Imagine your friend gifted you a tiny sapling on your birthday. You are happy and excited to receive it and watch it grow. However, you do not know about the parts of the sapling, their functions and their importance. You cannot figure out where and how to plant it, how much you should water it, and how much sunlight it requires to grow. What will you do now? Will you abandon the plant or plant it anywhere without proper knowledge? If you want it to grow happily to its full potential, you will learn about the plant. You will probably ask your parents or people who know about it, you will look on the internet and read books about it. You will learn about its different parts and what you should do to ensure that it grows safely.
Similarly, when we are very young, we do not know much about our bodies. Our bodies go through numerous changes throughout our lives, that is, from the moment we are born to the moment we breathe our last. Unfortunately, we are not taught about these changes and therefore, we often get confused or scared when they occur. Let us break it down into simpler parts to know our body well:
During which period does our body change the most?
Our body goes through most of the changes during adolescence. Some of these changes can be observed from the outside but during adolescence, along with the body, our thoughts, social skills, interests and mannerisms also take a different turn.
Do you remember how your best friend suddenly grew taller than you in middle school? Some of the bodily changes that occur during adolescence include one’s weight, fat, height, muscle distribution and sexual characteristics. The prepubescent period is the time when a person begins to experience some of these changes although most of them are yet to happen. The post-pubescent period is the time when most of the bodily changes have taken place. When all these bodily changes that are associated with adolescence have occurred, the post-pubescent phase comes to an end.
What are sexual characteristics?
Sexual characteristics may be divided into two kinds: primary characteristics and secondary characteristics. The sexual characteristics that are present right from birth are known as the primary ones. They include the external and internal genitalia in a person, for example, the vagina, clitoris and ovaries in females and the penis and testes in males. The sexual characteristics that develop from the pre-pubescent to post-pubescent periods are known as the secondary ones, and they are not directly associated with reproduction. They include pigmentation, facial hair, and coarsening of the voice in males and an increase in breast development, the enlargement of the breast buds and the menstrual cycle in females. One of the most important changes in pubescence in females is the onset of menstruation which is called menarche. The rate at which these changes take place is not uniform in every individual. Knowing about these changes makes the process a lot easier.
But why is it important to know our bodies well?
Generally, we start asking questions about our bodies at the age of three. This curiosity and the want for clarification is very natural and there is nothing shameful about it. We usually ask these questions to our parents, caregivers, siblings, or friends. If we are not taught about our bodies in the right manner, we try to learn about them from questionable sources, such as television shows, movies, pornography. In this way, we end up with unrealistic expectations from our bodies and a lot of confusion regarding their development.
For example, in the web series ‘Bombay Begums’ directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, twelve-year-old Shai suffers from such pre-pubescent worries. She feels she lacks something when she finds that her breasts are not developing at a fast rate. She feels insecure about the fact that some of her classmates have larger and more developed breasts than hers. Shai often stares at her reflection in the mirror and tries to measure her cup size and is left with disappointment every time. Later in the series, we see her mother, Rani tries to make sure that Shai can open up to her if anyone ever tries to touch her inappropriately. As a survivor of sexual harassment in her younger days, Rani does not want her daughter to go through a similar experience and remain silent out of fear and anxiety.
Does knowing about our bodies lead to fewer cases of sexual abuse?
I have read about so many survivors of sexual abuse who said, “I was a child and I did not know what was being done to me. So I kept quiet and it went on for days. I wish I knew it was abuse and told my parents about it.” One of the main reasons why it is important to have these conversations with children is to prevent them from sexual abuse. In 2017, according to BBC News, a child is sexually abused every fifteen minutes in India. Millions of children from every part of the world are sexually abused every year. Most of these abusers are known faces, such as teachers, family members, relatives and neighbours. In most cases, the children do not know about their body parts and they do not realize whether a person is behaving inappropriately with them. They do not understand that they are being sexually abused. They may think that the abuser is playing with them or expressing their affection towards them. They may also realize that what is happening to them is wrong, but they may still be silent because of confusion, lack of confidence, trauma, fear, anxiety and numbness. Therefore, it is necessary to teach children about their bodies, boundaries and private parts.
What do we mean when we talk about private parts?
Private parts refer to the genitalia of a person. Violation of this space is known as harassment of the individual. We need to tell children about their private parts and how to be safe. Studies show that children who know the names of their private parts by other unreal names which they have been taught have been victims of sexual abuse more than children who know the correct names of their private parts. Naming a private part with a playful or childlike name only teaches a child that they should never clearly speak about their bodies and instils shame regarding the organs. The child thinks conversations about genitals and sexual activities are secret and sinful topics and so they require false names to make them sound less shameful. For example, we do not need to tell a child, “This thing here is your pee-pee.” Instead, we may try telling them, “This is your private part and it is called the penis. It is a natural part of your body and its development is also a natural process. If anyone tries to touch, grope, measure your penis, or speaks about it disrespectfully, you have every right to stop them. And if they still do it to your private parts, you must come home and tell a trusted elder about it without any fear or guilt.”
How do we ensure the safety of the private parts of adolescents?
To ensure the safety of the private body parts, adolescents must know about them and how they function. They should be encouraged to have certain boundaries which should not be crossed by anyone. For example, when an uncle strokes our chest, we may feel uncomfortable even if we are four years old. We have every right to tell him to stop doing that and tell our family members about this predatory behaviour. It is not an expression of love if it violates our personal space or makes us uncomfortable. In another instance, a classmate may slap our breasts in the middle of a joke and pass it off as friendly humour. However, it may be uncomfortable for us and we need to understand that it is not a joke. It is an invasion of a person’s private space, violating their security and harassing them. In such a situation, we need to tell them clearly that they should never repeat it. We may reconsider the kind of relationship we want to have with them, draw our boundaries, and if we think it is necessary, report to the school authorities about it. Having a safe space where we can open about such harassment and seek help is equally important. Many helpline numbers are also available for such cases. Thus, we can understand the importance of safety and consent regarding our private parts.
What is consent and why is it absolutely important?
No one has the right to touch us without our consent. According to Adrienne Santos-Longhurst, “Consent is a voluntary, enthusiastic, and clear agreement between the participants to engage in specific sexual activity. Period. There is no room for different views on what consent is. People incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot consent. If clear, voluntary, coherent, and ongoing consent is not given by all participants, it’s sexual assault. There’s no room for ambiguity or assumptions when it comes to consent, and there aren’t different rules for people who’ve hooked up before. Nonconsensual sex is rape.”
Thus, we must teach and learn about private parts, bodily changes, and consent. We have bodily autonomy and no one should touch us without our active consent. We need to understand this and know our bodies well to create a society that is safe, aware, and healthy.