AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes and Pornography ...
AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex
Education Programmes and Pornography
The Shaping of Sexuality Awareness among
College Students
This article attempts to explore what constitutes awareness of sexuality and sexual
health among urban, unmarried, college-going young men and women from low in-
come families. It shows that sexuality awareness among the youth is limited and the
sources that address young peoples' needs are few. The article discusses campaigns
to enhance awareness on sexuality and AIDS among youth and explores the reasons
for the failure of these campaigns. It is argued that the sex education programmes
currently available in colleges are silent on the discourse on sexual pleasure and de-
sire by adopting a medicalised approach to sexuality that has an authorised, 'scien-
tific' voice. Erotic and pornographic sources gain legitimacy in this scenario as they
address some of the needs and concerns of young people.
Dr. Leena Abraham is Reader, Unit for Research in Sociology of Education, Tata
Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.
The AIDS awareness campaigns in India, which began in the 1990s, are
possibly unmatched by any other public health campaigns in recent
times in the country in terms of the volume of funds, the variety of
communication strategies employed, and the number of agencies
involved. The medical and social crises that the HIV unleashed in the
United States, the phobia generated by a lack of understanding of ways
to deal with the spread of infection, and the projection by international
agencies of the devastation that the infection is capable of causing in the
poor countries of Africa and Asia, provided the rationale for AIDS
policies and programmes in India. International pressure, combined
with funds and technical support, was instrumental in producing such
an overwhelming response to AIDS in India. The AIDS work in India has
focused chiefly on preventive measures using 'information, education
and communication' strategies, with youth being targeted as a group
vulnerable to the HIV infection. Using this approach, a variety of
awareness campaigns organised by government agencies,
non-governmental organisations (NGOs), educational institutions, the
media, medical professionals, and citizen's groups are currently

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 473
These campaigns have had several far-reaching outcomes. First, the
campaigns based on the epidemiology of HIV brought into public
discourse previously unmentionable sexual acts and sexual
relationships. Second, the focus on the sexual modes of transmission of
the virus meant t h a t some degree of sex education accompany the AIDS
awareness campaigns if they were aimed at young people. Thus, riding
on the AIDS campaigns, sex education programmes for the youth,
which were earlier vehemently opposed by parents, school authorities
and government agencies, gained some legitimacy.1 Third, by now,
there are several manuals and modules available for providing
sex/AIDS education to different youth groups.
As a result of these efforts one would assume t h a t some information
on sexuality and AIDS would have reached a vast population, at least in
the cities and towns. However, studies conducted in different parts of
the country show t h a t while some information on AIDS is widespread
among the youth, adolescents and young adults, even the educated
among them 'lack information' on sexuality and sexual health despite
being exposed to the campaigns mentioned above (Bott, Jejeebhoy,
Shah and Puri, 2003; Jejeebhoy, 2004; Khanna, Gurbaxani and
Sengupta, 2002; National AIDS Control Organisation [NACO] and
UNICEF, 2002; Verma, Pelto, Schensul and Joshi, 2004). More
significant is the finding t h a t information on HIV/AIDS and protective
measures did not lead to the use of this information in people's lives. It
was found t h a t knowledge of condoms and their safety value did not
induce 'safe sex' practices, even among those who engaged in 'risky'
sexual behaviour. These observations draw our attention to several
issues. What do young people learn from these campaigns? How do they
make sense of the various, and often, conflicting messages provided by
different agencies (advertisements versus public health messages)?
What is meant by 'lack of information'? What are the sources t h a t they
access for information and how do their class and gender positions
influence all of the above?
The d a t a used in t h i s paper to address some of these questions are
drawn from a study on youth sexuality conducted among low income
college s t u d e n t s from the city of Mumbai in India during 1996-1998.
Data were gathered from s t u d e n t s of higher secondary class (XI
Standard) and third and final year (TY) u n d e r g r a d u a t e course
covering the Arts, Science and Commerce s t r e a m s from four colleges
that largely catered to low income students. The respondents were in
the age group of 16-22 years.2 D a t a were gathered in two p h a s e s :
qualitative d a t a in the first p h a s e using focus group discussions
(FGDs) (75 s t u d e n t s in 10 groups) and interviews (87 students),
followed by a survey of 966 s t u d e n t s (625 boys and 341 girls) in t h e
second phase.
Respondents were either self-recruited (as in the FGDs) or recruited
by the research team (as in the interviews). The respondents for the

474 Leena Abraham
survey were drawn from a representative sample of boys and girls from
all the various streams based on the proportional distribution of
students in the college. The FGDs explored the students' social
interaction, views on marriage, partners and premarital sex, sexual
experiences, and sources of information. The interviews explored, in
detail, the individual views and experiences. The survey explored
specific areas of knowledge, beliefs and experiences related to
sexuality.3 Data from all these sources are used in order to understand
what constitutes sexuality awareness among these youth.
Specifically, sexuality awareness refers to a person's understanding of
sexual identities, sexual beliefs, norms and practices. It includes an
understanding of how all of these are structured and shaped by societal
arrangements and cultural practices. It allows individuals to understand
themselves as sexual persons and also the underlying meanings as well
as the consequences of their sexual practices. It includes sexual health
awareness, a broad category of critical information t h a t may enable
young people to control pregnancies and prevent sexually transmitted
infections (STIs). While people's perceptions are shaped largely by the
normative and discursive practices, they also reconstitute their
perceptions based on information and experiences. Awareness of
sexuality and sexual health is important, not just for their instrumental
value in limiting teenage pregnancies and spread of diseases, but
because of their capacity to enhance self-understanding and sexual
well-being, especially among young men and women. Further, we see
this awareness as being critical to the agency of the youth in questioning
the social structures and cultural arrangements that control their
sexualities through a patriarchal sexual ideology t h a t defines sexualities
in unequal and oppressive terms.
The article shows t h a t sexuality awareness among the youth is
limited and the sources that address young peoples' needs are few as
well. Sexuality awareness among the boys4 is mediated primarily
through peers, pornography and various erotic materials, to which they
have relatively freer access. Girls, in contrast, face normative and
material constraints in accessing information on sex. The normative
prescriptions restrain them from seeking information on sex as such
behaviour is seen as transgressing the notions of femininity. The article
argues t h a t by curtailing access to information, silencing the discourse
on sexual pleasure and desire, and medicalising sexuality through the
authorised, 'scientific' voice of the sex education programmes, erotic
and pornographic sources gain legitimacy as they address some of the
needs and concerns of young people. The uncritical consumption of
these sources perpetuates oppressive patriarchal constructions and
distorts young men's perception and experience of their sexuality.
Enhancing sexuality awareness among the youth cannot be achieved
through a discourse of diseases t h a t ignores sexual desire and pleasure
— concerns t h a t young people grapple with.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 475
Young people's understanding of sexuality and sexual health awareness
is generally tested against medical knowledge so that much of what
constitutes their understanding is generally dismissed as 'myths and
misconceptions'. In this study we used a combination of approaches
wherein medical knowledge was tested along with an attempt to
understand cultural meanings that underlie the interpretation of such
knowledge on topics as diverse as male and female bodies, pubertal
changes, sex, pregnancy, contraception and HIV/AIDS. The following
discussion gives insights into young people's social, sexual, and cultural
interpretations in the light of new measures of sex education and
Body and Pubertal Changes
Even though it is generally held that youth are obsessed with their
body, the study showed that knowledge of genitals or the 'private parts'
is limited, especially among girls. For instance, the presence of clitoris
is not known to them and some of the younger girls could not clearly say
whether the urinary, vaginal and anal passages are separate. Many
girls thought that the urinary and vaginal passages are common.
Knowing the external genitals is a taboo for girls5 even when lack of
awareness may compromise sexual health. It cultivates a 'culture of
silence' around 'woman's problems' such as white discharges,
discomforts and a range of minor or major infections throughout their
lives (Oomman, 2000). Boys are generally more aware of their own body
and are more informed about a woman's body as well. The discussions
and interviews show that boys gain this knowledge through
self-exploration, peer discussions, and erotic and pornographic
materials, especially movies. Their understanding of the female body
and sexuality is derived largely from pornographic sources.
If I had not seen blue films then what is female body is not
understood.... only curiosity increases (Standard XI Boy, FGD).
How do we explain this lack of knowledge about one's body in the face
of sex education classes that seek to teach about the male and the
female body?
The current sex education discourse in India (and elsewhere too)
reduces the discussion on 'body' to a set of 'reproductive organs' and to
the reproductive process.6 It is conducted in an abstract manner,
speaking of 'a body' or 'the body' and relies on terminologies drawn from
biology and medicine. The medicalising and depersonalising strategies
produce a discourse that objectifies bodies and ignores the fact that
bodies are sites of sexual pleasure and pain, sexual assertion and
subordination and freedom and social control, and distances
participants from the fact that the discussion is about themselves and
their bodies.7 It is understandable then that in the discussion of

476 Leena Abraham
women's bodies, virginity assumes importance even when hymen and
clitoris remain unknown. The girls moreover understand the concept of
virginity as being 'pure' and being 'untouched'. Girls are not familiar
with either the English terms 'virginity' and 'hymen' or the Hindi
equivalent, purda. The lack of vocabulary or the knowledge of the
existence of hymen does not come in the way of girls internalising the
cultural meaning of virginity as being 'pure and untouched'. The notion
of virginity is asserted through several terms t h a t girls use such as
'pure', paripakwa, untouched, and kaumaryata.
While girls may be ignorant about hymen, boys have fairly detailed
knowledge of its existence and its link with virginity. Some of the boys
know the English term virginity, but they use words such as purda,
'seal' or 'seal pack', more frequently, to refer to hymen.
R: To ladies — blood comes, it is painful. First time pains to married
I: Why does this happen?
R: Because the "seal" breaks.
I: What is it?
R: It is a curtain (purda) on the vagina. It tears while doing
intercourse ...
I: Where have you heard this?
R: It is shown in Hindi movies, it pains even to "gents". The "penis"
pains while breaking the "seal".8
The link between virginity and hymen, preserving female virginity
until marriage, and the act of penetration are part of boys' awareness of
sexuality. While the topic of virginity generated much discussion
among both the boys and girls, it was exclusively on female virginity.
According to boys, there cannot be male virginity because boys have no
purda. The cultural significance of girls' virginity, for both boys and
girls, is evident from the response of an overwhelming majority of girls
and boys who said t h a t a girl's virginity was her 'most valuable
possession'. Some of the boys knew of the fact t h a t the hymen could be
ruptured through 'cycling and other vigorous exercises' and 'sports';
yet, this knowledge did not alter the cultural notion of purda as the
signifier of virginity and purity.9
While there are a few studies on menstruation, the experience of
pubertal changes and how young people negotiate these changes are
not studied in the Indian context. The studies on menstruation show
t h a t girls are not prepared to deal with menstruation prior to its onset.
Girls suffer embarrassment, fear, shame and anxiety besides physical
pain and discomfort. The data from our survey show t h a t the situation
is not different among the urban educated girls. Of all the girls (341), 44
per cent were not told anything about menstruation prior to its onset,

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 477
Of the remaining girls, only half were informed about 'why it occurs'
and others were told about the normative restrictions with respect to
food, worship, domestic work, and play. All the girls were cautioned
against interacting with older boys and men.
Many boys have h e a r d about menstruation ("MC" or "masic palli")
but do not know why it happens, when it happens, and for how long.
For instance, some of the boys believe t h a t menstruation occurs only
once in six months or once a year and some others t h i n k t h a t it occurs
once in two or three months. According to some, bleeding during each
cycle lasts for 15 days. Girls and boys believe t h a t menstruation is
dispelling of 'impure blood', 'bad or dirty blood' or 'waste' from t h e body
and some of the girls saw themselves as polluting. Except for a few
older girls, both boys and girls viewed menstruation as an event
independent of conception and pregnancy. Some of the girls knew t h a t
women stopped menstruating during pregnancy and wondered why.
The cultural socialisation t h a t surrounds menstruation not only
withholds information from the girls, but produces two important
consequences for them: girls develop a sense of shame attached to
their body, and they begin to see sex as something dirty (Abraham,
2001). Both, in turn, have consequences for women's denial a n d
suppression of their sexuality.
For information on menstruation, girls rely on two main e x t e r n a l
sources — family (especially mothers and older sisters), and teachers
or educational programmes. Boys depend mainly on friends. There is
virtually no exchange of information between boys and girls. While
girls are not informed about how and why m e n s t r u a t i o n occurs, they
themselves do not make efforts to learn about it. T h e efforts m a d e
were often silenced by responses such as, 'it h a p p e n s to all women', 'it
is part of being a woman', a n d 'now you are young, you will come to
know when you grow up' — given to t h e m by mothers or other women
in the family. Considering the way women are socialised in India
combined with their low income and educational s t a t u s , the mothers
themselves may not be knowledgeable enough to help t h e i r
Not much has been written about the pubertal experiences of boys in
the social science literature on youth in India. A number of boys in our
study talked about their experiences of 'nightfall' or 'wet dreams',
especially the first time it occurred. They saw parallels between
nightfall and menstruation, as indicating the onset of puberty. Both
these events were landmarks in the evolving masculine and feminine
sexual identities. Some of them stated, Tike MC in girls, boys have
swapnadosh', 'like MC comes in girls, in boys, liquid comes out at night'
(TY Boys, FGD). The first experience of nightfall caused anxiety and, in
some cases, embarrassment. Most of the boys did not know what was
happening to them. They never consulted their families (though older
brothers were approached by a few), but friends older in age were

478 Leena Abraham
approached for advice.10 Friends reassured them t h a t 'it is only normal'
(TY Boys, FGD).
It started from llth-12th std. I was shocked. Then friends told it
happens in one-two weeks. Don't know why it happens ... Felt that
once it happens, won't get any disease na; asked friends, they said,
won't happen. I don't feel anything now. Other friends also tell.
Came to know from them. (TYBoy)
Boys' peer socialisation is conceptualised generally in terms of its
negative outcomes such as drug and alcohol use, skipping school, and so
on. However, this study shows how peer support is an important aspect
of boys' sexual socialisation and the formation of identity. It was most
evident among boys while sorting out their sexual anxieties. Boys' rich
vocabulary and metaphors help them in peer communication and to
reduce sexual anxieties. Nightfall is expressed as 'heavy rain',
swapnadosh, botli futli (bottle broke), leaking, shivai geli (ink leaked
out), and so on. The voices of reassurance t h a t boys reported to have
received are absent in the girls' narratives of their experiences of
menstruation. Boys' pubertal experiences may be seen as more
liberating as they are not constrained by cultural and ideological
inscriptions t h a t restrict girls' experiences. These early pubertal
experiences shape the constructions of masculinity and femininity
differently for boys and girls. Both knowledge and peer support
contribute to the distinct cultural constructions.
In the Indian context, a recurring theme in male sexuality is the
anxiety about semen loss. Culturally, semen preservation is valued
through practices of celibacy and abstinence. Anxiety about the intense
sexual feelings and frequent penile erections were more evident among
younger boys (Standard XI), while t h a t of semen loss and 'body
building' were stronger among the older boys (TY). Masturbation was
said to be common, especially among older boys. Despite its wide
prevalence, some of the boys reported feeling guilt and physical
Don't feel anything before doing it, but when "sperms" come out, feel
guilty, dirty. (TYBoy)
There seems to be some fear that frequent masturbation leads to
weakness and this may affect the normal growth of their body. One sure
way to deal with the perceived negative consequences, according to
them, is to 'build the body'. The cultural anxiety of semen loss as
causing physical weakness and loss of virility is compensated by
'building one's body'. As some of the boys stated during the FGDs, 'body
ek dum acha hona chahiye'.
However, for some, the fear of losing one's 'body' overrules the
possibility of such autoerotic pleasures. Some boys consider
masturbation as the safest way of dealing with sexual desires until they
are married. As adolescent male sexuality is particularly concerned
with physical growth and physical strength, the perceived loss of

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 479
virility and physical strength is addressed either by adopting a
preventive posture of abstinence from masturbation or by adopting a
curative approach of health and body enhancing practices.
R: Some say that they get pleasure, but what pleasure I don't know.
I don't do, feel afraid. If something happens, then?
I: What will happen with masturbation?
R: Swelling, or there will be problem going to toilet, or it will affect
the body.
I: From whom did you hear this?
R: No, only felt. Friends told it affects the body. Friends told only
this much that if the body is good then the person does not
become weak.
R: In the 10th std., a school-friend told me (about masturbation). He
was from NCC Camp. It was cold there. Everyday he used to do.
I: How do you feel?
R: Don't feel anything for the first time. Got satisfaction when did 2-3
times. When it is going on, one feels good, but later, very bad. Hand
starts paining, thighs start paining, body aches, and feel weak.
I: What do you think, is this good or bad?
R: It affects health, but if diet is good, then the semen that goes is
filled up and nothing happens.
Though the English term 'masturbation' is known to boys, they use a
variety of terms, including the commonly used terms halwayache or
'hand practice'. In striking contrast, girls had not heard the English
term or the words t h a t boys used. They did not know the meaning of
masturbation either. When it was explained in the local language, girls
were surprised, showed disbelief and thought of such practices as
something 'bad' or 'dirty'. Only two older girls said t h a t they had heard
about it from a friend. Girls are not aware of the fact t h a t masturbation
is common among boys. It is the differential gender socialisation of boys
and girls and the gendered constructions of femininity and masculinity
that produce conditions which allow relatively better access to
information and possibilities for autoerotic experiences for boys. For
them, the cultural anxiety associated with autoerotic practices does not
act as a major deterrent but is constructively overcome by focusing on
improving one's health.11
Sex and Pregnancy
School- and college-based sexuality education in India do not
conceptualise sexuality beyond the narrow focus of marriage and
procreation. It is most evident in the manner in which it is often

480 Leena Abraham
packaged as 'family life education' or as part of 'life skills education'.
The official sexuality education is silent on themes of sexual pleasure or
sexual exploitation, and shies away from discussing topics such as
sexual intercourse. In the current medicalised, procreative discourse,
sexual intercourse is described as a biological act leading to procreation
and all other associated experiences of pleasure, companionship,
emotional bonding, or even violence and aggression do not find any
space. Such a discourse depersonalises sex and denies the embodiment
of the self. It shifts the focus away from the embodied experiences to a
set of outcomes — pregnancies and diseases. Sexual intercourse, per se,
is generally glossed over as 'male organ (or penis) enters the woman's
body (or vagina) and the sperms are released'. From there onwards
there are detailed descriptions about what happens if sperms enter the
egg and if they don't. There is information about normal pregnancy,
'ectopic' (tubal) pregnancy, safe period for abortion, foetal growth
during various 'trimesters', and finally childbirth. Use of technical
terms such as fallopian tubes, fertilisation, zygote, MTP, XX and XY
chromosomes, vas deferens — are part of the school- /college-based sex
education.12 The reluctance to discuss sex in the school-based sex
education programmes is linked to issues of morality, on the one hand,
and power relations between teachers and students, on the other hand
(Abraham, 2002b; Lupton and Tulloch, 1996). Teachers defend their
reluctance to discuss the topic of sex with their students by posturing
t h a t it is not necessary because people know about sex, they learn as
they grow.13
As young men's experiences and narratives show, they have to rely
on their own or others' experiences or pornographic sources to learn
about sex. Except for a few younger boys, others had fairly detailed
knowledge about various sexual acts, while many girls were not aware
of the act of penetration. Perhaps it is this lack of information that
t u r n s many young women's first experience of sexual intercourse into a
painful nightmare (George, 2003) shattering the romantic build up
towards marriage. Both the medicalised sex education (with all the
technical information it carries) and the highly eroticised Hindi movies
(with the intense romance between the hero and the heroine, and the
elaborate marriage preparations) do not give girls the basic idea of
penetration. Like 'hymen', 'penetration' remains hidden from girls.
(Std. XI Girl)
After marriage, honeymoon is there. Then child is born...
"Intercourse" means "delivery".
I: How are children born?
R: By doing "inter-sex", children are conceived.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 481
I: "Inter-sex" means what?
R: When the sex organs of a boy and a girl "touch", children are
While boys may know more about sexual intercourse, their
information on pregnancy is as confused as t h a t of girls.
Our sperm, shukratantu [he was not very sure of the term] goes into
uterus of lady and "reacts". How much it "reacts" depends upon our
"shukratantuchya power", and then the child is conceived.
Boy puts his "pelvis" [penis?] in to girl's "khaddyat" and then the
"chik" [liquid] comes out. Because of this the girl gets pregnant...
"gunasutra", which are there of man and woman come together and
unite then child is conceived. If it is XX then boy and if it is XY then
girl is conceived.
(TY Girl who was knowledgeable about sex)
Friend had told me in detail that "sexual parts" of husband enter
into our sex organs and then X and Y cells meet and then we get a
Girls rely mostly on Hindi movies and married friends for
information on sex. Accessing blue films and other erotic materials and
in a few cases, a visit to a commercial sex worker (CSW) were
pedagogical strategies used by boys to gain knowledge about sex. The
experiences and the 'knowledge' thus gathered are then circulated
among peers, often in an exaggerated manner (given the status of
sexually experienced boys among peers as 'hero', or bade kamgar
great worker). All these attempts are fraught with many difficulties
such as fear of being caught, guilt, self-doubt, economic costs, insults,
embarrassment, and so on. Risking these difficulties and breaking the
general norms are important for boys in order to establish their
sexuality and identity. Some of these behaviours, along with rash
driving and new dressing styles, could be seen as the emerging
individual rites of passage t h a t are becoming widespread in modern
societies (Le Breton, 2004). The outcomes of these risks are buffered by
the liberal societal attitudes to male sexuality and by the boys' peer
support networks.
For boys, the mass media is overwhelmingly the major source of
information on the topics of pregnancy and abortion followed by friends,
medical staff and sex education programmes. Some of the girls who
participated in the FGDs and some who were interviewed said t h a t
they gathered information from the health workers who visited their

482 Leena Abraham
homes as part of the birth control campaigns. These findings were also
corroborated by the survey data (Table 4).
Contraception: Who 'Takes' What and When?
Some information on contraception has been disseminated as part of
the population control programmes since the 1970s and as part of the
AIDS awareness campaigns since the 1990s. There has been a steady
rise in media messages on contraceptive methods with a focus on
condoms for men and pills for women, while the government
intervention programmes focus on the terminal method of tubectomy.
Contraceptive messages are aired by the industry, and by the various
governmental and non-governmental agencies promoting population
control and AIDS prevention.
The growth and expansion of television as a major mass medium of
communication along with radio, posters and hoardings have extended
the coverage of these messages across society. It was assumed at the
time of the study t h a t the extensive social and commercial marketing
and awareness campaigns would have made contraceptive information
fairly widespread among young people as they are a major consumer of
the mass media. However, recent studies show t h a t contraceptive
information remains low and uneven across the country (NACO and
UNICEF, 2002). The present study's findings show t h a t information on
contraception is more widespread among boys t h a n among girls. The
interview data, however, show t h a t the information is partial and often
disjointed. Many girls were keen to learn about contraception from the
research team, while some of the boys were eager to cross check what
they already knew.
More boys t h a n girls, irrespective of their age, are better informed
about various contraceptive methods. As the survey data show, nearly
82 per cent of boys know what a condom or Nirodh is (Table 1) and
almost the same number know t h a t condoms could be procured from
chemists or from some of the paan shops. Knowledge of condoms among
younger girls is extremely low (12 per cent) compared to older girls
(40.6 per cent) or boys of their age group (76 per cent).
The interviews and group discussions reveal t h a t boys not only know
what a condom is and from where to access it, they can rattle off the
names and costs of various brands of condoms — both Indian and
foreign. Barring some of the younger boys, others have seen condoms
and are able to describe how to use them. How are these stark gender
differences in the knowledge of condoms produced in a context where
condom use is promoted by the population and AIDS control
campaigns? Further, why would girls lag so far behind boys with whom
they share the same socioeconomic and educational status? Girls'
narratives show t h a t many of them are quite clueless about what a
condom is, what it looks like, how to use it, who should use it, and when
to use it.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 483
(Std. XI Girl)
I: Have you heard t h e word 'condom', Nirodh?
R: The packet is shown on the TV but what is inside it t h a t I don't
(Std. XI Girl)
I: Have you heard of Nirodh?
R: Yes.
I: What is it?
R: They are pills not, taken by men.
I: You just now mentioned condom, what is it?
R: They are pills, boys take.
I: From where did you get this information about condoms?
R: Advertisements t h a t come on t h e TV. Read in the magazine and
some information I got from friends.
I: And how it is to be used?
R: It is written over the packet of pills.
I: Why it is used?
R: To avoid pregnancy.
I: Any other use?
R: No.
(Std. XI Girl)
I: Do you know anything about condom?
R: Yes.
I: Who uses it?
R: Women only use them.
I: Have you ever seen a condom?
R: No.
R: [I] Have heard about Nirodh.
I: What is it?
R: I don't know, something like a ring.
R: I have heard about Nirodh.
I: What is it?
R: I don't know. But it is not a tablet t h a t much I know — it is
something else.
I: Have you heard about condom?
R: Yes, I have heard, what is shown on TV about AIDS and on the
walls of (railway) station something was written. ...

484 Leena Abraham
I: Who uses them?
R: Men and women both.
Girls' n a r r a t i v e s on condoms c o n t i n u e in t h i s m a r i n e r . The
contraceptive a w a r e n e s s of girls is, t h u s , a l a r m i n g . H o w can condoms
m a k e a n y s e n s e if girls h a v e no w a y of k n o w i n g a b o u t s e x u a l intercourse?
I f girls c a n n o t visualise w h a t condoms are, how a r e t h e y t o u n d e r s t a n d
t h e i r u s e ? It c a n be tedious to figure out how a 'ring' (condom) p r e v e n t s
p r e g n a n c y or A I D S . S o m e of t h e girls k n o w of condoms, not as male
contraceptive, b u t only as a p r e v e n t i v e m e a s u r e a g a i n s t A I D S .
(Std. XI Girl)
I: Have you heard about condom?....Nirodh?
R: Have heard the name.
I: Why is it used?
R: To prevent AIDS.
I: Who uses?
R: That I don't know.
R: Pills, and something needle type is shown on TV, don't remember
the name. Condoms are used.
I: For what?
R: To prevent AIDS.
I: If you don't want a child, then is condom used?
R: No, only for AIDS.... I don't know, [confused]
I: Do you know about 'contraceptives'?
R: Means condoms, no?
I: For what are they used?
R: To avoid AIDS.
I: Any other use?
R: No.
I: Any other 'contraceptives' do you know?
R: No.
I: What is used to prevent pregnancy — what do you call that?
R: Pills, tablets, Mala-D, Choice...
I: And condoms? Is it used for this purpose?
R: Maine condom ka naam to AIDS he saath hi suna hai. [I have heard
the name condom only with AIDS.]
I: Not for anything else?
R: No.
I: Where did you get all this information?
R: About condoms and pills, my friend told me. Also my neighbour
told me.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 485
I: What did they tell you?
R: This only. What is condom, how is it, who uses it.
I: Who uses it? [pause] Boy or girl?
R: Both have to use it.
I: Do you know any brands?
R: Kamasutra.
I: Any other?
R: Know only this one.
Boys' i n f o r m a t i o n o n c o n t r a c e p t i v e s i s not l i m i t e d t o c o n d o m s , b u t
included pills a n d i n t r a u t e r i n e devices (IUDs) s u c h as 'Copper T'. A few
of t h e m h a d also h e a r d a b o u t female c o n d o m s a n d ' c r e a m s ' (spermicides).
Although girls' k n o w l e d g e of c o n d o m s is limited, t h e y w e r e m o r e f a m i l i a r
with c o n t r a c e p t i v e pills a n d I U D s ("tambi", "Copper T").
(Std. XI girl)
I: Have you heard about condom?
R: No.
I: Nirodh?
R: Haven't heard.
I: Mala-D.
R: Have heard this.
I: What is it?
R: "Garbhanirodhak" tablets.
I: Who uses?
R: Women.
I: For what?
R: Don't know.
I: Just now you said t h a t it is 'garbhanirodhak' pills, so
'garbhanirodhak' means?
R: [Pause] It is used to prevent more t h a n one child.
(TY Girl)
I: What do you know about contraceptives?
R: Mala-D tablets are taken, and also pills — "Saheli", also
"operation" is done. It is called "NasbandF (vasectomy),
"Kamasutra", "condoms", "Nirodh" are used.
I: From where did you get all this information?
R: From TV, advertisements.
I: Who uses the tablets?
R: Girls.
I: Condoms?
R: Don't know.
Girls' i n f o r m a t i o n on pills is m a i n l y from television a n d from a
married sister, r e l a t i v e or friend a n d on t h e tambi from a m a r r i e d
woman or a h e a l t h w o r k e r w h o v i s i t e d t h e i r h o m e s . F o r girls, a l o n g with

486 Leena Abraham
pills, other methods of preventing pregnancy include 'abortion' and
'operation' (tubectomy), the two methods that are commonly resorted to
by most women, especially from lower income households. The
narratives also show t h a t girls are discussing preventing pregnancy
within the context of marriage and they cited examples of their married
sisters, friends, neighbours or relatives and sometimes their mother.
I: To prevent pregnancy what is done?
R: Do operation.
I: When is operation done?
R: When the baby is expected then... or after one baby when a second
one is not wanted.
I: What else is used, besides doing operation?
R: Pills.
I: Which ones?
R: Don't know
I: Who takes?
R: Girl takes.
I: When?
R: Means, soon after physical relation [looks unsure].
(Std. XI Girl)
I: What is done to prevent pregnancy?
R: Operation or else stitch the mouth of the uterus with "wire", or else
fix the "stopper".
I: All this how did you come to know?
R: My cousin sister she has fixed "stopper". That is how I came to
know. She told me everything. My mother has done operation for
not having the child.
I: What else is done?
R: Girls take pills.
Girls' contraceptive information is more complex. Some of them also
made distinctions between contraceptives for premarital and marital
sex. For instance, condoms may be used to avoid pregnancy or prevent
AIDS in premarital sex, while pills and IUDs are for marital sex.14
(TY Girl)
I: Is condom used in sex with all types of partners?
R: While having sex with wife, condom may not be used, only with
prostitutes and girlfriends it is used.
I: Why?
R: To avoid pregnancy.
Even if some girls appear to have a lot of information on
contraception, it is grossly inadequate. For instance, a more confident

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 487
and 'knowledgeable' girl is also unsure about 'who' uses 'what'
contraceptives and 'why'.
(TY Girl)
I: Do you know about 'contraception'?
R: Yes.
I: What do you know about it?
R: Means condom na?
I: Yes, and what else do you know?
R: And "Tambi" or "Copper T", "Mala-D", "Kamasutra",
"Nas-bandi" [Vasectomy].
I: Who uses all these?
R: Boys.
I: From where did you get this information?
R: From TV, a friend told me about condoms, he was doing a NSS
project, and other information I got from books.
I: Which books?
R: I had read one Standard XII psychology text, my friends' sister's
I: Do you know different brands of condoms?
R: "Kohinoor", "Nirodh", "Choice", "Kamasutra".
I: Why are they used?
R: To avoid pregnancy.
I: Who uses it?
R:[seems unsure]
Except for a senior girl, other girls did not know what a vasectomy
was, but most of the boys had some knowledge of it. The discussion with
girls about contraceptives centred around pills, IUDs and tubectomy.
Their understanding of contraception is limited to female methods and,
that too, mainly terminal methods. This is not only an outcome of their
immediate circumstances where women control their fertility through
terminal methods, but also reflect women's general inability to
negotiate temporary methods especially through the use of male
Many girls believe that condoms are used by both men and women,
pills are to be consumed either by men or by both men and women, and
that condoms are a synonym for pills and, therefore, are to be consumed
by either men or both men and women. There is much confusion about
contraception, about 'who' uses 'what', 'when' and 'how'. Some of the
boys feared that condoms may "get lost' inside a woman's body and some
of the younger boys attributed several qualities to condoms — 'place the
condom on the tip of the penis, it will automatically stretch and cover
the penis', 'condom increases heat in the body', 'they are made of
plastic', 'Indian condoms always break' (although he has no
experience), 'condom pains the girl' and that condoms 'must be blown

488 Leena Abraham
and put on'. These confusions are too complex and subtle to be resolved
through the 'one time' sex education generally followed.
Instead of demystifying sex, AIDS/sex education mystifies it
For both boys and girls, the main source of information on
contraceptives, especially on condoms, is the mass media (Table 5).
While boys mentioned other sources of information such as friends and
sex education programmes, girls mainly depend on the mass media.
The inference t h a t condoms are pills is made from TV visuals, which do
not show a condom but show only the sealed packet carrying pictures of
a man and a woman.15 The media messages on contraception are
projected in a manner which assume t h a t the viewer has information
on intercourse, penetration, conception, and so on. The only clear
message the advertisements on condoms communicate is t h a t they
should be used for birth control or to prevent AIDS. These two messages
are, however, seldom combined. Among girls, those who have heard of
condoms thought t h a t the main use of condoms is prevention of AIDS,
while pills and tambi are for preventing pregnancies. Although these
are not viewed as mutually exclusive options, the distinction made is
quite significant.
In the girls' awareness of contraception, the English words,
'contraceptives' and 'condoms' are synonyms and are associated with
AIDS, while pills and garbanirodhak are clubbed together, making a
clear distinction between the male and the female domains of sexuality.
It is evident from our study t h a t only the girls who have some idea of
penetrative sexual intercourse and how it may lead to pregnancy know
about the use of condom and they are a small minority. The agenda of
sex education cannot be just providing factual information, but to
ensure t h a t girls do not learn about sex through a shocking experience
of their first intercourse. As neither the TV visuals nor the educative
posters (which are the main sources of their information) show how a
condom looks, how to use it, or state clearly who should use it, girls will
have a tiring time in accessing something which the educators view as
'basic' information.
The general conceptions and the inadequacy of knowledge are the
outcomes of their social and gender locations and a deep-rooted
patriarchal ideology t h a t defines male and female sexual roles and
sexualities asymmetrically rather t h a n being a situation of mere 'lack
of information'.16 The gendered n a t u r e of awareness is misconstrued as
lack of information and studies on sex/contraceptive/AIDS awareness
continue to emphasise 'more information' (Jejeebhoy and Sebastian
2003; several studies reviewed in Khanna and others, 2002; Sachdev
1997; Verma and others, 2004). A critical interrogation of gender
ideologies and asymmetries, as argued by Baber and Murray (2001)
and others, is required if the teaching of h u m a n sexuality is to have any
relevance in the lives of young people, especially girls.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 489
Sexually Transmitted Infections and AIDS
Although the abbreviation of STD is widely used for sexually
transmitted disease in sex education messages, a majority of the boys
(81.2 per cent) and girls (85.6 per cent) from the survey do not have this
information (Table 2). About 6.1 per cent of the boys thought t h a t it was
the name of a medical test to detect AIDS. However, 24.3 per cent of
boys and 13.5 per cent of girls knew how STDs are spread. From the
FGDs and interviews, it was amply clear t h a t STD, the abbreviation for
sexually transmitted diseases, was confused for STD, the popularly
used abbreviation for subscriber trunk (g, a telephone facility for
long-distance calls!
The interviews and discussions show t h a t both boys and girls do not
have much information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Some
of the boys, however, are familiar with the terms 'VD' (venereal disease)
and guptarog, but do not know t h a t they refer to STIs. The only STI
that they know is AIDS. Similar findings are reported in other studies
too (Bott and others, 2003; NACO and UNICEF, 2002). As these studies
show, the knowledge situation has not improved significantly over the
The survey data of the present study shows t h a t some basic
information about AIDS is near universal among the boys, although
half of the younger girls do not know t h a t condoms prevent HIV
infection (Table 3). From the survey data it may seem t h a t AIDS
awareness is high at least among the boys, the individual interviews
and group discussions provide better insights into students' 'AIDS
Just as sex education assumes t h a t young people know about
penetrative sex, AIDS education assumes t h a t young people have some
knowledge of STIs and condoms.
(Std.XI Girl)
I: What should be done to prevent AIDS?
R: Should use condoms.
I: Who should use?
R: That I don't know.
I: Have you seen it?
R: No.
I: Do you know about STDs?
R: No.
I: Are there any other diseases that can be contracted through sex?
R: Only know about AIDS.
(Std. XI Girl)
I: Have you heard of AIDS?
R: Have seen the ad on the TV, but cannot understand only.

490 Leena Abraham
I: What is AIDS?
R: [Pauses and then says hesitantly] It is some type of disease. It
happens due to man-woman relations, and to pregnant woman if
she is given an injection.
I: Do you know about any other diseases contracted through sex
R: No.
I: Could there be any such diseases?
R: AIDS happens, but not any other disease.
(TY Girl)
I: Do you know about AIDS?
R: AIDS means disease that can only be known at the last stage and
then there is no cure for it....Those who do sex with more than one
person and also don't use condom those people get it....
I: What should be done to prevent AIDS?
R: Condom should be used.
I: Who should use condom?
R: Who should use that I don't know.
The causes and consequences of the infection are also confusing to
some of them.
AIDS happens only due to blood-contact, only that much I know. By
kissing also AIDS can happen, on TV I have seen such
advertisements. (TY Boy)
Due to keeping relations with many women, cannot happen by itself,
happens from blood, from saliva and also by kissing. (Std. XI Boy)
It is caused during blood transfusion, it is shown in a TV serial that
one person donates blood very frequently, so he gets it, and in that
serial there is a small girl she also gets it but how she got it that I
don't know. (Std. XI Girt)
I: By donating blood means?
R: Suppose blood of A-group person is given to B-group person, then he
gets AIDS.
I: And by doing sex means what?
R: I know only this much that it happens due to sex.
I: What should be done to prevent AIDS?
R: While donating blood, the blood group should be checked. Other
person's injection should not be used, and condom should be used
while having sex.
I: Why should condom be used while doing sex, means even with wife
condom should be used?
R: Yes, I don't know properly, only seen an advertisement on the
station. It said — 'condom should be used while doing sex'. I don't

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 491
know about it in detail. You tell na — whatever I told you is
correct or wrong.
The AIDS information received along with other media messages
reinforce gender stereotypes and the double standards in sexuality.
There is a tendency among boys, especially the younger boys, to
associate AIDS only with CSWs. Some of the students believe t h a t
anaitik (immoral) relations with women cause AIDS.
If "anaitik" relations are kept with women, then it [AIDS] happens.
I have very little information (on AIDS). It is announced on FM radio
channel that by keeping illegitimate relationship this disease is
caused. (Std.XIGirl)
It happens if immoral relations are kept. (TY boy)
If a man keeps relation with more than one woman then AIDS can
happen. AIDS does not spread by air. (TY Girl)
Some of them have altered the slogan of 'safe sex' to suit their
perceptions and for some others any contraceptive method may be
useful in preventing AIDS.
R: (to prevent AIDS) Like using condom, "Do sex with safe person".
I: How can you know whether the person is safe or unsafe?
R: Should make a guess.
(Std. XI Boy)
I: How can you prevent AIDS?
R: Should use condom while doing intercourse, girls should use
pills, Mala-D and "Nasbandi" (operation).
Some of the students provided symptoms of AIDS and appearance of
persons affected with AIDS.
R: "Pulya" (boils) erupt on the body.
I: And?
R: On the penis of the man also "phoda" (boils) erupt.
I: And in women?
R: In her also "phode" (boils) comes.
R: Fever comes, eyes go inside, if that person is sleeping on the bed
you cannot even see — that thin he becomes. On his body there
are wounds.
I: From where did you get information about AIDS?

492 Leena Abraham
R: On the TV Shabana Azmi's advertisement is shown and in the
neighbourhood one man had AIDS that time everyone at home
used to talk.
We found t h a t most of the students could also list the various
non-sexual modes of transmission of HIV, t h a t is through HIV-infected
blood, from an HIV-infected mother to her children, and through an
infected needle ('through injection' as they reported). Although needle
sharing is associated with mixing of blood, it was mentioned as a
separate mode of transmission. Students' awareness of AIDS may be
described as rote knowledge constituting the expansion of the acronym,
modes of transmission of the virus, t h a t condoms prevent AIDS (mainly
among the boys), and t h a t there is no cure for AIDS. These are the
'facts' about AIDS t h a t are stressed in the campaigns in India and, as
Pigg (1998) points out, elsewhere in South Asia too. As others have also
observed, those who know 'the facts' about AIDS have not done much
more with those facts t h a n to memorise them word for word. Rote
memorised information17 and creatively interpreted 'AIDS facts',
constitute the repertoire of AIDS awareness of students. Some of them
stated during the discussions t h a t it was tedious to remember the
expansion of the acronym AIDS and felt it was irrelevant and therefore
changed it to 'All India in a Dangerous Situation', a message t h a t the
education programmes in any case intended to convey to young people.
AIDS information is, thus, fragmented and ambiguous.
As the survey data show, sex education programmes have been of
little help to students for information on STIs (Table 6). It also shows
t h a t for information on AIDS, boys have relied on mass media than the
sex education programmes (Table 7), while many girls stated t h a t their
information on AIDS is from sex education programmes. The
fragmented nature of the awareness campaigns and the exclusive
emphasis on the epidemiology of HIV have resulted in the superficial
nature of AIDS knowledge. As Altman (1994) and others have argued, it
is the social and cultural dimensions of AIDS that need to be emphasised
rather than the medical and the technical. If the young people's
responses are any indication, then the campaigns lend themselves to the
criticism that they are strategies of social control by the state and
various international agencies (Brown, 2000; Lupton, 1993).
Several studies in India referred to earlier point out that 'perception of
risk' to STI/HIV infection is low among young people and this is also true
of individuals who engage in multi-partner, unprotected sex ('risky sex').
Studies have also shown that while exposure to educational
interventions removed some of the 'misconceptions' regarding these
infections, they failed to translate into an increased sense of personal
vulnerability (Awasthi, Nichter and Pande, 2000). Drawing a distinction

A IDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 493
between 'risk' and 'vulnerability', the former as a population-based
concept and the latter as an individual's perception of danger, which is
context specific, they argue that participants perceived their
environment and social networks as not rendering them vulnerable. As a
result 'risk perception' continued to be low among the youth who were
exposed to the STD prevention intervention programme. In the present
study too, the young people did not find themselves particularly at risk of
infection; however, they did perceive the risk of pregnancy in premarital
sex and those who engaged in it made efforts to reduce these risks. Boys
used condoms more often in sex with girls of their age t h a n with older
women or prostitutes (Abraham, 2003).
The use of condoms, however, was inconsistent even among the few
who engaged in multi-partner sex, including commercial sex. Contextual
factors such as unplanned sex, non-availability of condoms, several
apprehensions about condom use, and perception of 'low risks' associated
with different partners were some of the reasons for not using condoms.
There was greater concern about their image, issues of privacy and
performance, and some anxiety about violating a social taboo. Risk of
infection was, thus, low in a context of several other risks. The contexts of
risks may differ for different youth groups. As a study on street children
by Ramakrishna, Karott, Murthy, Chandran and Pelto (2004) shows,
risks associated with survival on the streets outweighed the perception
of risk of infection among street boys. As a result, condom use was
inconsistent among them even though they were aware of their
protective function. Studies have shown t h a t women have very little
power in protecting themselves from infection as their ability to refuse
sex or to negotiate condoms within and outside marriage are minimal
(George, 1998; Khanna and others, 2002; Ramasubban and Jejeebhoy,
2000). The risk of immediate violence outweighs the risk of infection, the
effects of which may only appear in the future.
The girls' reluctance to engage in premarital sex noted in our study
was to preserve their virginity for their husband as a strategy to ensure
marital peace. The t h r e a t of violence employed in order to suppress and
to subordinate women's sexuality before and after marriage may limit,
to a great extent, their ability to both perceive the risk of infection and,
even if perceived, to act upon it. Further, attempts to induce 'risk
perception' and enhance the sense of personal vulnerability in a context
where there is low level of sexual activity, as reported among the
unmarried youth, and the fact t h a t they have neither experienced an
STI nor seen persons suffering from STIs or AIDS may be a difficult
task. AIDS continues to be an imaginary disease for most youth.
Moreover, the youth are likely to be highly suspicious of adults'
(educators, representatives of the State and welfare organisations)
concerns about their vulnerability to infection when the same persons
or agencies are unwilling to trust them or recognise their real concerns
of dealing with their identity, sexual desires, and so on.18 If sex

494 Leena Abraham
continues to be treated as a taboo subject, not open for discussion, and
the patronising attitudes towards youth do not change, and if sexual
desires and sexual pleasures do not get foregrounded in sex/AIDS
education, the aim of health promotion through educational
programmes may not succeed in engaging the youth.
This study shows that boys are more informed about sex than girls and the
chief source of their information is pornographic materials. The gendered
sexual socialisation of boys and girls by the family and society is evident in
the way boys are encouraged to be the repository of information on male
and female bodies, sex and sexuality before marriage, while girls' learning
is mediated through the institution of marriage and childbirth. Boys, from
early adolescence, access pornographic sources freely in order to acquire
this information. For them pornography becomes first pedagogy and then
practice; answering curiosity first and satiating desires later. Both may
also happen simultaneously.
Several studies show t h a t pornographic consumption is quite high
among the youth (Aggarwal, Sharma and Chhabra, 2000; Apte, 2004;
Rangaiyan and Verma, 1999). These studies also show that pornography
is the most common source of information on sex and is a recreational
activity for young people. The study by Aggarwal and others (2000) found
t h a t for information on sex even medical students relied on pornographic
films, books and magazines. Our findings also show t h a t pornography is
one of the main sources of information on sex, accessed quite freely by
boys. Being an important aspect of peer socialisation, and especially
sexual socialisation of boys, there are extensive peer support systems
t h a t initiate and promote pornographic consumption among them. These
support systems manage the necessary finances and other resources,
and more importantly, aid in overcoming any guilt attached to viewing
materials considered taboo. Boys' narratives show that such materials
are freely available and at costs that are within the reach of even the low
income students. They are more inclined to see films and to look at
photographs or pictures t h a t show erotic expression of sex, rather than to
read written materials. In fact, very few boys have read books although
they have access to inexpensive erotic and pornographic literature. They
seem to prefer pornographic films and magazines in foreign languages,
and think that the messages t h a t they carry are more reliable t h a n the
vernacular sources.
Initially, when I was in 7th, 8th, that time we used to discuss only
among friends, and then in 9th when we saw movies, means blue
films, that time I came to know what is intercourse, and how to
insert sex organ, etc. — that time only I came to know... (TYBoy)
I: From where did you get information about sex?

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 495
R: By watching BP, by going through some books.
I: Which books have you read?
R: I haven't read any but have definitely seen some.
I: Which ones?
R: Karamchand, Dapha 302, Debonair, Health and Femina.
I: Which films have you seen?
R: BP.
I: What do they show in that?
R: They show sex, sometime they show "jungle" sex with one female
one is doing intercourse from front and one from back ...
I: And from where else do you get information?
R: From friends.
R: There was no problem, I had one friend in school t h a t time, he used
to take me to his home. That time we were in KX School, and he
was the son of a businessman. He was very rich. There used to be
no one at his home, only we used to be there. That time, we used to
secretly see movies.
I: And, were there any other sources from where you got information?
R: When I was in S.S.C., before that, I had told you na t h a t I h a d
read t h a t book, means Nancy Friday.
I: W h a t is there in this book?
R: Mainly there are sexual fantasies in this book, and about
women's fantasies are explained.
I: Besides this?
R: Gurpantory, Galaxy, Playboy, etc. There was information about
sex in these magazines.
I: Are all this information correct?
R: I think t h a t about 75% of the information in this is correct. Yes, I
think this information is correct...
I: Do you discuss such topics (on sexual experiences) in your
friends circle?
R: Yes, we do discuss such information with each other.
I: For you, there were magazines brought by your brother, but
what sources did your friends use to get information?
R: Other friends are there na, then mostly from Debonair, Ecstasy,
Fantasy and in Marathi there is Dafa 302.
I: Those (magazines), which are in Marathi, is there information in
R: Yes, t h a t information is not correct. In these Marathi magazines,
mostly t h e stress is on sexual activity.
T h e s a m e boy h a d r e c e i v e d i n f o r m a t i o n o n p r e g n a n c y a n d c h i l d b i r t h
from t e x t b o o k s , b u t for i n f o r m a t i o n o n s e x u a l i n t e r c o u r s e h i s s o u r c e
w a s m o v i e s .

496 Leena Abraham
R: The male genital organ enters the female (genital) organ. Then
"semen" comes out of the male organ. This semen then fuses with
the girl's egg, and then a "zygote" is formed from this union. This
"zygote" stays in the girl's womb, and it develops there only. And
then either a boy or a girl is born.
I: From where did you get all this information?
R: Most of the information I got from books and some information I got
from foundation course. There is a topic on this subject in the FC
[Foundation Course].
I: Have you heard any experiences of your friends, about intercourse,
R: No there are no experiences of friends, but most of the information
on sex I have got from movies.
T h e p o r n o g r a p h i c m a t e r i a l s , especially B P s (blue p i c t u r e s o r blue
films), a r e n o t m e r e l y c o n s u m e d for i n f o r m a t i o n a n d r e c r e a t i o n , b u t
s e r v e a s occasions for d i s c u s s i o n s t h a t g e n e r a t e ' k n o w l e d g e ' a n d
' u n d e r s t a n d i n g ' , t h u s r e i n f o r c i n g i t s p e d a g o g i c a l role. A few boys (6)
w h o w e r e i n t e r v i e w e d also s t a t e d t h a t f r e q u e n t v i e w i n g o f p o r n o g r a p h y
e v e n t u a l l y l e d t o s e e k i n g c o m m e r c i a l sex.
(TY Boy)
R: For the first time when I was in 8th (class) and t h a t time I got it
through my friends in school. About sperm, intercourse, t h a t time
the sperms were called "mani". We thought "mani" means, money —
currency. At the same time came to know about masturbation and
also came to know that if we get the desire for sex then we should do
masturbation. Then in 9th there was an older friend who used to go
out (commercial sex), then he used to go with the call girls, for him it
was like a status that I have gone there (had commercial sex).
I: And what did he tell?
R: About intercourse, different positions, sex, kissing and also on rest
of the topics.
I: That means in 9th (class) you came to know about all these things?
R: No. I came to know clearly in 10th Std. when I saw an adult film at
the new theatre.
I: What was shown in that?
R: They showed intercourse. Then after seeing the film we friends
used to do discussion on that...
B o y s ' n a r r a t i v e s c a r r y g r a p h i c d e s c r i p t i o n s o f w h a t t h e y h a v e s e e n i n
B P s a n d m u c h l e s s a b o u t w h a t t h e y h a v e s e e n i n m a g a z i n e s o r books.
T h e r e i s a s e n s e o f h a v i n g g r a d u a t e d w h e n t h e y w a t c h B P s ; t h a t i s
w h e n t h e y g a i n a 'clear' u n d e r s t a n d i n g of w h a t s e x u a l i n t e r c o u r s e is
'really' a l l a b o u t .

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 497
(BP shows) different-different types of sex, "shots kase lawle jatat te"
(how to do different types of intercourse) is there in detail. "Animal
BP" is also there, "Homo type" is also shown. (TY Boy)
(TY Boy)
R: At first, did not have any information. Had got some information
only from friends. When saw BP — understood what intercourse
"originally" (actually) is.
I: What is shown in BP?
R: In BP, how intercourse is done is shown. Different types of
intercourse, different positions, "dog-shot"... "Original
intercourse", "dog-shot" from rear-side, taking in mouth.
I: Do you get any information from those stories that you had read?
R: No — they only arouse/stimulate mentally... No specific
information, they are to be read only for satisfaction.
They see pornography as the only source t h a t explicitly provides
information on all aspects of sex. Pornography becomes a legitimate
source for them because it combines pleasure with information, it deals
with their feelings and what they want to learn. These sources fill a
major void in the form of sexuality education and act as an important
agent of sexual socialisation of boys and in the construction of
masculinity. The absence of alternate sources t h a t address their
questions and worries and an uncritical consumption of such materials
may reinforce the gendered norms and ideals of sexuality. It reinforces
the legitimacy of pornography as pedagogy.
While there are some studies on how Hindi films and 'film going' in
India are integral to the construction of masculinity (Derne, 1999 and
2002), little is known about how pornographic and erotic materials and
messages construct notions of masculinity in the metropolitan Indian
context. Some of the studies on adolescent/youth sexual behaviour show
coercion and violence as integral to male sexual behaviour (Sharma,
Sharma and Dave, 1996; Sodhi, 2000). Boys' narratives of sex in our study
consist mainly of graphic descriptions of varieties and the mechanics of
sex. The masculine images that emerge from the boys' views as well as
their experiences are that of aggression, of the all encompassing
decision-maker and the one who knows about sex. Their narratives are
devoid of feelings of emotion. Girls, however, have no easy access to the
pornographic world of 'information' or 'recreation'. Very few girls have
seen a BP. The girls' sources of information on sex are Hindi films,
television (serials and advertisements), married friends and magazines.
While pornography is a crucial player in the construction of
masculinity, as analysed and theorised in the feminist scholarship, our
findings show how knowledge is implicated in this process whereby
young people legitimise pornography as an important source of
information, on what is important to them as sexual beings, which are

498 Leena Abraham
tabooed and controlled by society. However, sexuality awareness is
more t h a n information; rather it involves a 'deconstructing' of or a
critical analysis of the constructions of which the information is only a
part (Baber and Murray, 2001). The deconstruction of sexualities and
identities becomes even more important when they are built on
pornographic sources. As feminists have pointed out,
Pornography is a means through which sexuality is socially
constructed, [it is] a site of construction, a domain of exercise. It constructs
women as things for sexual use and constructs its consumers to
desperately want women to desperately want possession and cruelty and
dehumanization. (MacKinnon, 1989: 139). Further, pornography is not
just a harmless fantasy or a misrepresentation or distortion of otherwise
healthy sex, but it makes gender inequality both sexual as well as socially
real (Dworkin, 1981). Pornography reveals that 'male pleasure is
inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting' (Dworkin, 1981: 69).
Making men bearers of sexual knowledge and decision-makers in
sexual relationships; foreclosing opportunities for freer sexual
socialisation between sexes through sexual segregation and
restrictions on girls' mobility; and restricting communication on the
topics of sex are ways through which patriarchal sexual ideology
establishes the norm of heterosexuality and constructs masculinity as
powerful and aggressive and femininity as subordinate and passive.
To conclude, the AIDS discourse has certainly aided in bringing sex into
public discussions in India, but it has done so by narrowly focusing on
diseases and by suppressing the discourse on desires. By postulating
AIDS as a public health issue, the discourse is insulated from issues
related to pornography, sexual violence, prostitution and the
increasing commercialisation of sexuality—forces of modernity that are
deepening vulnerabilities of individuals and groups to the infection.
Yet, dealing with sexual desires constitutes an important part of the
construction of masculinity t h a t cannot be ignored. To this end, the
sexuality readers and the sex/AIDS education materials produced by
the state and the educators seem a pale substitute to the colourful
pornographic materials offered by the market. Perhaps, because they
are authored by medical professionals or educationists, sexuality
readers appear like medical textbooks of anatomy and physiology. The
chapters t h a t discuss sexual intercourse and male and female body are
titled 'reproduction' and 'reproductive organs' and carry full page
visuals of cross sections of the 'organs' with complete technical terms
such as 'vas deferens' and 'seminal vesicles'. These readers shy away
from the use of common vocabulary and essentialise sexuality as a
biological state of being. The central focus of such resource books and
educational programmes has been the dissemination of what is
considered 'objective, scientific' information, with the assumption that

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 499
the information will 'empower' people to make rational choices and
behavioural changes t h a t will then prevent infections and unwanted
pregnancies. Sexuality, as a cultural construction, has yet to inform the
writing of such readers. Only when sexuality is seen as culturally
rooted can such readers address it in terms of the meanings t h a t people
attach to their sexual bodies and sexual relationships.
As the study shows, young people's sexuality awareness is distorted
and their perceptions of 'risks' and protective measures are limited and
are influenced by a host of cultural and contextual factors over which
they have little control. As the article argues, though information and
education are crucial, by themselves are insufficient resources in the
struggle against STIs, including HIV. It is time t h a t the sex education
programmes in colleges move beyond the narrow agenda of the
AIDS/sex awareness campaigns as there are obvious shortcomings of
these programmes.
The AIDS/sex awareness campaigns are based on the rational choice
theory of human behaviour: they resort to biological essentialism to
explain sexuality and rely on biomedical knowledge to deal with sexual
health problems. One of the common assumptions of these campaigns is
that individuals given 'objective' (scientific) information, will respond
by making rational choices t h a t will lead to behavioural changes t h a t
reduce 'risk' of infection or undesired pregnancies. Information is
believed to influence 'risk perception', which will alter attitudes and
behaviours. The same assumptions also guide research studies, which
are generally aimed at exposing the lack of knowledge among people
and which advocate providing 'scientific information' to reduce the
above risks. Both the campaigns as well as the research (although the
former, in most instances, has emerged independent of the latter)
equate objective information with biomedical knowledge on sex and
HIV. These assumptions about h u m a n behaviour and the faith in the
power of scientific/medical knowledge are not shaken even when
research shows knowledge as failing to induce the desired or expected
behavioural outcomes. For instance, the failure by people to use
condoms in 'risky sex', despite possessing the relevant knowledge, is
not seen as a limitation of such theorising, but is r a t h e r interpreted as
indicating the need for a larger 'dose' of knowledge. The remedy
recommended is the spread of more information. Such an approach
ignores the understanding t h a t 'risk' is unequally distributed among
different social groups and the very perception of risks and people's
responses to these risks are culturally constructed and are often
constrained by their specific structural locations (Herdt and
Lindenbaum, 1992). Under such circumstances, information h a s a
limited role in raising the levels of risk perception especially in case of
young people.
Moreover, there is adequate understanding t h a t knowledge is not as
neutral as it is made out to be and it produces discursive practices t h a t

500 Leena Abraham
create differences and legitimise hierarchies (Harding, 1991; Lupton,
1994). Awareness campaigns apparently built on universal, objective
biomedical knowledge, may carry with it layers of messages t h a t in
effect are aimed at political and social control (Brown, 2000). Through
an analysis of the United Kingdom government's response to AIDS and
the language used in the educational campaigns by various public
health organisations, Brown (2000: 1273) shows t h a t the knowledge of
AIDS produced through these institutions construct discursive
boundaries between the idea of 'normal' and 'abnormal' behavioural
practices. He argues t h a t it is through the production, articulation and
normalisation of 'at risk' groups t h a t society is fragmented and, hence,
subject to the governance strategies of late modern liberal economies.
While information on HIV/AIDS and health promotion may be
desirable, the political and ideological content of these awareness
campaigns is problematic. They strengthen the authority of the state as
moral guardians and expand the power of medical ideology in
regimenting and regulating sexualities. As argued by Foucault (1976,
1977), in modern societies, sexuality becomes a fundamental arena for
the exercise of power through a web of disciplinary technologies and
apparatuses of surveillance. By medicalising that which is
predominantly a social concern, these campaigns divert attention from
local inequalities and the global economic and political forces that
generate AIDS scare and distribute AIDS care. Thus, through redefining
the meaning of 'risk' and creating 'high risk' groups and classifying 'risky
behaviours', these campaigns segregate and stigmatise individuals and
groups (Brown, 2000; Kane and Mason 1992;. Further, they posit the
responsibility for contracting the infection upon the individual and then
blame the victim in the event of infection for putting others (through
infection) and the state (for the economic loss) at risk (Lupton, 1993). The
concept of risk, thus, becomes a new ideological tool in the control and
management of groups and populations, not of AIDS (Douglas, 1990). As
Douglas points out, professionals now prefer to use the term 'risk' in
place of danger because 'plain danger does not have the aura of science or
afford the pretension of a possible precise calculation' (1990: 4)
The choice of language for communicating 'about AIDS and sex
shows t h a t internationally established t r u t h s about sex do not convert
into local languages as readily as the referential concept of language
presumes' as this process of 'cultural translation' is 'inevitably
enmeshed in conditions of power' (Pigg, 2001: 4). The transnational
flow of terminologies not only obfuscates the complexity of social
relationships, but imposes certain identities and categories where they
do not exist. The imposition of such categories on the one hand and the
assumption t h a t people have no knowledge or constructing their
knowledge as 'myths and misconceptions' on the other hand are both
problematic. For example, in non-Western societies, men who engage in
same sex relationships cannot be perceived as constituting homosexual

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 501
identity.19 We have to acknowledge t h a t people's sexuality 'knowledge'
is not a simple set of ideas but is constituted by sites, processes and
discourses t h a t r u n parallel to the biomedical discourses of sexuality
through the traditional cultural practices, alternate medical systems,
the modern sex clinics, and the footpath pornography in Indian
languages (Srivastava, 2001).
Yet another problem with these campaigns is t h a t there is a
tendency in these campaigns to see sexuality as a purely (or largely)
biological (or natural) phenomenon characterised by fixed sexual drives
that are essentially different for men and women, r a t h e r t h a n seeing
sexuality as a construct. The sexual experiences and the associated
health outcomes cannot be conceptualised without considering the
diverse constructions of sexuality. Besides sexual drives, sexuality
includes sexual identities, sexual norms, sexual practices and
behaviours, and also the subjective dimensions of the experience of sex.
Sexuality is socially constructed through complex processes of
scripting, influenced by various historical and cultural factors (Gagnon
and Simon, 1973). Conceptualising sexuality as a construct does not
deny the physiology of sexuality but holds t h a t the meanings attached
to desire and objects of desire and how individuals interpret their
sexual experiences are not just determined by personal experiences,
but largely by culture (Dworkin, 1987; MacKinnon, 1987 and 1989).
The cultural constructions are shaped by and also reflect the unequal
power relations in society. They not only reflect unequal gender
relations, but are the key elements in the gendering of inequality
(Holland, Ramazonoglu, Sharpe and Thomson, 1992; MacKinnon,
1989). The meanings and forms of sexuality differ across communities,
societies and groups and also differ across age groups (West, 1999),
social classes (Wight, 1994) and ethnic groups (Vance, 1984). The
diversity and multiplicity of meanings demonstrate t h a t sexuality is
not a monolithic concept and it may, therefore, be more appropriate to
speak of sexualities rather t h a n 'sexuality'.
While AIDS awareness campaigns have erred in promoting a limited
definition of sexuality, it is not unrealistic or idealistic to desire t h a t sex
education programmes in colleges need to focus on more liberatory
processes of sexuality t h a t challenge and redefine unequal gender
relations and make room for diverse constructions of sexuality. If the
sex education programmes recognise sexuality as a cultural
construction and young men as bearers and transmitters of sexual
knowledge schooled in pornography, the first lessons in sex education
would be to challenge these constructions. Educational programmes
that aim towards sexual health promotion among the youth need to
develop a framework t h a t recognises sexual pleasure, desire and erotic
experiences as being central to youth sexuality.
The findings show t h a t the official attempts to 'empower' individuals
and groups through objective information r u n parallel to young people's

502 Leena Abraham
efforts to u n d e r s t a n d and cope with their sexualities by navigating
through a barrage of discrete 'scientific' information, cultural practices,
pornography, and media images and messages. The youth struggle
with diverse discourses interspersed with technical medical terms,
cultural connotations and political messages. These struggles are
largely futile as they do not liberate them, but r a t h e r reinforce
patriarchal constructions and enhance personal vulnerabilities to
infections and undesired pregnancies.
I acknowledge the cooperation of the students who shared their experiences and
views with the research team, the commitment of the research team headed by Ms.
Urvi Vakaria, the support of the college authorities who agreed to stay out of our
data collection, the funding agency - the Rockefeller Foundation and the support of
the International Centre for Research on Women. Thanks to Ravi and Nishi for
critical comments and editorial help. And to Nirmala Momin for the typing
1. Although by now there is some consensus about providing sex education for
young people, a lingering apprehension continues among the guardians about
its potential for increasing sexual experimentation or promiscuity among their
wards. There is always doubt about how much to tell, who should tell, what is
the best age to start giving information, and so on. Yet, it is difficult to argue
against sex education in schools and colleges.
2. The students belonged to the lower socioeconomic strata of Mumbai, which is
reflected in the type and location of their residence (single room chawls and
slums), monthly family income (Rupees 5,000 [US$ 120] or less), parental
education and occupation. A majority of the students' fathers had completed
schooling only up to the secondary level, while the mothers had hardly studied
beyond the primary level. There were also first generation learners with illiterate
parents. The fathers were employed as mill workers, taxi drivers, watchmen,
police constables, clerks, peons, and so on. A few self-employed fathers were
engaged in small businesses or trade. Except for a few, the mothers did not work
for an income. Students belonged to different religions (mainly Buddhists, Hindus
and Muslims) and caste groups (mainly Dalits). Students from middle class and
upper caste families were a minority in all the four colleges.
The family's poor income status forced some of the students to take up
employment along with their studies. More boys and seniors worked for an
income. Working students are underrepresented in this study as they are more
frequently absent from college on account of their jobs. Their jobs included
giving tuition, secretarial jobs, and sales, while a few were employed in
small-scale manufacturing units. Except for a few working students, others had
very little personal money. For more than one-third of the boys and girls, the
monthly personal income did not exceed Rupees 100 (US$ 2.5).
3. Survey is a limited research tool to study awareness, especially about sexuality.
The information on awareness gathered from the survey is summarised in the
Appendix which contains Tables 1-7. The survey data on other themes have
been reported in detail in Abraham and Anil Kumar (1999).

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 503
4. The use of the terms 'boys' and 'girls' in this article should not be seen as being
paternalistic. Their usage should be seen strictly in the Indian context where
young men and women are addressed as 'boys' and 'girls' until they are married
or cross the marriageable age. With marriage, they attain the social status of
man and woman. Hence, the usage of 'girl' and 'boy' throughout the article,
although our respondents, the college students, were in their late adolescence or
early adulthood.
5. Understanding of own sexual body is taboo for women, while they may explore
'every inch of their body to identify the extra hair growth, blemishes and subject
themselves to a whole range of invasive painful and harmful cosmetic
procedures' (Chandita Mukherjee, during a discussion on a sexuality reader at
the Comet Media Foundation in February 2002). Self-exploration of genitals by
girls is perceived as a threat to the notions of femininity, while such exploration
by boys is seen as normal.
6. There are some source materials prepared by community-based organisations
and women's groups that address sexuality in a broader context. These are
7. As Pigg (1998) points out, at a superficial level, this distancing allows a public
discussion of a taboo subject such as sex. The comfort in the abstract discussion
comes from the fact that it does not disturb the power relations between the
educator (often a teacher) and those being educated.
8. Words placed within double quotes in the interview excerpts are words used by
the respondents.
9. Gender differences, sexual ideology and double standards in the constructions of
youth sexuality are discussed in Abraham (2001).
10. A few boys learnt about nightfall from a male teacher (reported in boys' school)
who talked about it in class and reassured them that it was part of growing up.
11. Any perceived 'loss' of male sexuality (semen loss, virility) can be compensated.
Not merely compensated, but can be transformed into a 'gain' (body building
through diet and exercises). But not so in the case of female sexuality. Perceived
loss of virginity outside marriage is an irredeemable loss and sets off a series of
'losses' (honour, status, peace, and so on) for her and her family. Only within
marriage it is rewarded.
12. These observations are based on the sex education classes held in two colleges
included in the study, from the source materials prepared for this purpose, and
also from the training modules used by teachers. See Panthaki (1997).
13. Some of the general retorts from teachers included 'animals do not go for sex
education, 'how come our poor country has such a huge population', 'have all
these poor people learnt about sex through sex education', and so on.
14. The campaigns do not clarify or address specific issues of 'AIDS prevention'
within marriage. For instance, questions such as 'how can women have children
if they have to insist on condoms because their husbands engage in
premarital/extramarital sex?' are ignored.
15. Students drew attention to the specific Nirodh and Kohinoor (brands of
condoms) advertisements quite common at the time of data collection.
16. The campaigns reflect patriarchal messages. The birth control or population
control campaigns target women, especially poor women, through controlling
their sexuality and by vesting the responsibility on them. The AIDS control
campaigns exhort men to use condoms so that they do not 'catch' the infection.
Male sexual freedom is not curbed. As one campaign message targeted at men
said, 'when you mix business with pleasure, do not forget to carry condoms'.

504 Leena Abraham
17. Studies reported in Khanna and others (2002), Bott and others (2003), and Parker
18. For instance, one of the colleges from where data was collected had separate
stairs for girls and boys. In another college, respondents reported that a girl who
was pregnant was asked to leave the college.
19. The Kothis, Panthis, Hijras, and so on, in the Indian context. Similarly, the
complex categories of heterosexual partnerships (bhai-behen, 'true love',
'time-pass' relationships) among youth cannot be merged into a simplified
notion of 'boyfriend - girlfriend' relationship (Abraham, 2002a).
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508 Leena Abraham
TABLE 1: Knowledge of Condoms
TABLE 2: Knowledge of STDs a m o n g S t u d e n t s

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 509
Note: Figures in parentheses denote the percentages.

510 Leena Abraham
TABLE 4: S o u r c e s of Information about P r e g n a n c y and Abortion
Boys (n)
Girls (n)
Movies/ blue films
Sex education Programmes
Mass media
Own experience
Don't know
No response
Note: The 'n' includes multiple responses.
TABLE 5: Sources of Information about Contraception
Boys (n)
Girls (n)
Doctors and nurses
Mass media
Sex education programmes
Movies/ Blue films
Own experience
Don't know
No response
Note : The 'n' includes multiple responses.
TABLE 6: Sources of Information about STIs
Sources of information
Boys (n)
Girls (n)
Mass media
Sex education programmes
Movies/ Blue films
Parents/ Relatives
Own experience
Don't know
No response
Note: The 'n' includes multiple responses.

AIDS Awareness Campaigns, Sex Education Programmes... 511
TABLE 7: Sources of Information about AIDS
Sources of Information
Boys (n)
Girls (n)
Sex education programmes
Mass media
Movies/ Blue films
Parents/ Relatives
Don't know
No response
Note: The 'n' includes multiple responses.