November 20, 2008
"Don't they think about the children?" fumed my friend in the subject line of her email that contained these images. She has a 5-year-old daughter and lives in the US.
Despite my friend's obvious disapproval of the condom ads, I couldn't help but notice the detailing on the penises. Some art director somewhere either has a dubious clip art collection or must have spent his client's money scouting for models. Whatever be the case, other than some obvious ribaldry, I don't think the ads make the point strongly enough. If the purpose of a condom ad is to talk about safe sex, why mask it in stupidity? As for my friend's displeasure at the ads, I am not too sure I agree about keeping children in the dark about the facts of life.
While I wholeheartedly endorse promoting safe sex, letting kids know too much, too soon makes me a wee bit uncomfortable and a whole lot unsure. When is it too soon? Is it okay to mouth birds-and-bees till a certain age or is it better to tell them exactly what happens -- what sex is -- right from the start?
As a child I don't think I was ever overtly curious about how-babies-are-made. When I discovered, at age 11, what really happens between a man and a woman, it was by accident. I don't remember how the conversation came about between a bunch of 9-12 year kids, but I clearly remember this 8-year-old Sardarji who told us. "A man puts his thing in a woman's thing," he said and guffawed at the expression on our faces. Most of us had reacted with a "chhee". Much before I learnt the words 'penis' and 'vagina', a man and woman's private parts were just that, private.
While I've spoken three languages from the time I was eight-months-old -- English, Hindi and Bangla -- for a long time I didn't know a 'word' for a penis or a vagina. From shame-shame, to no-no, to chhee-chhee, to nangu; the terms I've heard were always about shame, guilt, taboo... always to be kept private and definitely not to be discussed or shown. The whole idea of showing 'it' to someone else and then things being put here and there was confusing, shocking.
The next shock came soon after. The realisation that love between a man and a woman was physical and had a lot to do with my body. It was my paternal grandmother who delivered it... She lived with us for three months in a year, had magic hands, knew Ramayana and Mahabharata both by heart and was an ace story-teller. Perhaps it was she and her stories of Krishna and rakshasas (demons) that make me so devour science-fiction-fantasy books now. She would have loved Harry Potter... Thamma would gently stroke my forehead and tell me bed-time stories. It was also at bedtime that she told me other stuff...
While my mother never discussed boys with me (hell I didn't even know I was supposed to have pubic hair and was initially quite distraught), Thamma took it upon herself to 'prepare' me for my future-husband-to-be. She told me four things. "A woman has to look good to keep her husband's love," was the first mantra. Coconut oil was the next. "A woman's hair is her true beauty," she would say, "...and regular oil in your hair will keep it soft for your husband to play with." The third was 'snowcream'. It was Lakme's vitamin-E rich cream that smelled divine, came in a white bottle with a blue lid and was white in colour. Thamma would laboriously apply 'snowcream' on my limbs with particular care to my ankles, knuckles and elbows. "Always keep your skin soft, no husband likes rough skin," she admonished. The final trick was the Importance of the Neck. "When you bathe, always scrub yourself properly and always, always keep your neck clean. That's where your husband will love you first," she said.
I have seen umpteen Hollywood movies where parents have The Talk with their children. I haven't spoken to current-generation parents but I know for a fact the topic is not something most Indian parents (my parents' generation) willingly discuss. Till date my mother has never spoken to me about sex (Pa is out of the question!).I don't know if Thamma had ever participated in debates on sex education, but I am grateful for what she told me... As shocked as I was with the idea of things being put in me, she at least let me know there was a physical side to love and that I should not be scared of it. Even if she just meant necking!
When Thamma 'prepared' me (1988), living-in, 'dating' and pre-marital sex were out of the question (particularly in India). Today, notwithstanding the Shiv Sena, open secrets and vociferous denials, they are a reality. So are HIV, teenage pregnancies and growing child abuse. Would I rather have my child not know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch or would I tell her what could happen? Do I want my teenage child confused about his/her attraction to the opposite sex -- and thereby either do something silly or feel guilty -- or do I want to be able to guide him/her to make a better, safer choice?
While I might not thrust a tumescent penis in my child's face -- like the ads, which are in stupid taste -- I could perhaps employ some of my Thamma's style and break the news gently. It doesn't have to be shock. Or guilt.
PS: I never replied to you when you sent me that email, so here is the answer. If your daughter sees that condom ad... don't hide the magazine or shut her eyes or tell her to be scared. Just explain and please give her the right terminology.
PS2: Just in case you all noted the headline and are wondering 'do birds have a penis', check the link for an accurate answer.