Shame and Sexual Knowledge

It’s not like mom and dad are conservative, I thought. After spending our entire lives abroad, a solo academic career in the US and all this liberation, why the heck hasn’t Amma ever talked about this? Why did I have to learn this from Joyeta rather than mom? What if it’s not licoria and I really have cervical cancer? Frantic questions chased each other, before the inevitable conclusion. The best way – the only way – is to ask Mom about it.

“Mom….umm… Do you know… did you know that every girl above 18 years of age is supposed to have a regular cervical cancer test?”

And I saw my mother’s face bleach out.

***

Aahung’s life skills education manager, Sheena Hadi, says it’s a very common scenario – most girls discover facts related to sexual health through friends.

“Puberty is an introductory point, the prime time for information regarding basic hygiene, physical changes, our bodies, etc. But because parents are so uncomfortable discussing the subject of our bodies, I’ve noticed that less than 30% girls know what menstruation is – although it’s a biological phenomenon, not sexual.”

Talking to Hadi made me realize that I, too, had grown up with myths. Myths like showers during the menstruation cycle “swell up the lower tummy”. Elder women, aunts, and cousins, share minimal sexual information, guarding them like Pentagon secrets. Friends are the best, non-judgmental relations where shame is covered by giggles and questions are answered. Hadi says a lot of myths are born right here. “As parents and adults, we define who are the right and wrong friends to hang out with. It’s really a matter of what our expectations are and what steps we are taking to help our children live up to them.”

 

In an era driven by unlimited mediums of disseminating information, a vast majority of young Pakistani women resort to gossip to answer their queries about their own sexual health. Commonly, mothers squeeze the “women’s problem” between deciding what to cook for lunch and the hit soap opera. Fathers, as Hadi says, never have a chat about the “birds and bees” with their sons.

“Girls will resort to cousins for information but in this particular instance, boys are at a greater risk. Boys are less likely to question these things because they are “wrong.” “Dirty” is a frequent term they use to describe their thoughts and even visit quacks to control normal bodily functions.”

At a recent conference regarding sexual rights, Pramada Menon, director of a sexuality institute CREA , demanded a second look at how we define our bodies. “I don’t understand… why do we use the words ‘chi chi’ and ‘shame shame’ for our private parts? Since childhood, because they are shameful and oh-so-taboo, our children never discuss them.”

Hadi reaffirms that this “shame” is internalized and associated with our private parts. She says when cases of sexual abuse come to her, most children suffer with guilt because someone touched their “shameful” parts and so they don’t want to talk about the experience, as an extension of that guilt.

But the problem doesn’t stop at guilt only. Neha Sood, training coordinator of IRAD (Institute of Research, Activism & Development, CREA) says denying this basic information might mean the difference between acquittal or prosecution in sexual abuse. “In a famous child abuse case in Delhi, the offender was almost declared ‘not guilty’ because the child could not define the body part that was used to sodomize him. Eventually he likened it to an ‘oozing glue stick’. A phrase that saved the lives of a potential score of children that the pedophile might have abused.”

Yesterday, riding high on my “right to information” as a journalist, I visited a very prestigious hospital in Islamabad to interview a “top-notch” gynecologist. Minutes later I was blushing furiously and squirming in my seat because the gynecologist reprovingly enquired, “You are not married… but you need to know about the symptoms of pregnancy?”

Hadi comforted me that I’m one of many victims of the “information provider/moral judge” syndrome. “More often than not doctors frame their questions to make a patient rethink their moral values. Aahung trains information providers to address the problem because a marital status, for example, does not validate sexual activity or lack of it. Similarly, issues of confidentiality are important because a girl cannot discuss her sexual history before her mother-in-law.”

 

The problem, of course, is multifold. It’s not only a lack of information – basic information that pertains to survival, but a stark denial as well. Take the time to get close to any teenager above 15 (or even younger – 15 is not necessarily the starting age) and you can discern symptoms of sexual activity in the conversation and behaviour. Researchers in Rozan, an Islamabad-based NGO working on child sexual abuse, say that no concrete data is available but young people in the higher economic classes have a greater rate of engaging in sexual activity.

As Sheena Hadi returns to designing school curriculum, I slip out of the room, thinking my mother has spent an entire lifetime believing that showers during menses cause a bloated stomach. I hope finding out that it’s not true will bring some color back to her face.


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