When it Comes to Sex-Ed, What Do Young People Want to Talk About?

At a workshop for adolescents, we saw young people work through their fears and apprehensions to speak about their crushes

When we talk about sex-education, we are full of declarations on what we need to be telling young people. But what is it that young people really want to talk about? The workshops we do at Agents of Ishq are imagined as a two-way exchange to understand this and learn from it, to help young people get what they need. Early this winter we found ourselves discussing this in Dharavi, Mumbai.

“It feels nice to talk to someone about love, because we can’t talk to our parents or friends about it,” 15-year-old Mandira said to us on a cool day in November 2018. Her friends, 16-year-old Kusum and 15-year-old Megha, sitting with her on plastic chairs in a corner of the room and whispering so that the sound of their voices wouldn’t carry, agreed that admitting to having a crush or being in a relationship was hard. What if you told your parents about it and they reacted with anger and punished you for it? What if you told a friend and they sneaked to your parents about it if they ever needed to take revenge on you? What if people said, how can you be talking about love and relationships at such a young age?  

Mandira and her friends were whispering so that no one sitting further away could listen in, but also so that they didn’t disturb the recordings being made by their peers in a tiny nook downstairs. We were all working together in a two-day podcast workshop with a small group of  adolescents at SNEHA’s Colourbox. The last recording for the day was going on, with a boy in a blue shirt rapping in Marathi about a girl he was in love with.

* * *

The workshop had begun with all the awkwardness of meeting new people and getting acquainted with each other. When we first began to talk amongst ourselves about being in love, most were too shy to speak up or said outright that they had never done anything of the sort. Perhaps the hesitation came from the fact thatthey weren’t yet comfortable enough with us and each other to share things about themselves, or from the fears that Mandira, Kusum and Megha had spoken about – that their friends would not keep their secrets for them. However, the aim of the workshop was not for the participants to share their stories with each other (though they could share them with us if they wanted), but to work towards developing a language of emotions that would help them articulate their feelings and reflect on love for themselves. And in reflecting, develop a healthy emotional resilience, which is the bedrock of autonomy.

As they went through sensory metaphor exercises – trying to describe their feelings through the senses of touch, smell, memory of a sight or sound – and exercises to build trust, they became reflective and found that they did want to talk about stories they’d kept hidden for too long, that they were scared or even ashamed about. Eventually everyone had to sit down to write, so that they had a draft to work with. They could refine it, edit it, and work on it in a creative process until they were ready with a script for the podcast.

* * *

“My favourite part was writing everything down,” said Megha after the workshop was over. This surprised us, because the previous day it had seemed like a tedious task to her – like a homework assignment that one had to grin and bear. But after getting started, she had begun to feel drawn into the process. And she was glad not to have to keep these secrets tied up inside her. Megha and other participants told us beautiful stories – some of love conducted according to familiar scripts involving a formal ‘proposal’ and gifting flowers or chocolates, some of crushes had from afar, such as the boy who worked in a pizza joint and developed feelings for a customer, and some in which it was the girl who told the boy how she felt, and was waiting for him to figure out his feelings.

All the stories we’d heard were stories of crushes and young love at their core, but they encompassed so many more things – the difficulties of being a teenager, managing school and crushes, escaping abusive relationships, entering into joyful ones, loving outside one’s caste and class, having parents react with violence to the idea of their children being in relationships, having parents be supportive of these relationships, having to shoulder financial responsibilities. More than anything, we were listening to them articulate important moments in their lives on their journey from childhood to adulthood, and helping frame these stories of who and how they were trying to be in the world. And as we watched, they seemed to grow kinder to one another over the course of two days. Even though they may not have known each other’s particular stories, over the course of all the tasks and exercises, the writing and recording of their stories, they knew that in having a crush on someone or being the subject of a crush, they were not alone.

* * *

“When are the podcasts coming out?” everyone wanted to know. They were excited to have their stories as works of art out in the universe. “I’ll send the link to my mother,” Mandira said, giggling. “But then she’ll know!” said her friends in wide-eyed alarm. Mandira shrugged. The stories were anonymous, so her mother wouldn’t know exactly which one was hers. She seemed to want her mother to have an idea of what was going on in her life anyway, and maybe this was a way to start that conversation. She had made her peace with the fact that she liked a boy and felt there was nothing wrong with that, and perhaps she now felt more confident about trying it out in the world.  

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