, nor sanitised school health programmes.

Diverse, creative, and tolerant media that provide images and ideas that are different from mainstream TV/movies/pornography is perhaps one answer. Films like Dil Chahta Hai or My Brother Nikhil , though relevant to an urban or middle class context, show different ways of being male and female, new relationships, new ways of being in love and having sex. The BBC World Service Trust-Doordarshan tie-up Jasoos Vijay does the same for HIV/AIDS. Breakthrough's upcoming media campaign What Kind of Man Are You?! seeks to go beyond trite information blips and explores the construction of masculinity.

American media has created enough examples, such as Will & Grace, Angels in America , or The L-Word , even the irresistible Friends ; and there is no dearth of documentaries and indie films that portray these unseen sexual and gendered realities. In the boring parade of anorexic pop icons spouting even more anorexic dialogues, the small Australian film Muriel's Wedding is a refreshing aside; in it a fat heroine whose life plays to an ABBA soundtrack comes to realise that marriage isn't what makes her a woman.

Without alternatives, young people are likely to stumble through relationships, often not knowing how to ask questions, or that a range of choices exist beyond marriage and compulsory heterosexuality, or how to negotiate difficult relationships and sexual situations. Or to stand up for themselves when a political party insinuates that young women provoke men to rape by the way they dress. Or merely to enjoy - without guilt or shame -- the very human-ness of our emotional and sexual intimacies: that the simultaneous joy and anguish of sex is what makes and moulds us.

A film that shows negative stereotypes of women in movies like Murder or Girlfriend is not the same thing as a diverse open media, although all these need to flourish as well. But only if there are alternative counter-views. In India as far as sexuality is concerned, the counter-view is absent. What passes for sex in recent Indian cinema is merely a regurgitation of hetero-normative scripts that convey mainstream moralities about sex and gender.

Apart from movies and television, there is a whole host of other educational material and processes that need to exist in a democratic civil society - books for parents about sex education, a healthy level of debate in education, the media, the sciences, integration of sexuality education in school curricula, etc. And development programmes in rural areas cannot be excluded from any of this. Most importantly, State policies that support and fund these initiatives are critical. Soul City , the South African TV programme developed in the wake of the country's shattering AIDS epidemic, does just this. Not only does it reach out to adults and the young alike, but it also has the backing of the State, and exposes a range of socio-cultural and sexual attitudes and practices in South Africa that perpetuate the AIDS epidemic.

We are slowly inching towards this kind of concerted effort in this country. But before that there are still shadows and silences around sexuality that have to be opened up. We are likely to remain unmoved and un-evolved if we continue to ignore the reality of young people's sexuality. Because they are the future of the nation.

(Maya Indira Ganesh writes on issues related to gender, health and sexuality. She has been associated with several organisations working with gender, sexuality, child sexual abuse and domestic violence)

(1) National Youth Policy of India 2003
(2) Indian Express, August 6 th , 2004 .
(3) UNICEF Mumbai, personal communication
(4) Meena Seshu & VAMP, personal communication, 2005
(5) UNICEF New York , 2003: Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis
(6) Sexuality education that promotes sexual abstinence and does not discuss the use of condoms
(7) Access to information is also essential to secure the highest attainable standard of health. See paragraph 12, General Comment 14
(8) Article 24 (2)(e), CRC; Paragraph 38(h), International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; Paragraphs 12(b) and 16, General Comment No. 14
(9) Paragraphs 12 (b), 16, and 34, General Comment No. 14
(10) Sections 292, 293 and 294, IPC. These sections criminalise the sale of obscene books/objects and performance of obscene acts. 'Obscenity' is again widely defined and has been interpreted with moral overtones by courts in the past
(11) Heins, M., 2001: Not in front of the children: "indecency," censorship, and the innocence of youth New York : Hill and Wang, 2001

InfoChange News & Features, May 2005