Building empathy through sexuality education

This is the first in a series of blog posts emerging out of my research project as a Shanti Fellow with the Prajnya Trust’s Education for Peace Initiative. My aim is to create and compile a variety of resources that would benefit educators in India working to create safe and supportive spaces for LGBTQ/queer students.

Meet Vishwa Srivastava aka Vishwa Schoolwallah, an educator living in Gurgaon, who has some beautiful insights to share from his work as a sexuality educator. My conversations with him have expanded my understanding of what sexuality education is all about, and I hope that his thoughts also serve to enrich the pedagogic practice of other educators regardless of the subject they specialize in. He spent a number of years teaching at the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, and is now a teacher trainer with an organization named I Am A Teacher.

Question: At what juncture of your journey as an educator did you realize that you wanted to help create safe and supportive spaces for dialogue around queer experiences, identities, rights and issues?

I never felt safe in the education spaces I was inhabiting as a student. I was bullied, called names, screamed at, and sexually abused because I looked ‘different’. I wanted to be an educator because I wanted to heal myself. I wanted to be a champion for my students. I wanted them to know I had their back.

Question: What strengthened your motivation to pursue this direction of work, and what were the challenges that you anticipated?

The biggest challenge is to know when to speak, how much to share, and in front of whom. I have to be mindful of other people’s stereotypes, belief systems, socio-economic background, gender, and sense of self. My motivation is not to create more LGBTQ-allies. That’s not why I am an educator. My motivation is to seek to understand before being understood. In that process, if I am able to build a connect and enrich the life of those around me, I would hope they would value me enough to respect my sexual identity. Once they do, it opens up doors for deeper, keener, wholesome conversations around LGBTQ issues. That is my modus operandi. This is how I am an advocate in education spaces.

Question: Transforming a bright idea into actual practice often requires a structure within which to experiment, allies who can help sustain the initial enthusiasm, and mentors who can provide constructive feedback. How has this played out in your life as a queer-affirmative sexuality educator?

I don’t affirm my sexuality, I simply allow it to coexist along with all the other aspects of my being. I allow for my being to be highlighted above and beyond my sexual orientation and preference. First and foremost, I am a person who is passionate about education. After that, I am a sexuality educator. My being a ‘queer-affirmative’ individual comes much later. I don’t need my students’ or colleagues’ acknowledgement of my sexuality. I simply want to work with them toward better teaching and learning practices. I want them to respect me as an educator first, as someone who adds value to their lives. If that makes them appreciative of me, they could consider acknowledging and celebrating my queer-affirmative sexual identity.

Question: Would it be inaccurate to assume that the vocabulary around sexual orientation and gender identity that circulates in English-speaking academic and activist circles is alienating for school teachers, parents and students? What have you been doing to grapple with this concern?

Alienating allows students, teachers and parents to talk about the same things objectively. By referring to the same things in English, instead of one’s mother tongue, it becomes easy to talk about personal issues a bit more objectively.

Question: In a culturally diverse society where many religious groups explicitly look down upon masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, how do you balance the task of educating students about sexual agency and also being sensitive to religious sentiments that are easily hurt?

Understanding pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation from a medical, psychological and physiological stand — with the most recent and relevant research — is the best way to impart education on such topics. We have to allow students to share their religious sentiments and how they stand, not in contradiction, but alongside these medical facts, figures and data.

Question: If schools have a parent community that is not in favour of sexuality education, what are some of the creative ways in which teachers can embed sexuality education in the teaching of other subjects?

Stories, role-plays, analogies, the personification of inanimate objects – these are some of the tools I have used in the past to include sexuality education in teaching.

Question: Since you have been working with a variety of groups on creating awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, what are the common misconceptions that you get to hear? What methods do you use to address these?

Sharing photographic examples, showing case studies, and sharing stories with the students, allows them to not only better understand unhealthy sexual practices and their probable repercussions but it also allows these to be humanized for them. What is thought of as an abstraction becomes a reality that could happen to anyone. It does not make a person good or bad. It simply shows that a person made poor choices in life. It encourages empathy and conversation.

Question: What are your thoughts on the subject of pornography? It is a resource that many young people go to in order to satiate their curiosity and to seek pleasure. However, many feminists say that pornography is yet another patriarchal tool to dehumanize women. What do you tend to focus on in conversations about pornography with students?

I focus on getting students to develop a critical eye for porn, infatuation, drugs, sex, and bullying. Students need to understand in what ways the aforementioned things impact their natural sense of self. Once students understand that, they are themselves able to learn to discern what is good for them and to what extent. Of course, ensuring continuous dialogue by giving students a safe, non-judgmental space to share and talk about their desires, feelings, emotions is essential to ensuring that they continue to make informed choices for themselves and for their peers.

Question: How can sexuality education empower students to fight body shaming in the school premises and at home?

Sexuality education can help students identify the ways and forms of abuse — physical, sexual or psychological, so they can learn to be mindful of how to deal with them. It empowers them by giving them a clear understanding of abuse, and what recourse should they take to resolve the same.

Question: Why is that our definition of sex focuses almost exclusively on penile-vaginal penetration and not on other forms of pleasure and intimacy?

Colonialism is the answer to that. The colonial education system, though only 250 years old, directly fed into the cultural ethos and mindset the industrial era needed. The land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho temples knew pleasure and intimacy was above and beyond the procreative peno-vaginal duality of the colonial monotheistic mindsets of the European empires.

Question: How can sexuality education at the school level speak to those who are asexual?

I think sexuality education is a part of a much larger conversation around identity, individuality, freedom, expression and inclusivity. We need to zoom into sex and sexuality education keeping the larger purpose in mind. When we do that for ourselves and our children, asexuality — just as other forms of sexualities and expressions — becomes a constructive component of the larger understanding of what it means to be a human.

Question: Would more parents be open to sexuality education if they understood that it could help their children assert bodily autonomy and protect themselves from sexual abuse?

In most cases, people propagate what they receive. It takes extra effort from an individual to break apart from one’s ‘habitus’ and seek to improve one’s own understanding. Parents find themselves handicapped to approach healthy conversations about relationships, sex, sexualities and identities. Adults need adult education, so that they understand its significance in our fundamental right to self-expression. Bodily autonomy is a foundation stone for that.

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