When my sister, Usha, reached the age of thirteen my mother started to fret about finding her a husband. In India in those days, girls married very young. Life was often short; you had to get on with the business of living before you died.
My sister did not want to think about getting married. She was enjoying being a girl. She enjoyed playing in the rain, swimming in the river and climbing trees.
Mother would scold her saying, ‘How do you expect anyone to want to marry you when you always look so untidy? Look at your hair, look at the mud on your clothes. You are a young woman now. It’s time you stopped all these childish pursuits!’ But my sister did not listen. She was enjoying herself too much.
One day we had a visit from the merchant in the market and his son. They wanted to speak to my father about when our crops would be ready to take to market.
“You must ask my wife about that sort of thing,” said my father. She and my daughter and the servants take care of the crops.”
Usha who was hiding behind the door in the next room felt herself fill with pride. I saw her straighten up and look important when father mentioned that she was in charge of the crops. She peeped round the corner and her eyes met the eyes of the merchant’s son. I have never seen my sister acting as strangely as she did on that morning. She happened to be clean and tidy as it was early in the day and she had not had time to get muddy. She stepped boldly from the shadows and said:
“Father, Mother and I would be very pleased to show Mr. Mehta our fields. We can tell him exactly what we have grown and when we hope it will be ready,” and she looked across at the young man, a very handsome youth of about sixteen and smiled demurely.
“Very well, Usha, I’m sure Mother will be very glad of your help,” replied Father, and he disappeared leaving us to show the merchant and his son our crops. I say us, because I certainly did not want to miss out on watching my sister in this new role she had suddenly taken on. It was a transformation. My sister, instead of laughing, running and skipping was walking quietly behind my mother who was discussing business with Mr. Singh. His son had certainly noticed her. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
My sister asked the young man if he worked in the market with his father.
“Indeed I do, Miss, but I do not work on Saturdays. Can I come and call on you?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to ask my father,” said Usha, blushing. She chatted away to the young man about all sorts of things. I soon lost interest and wandered off.
That evening my sister asked my father at the dinner table if the young man could come to call on her on Saturday. My father stopped eating and looked very serious.
“Ah, my daughter, I see a change is coming to us. I see we need to talk about your future. I have nothing against the young man personally. Indeed he is a fine young man. However, he is not of the same background as you. He is not a Brahmin, he is one of the merchant classes, not a high enough caste for this family. If you were to see him and you were to do everything he wanted you to do, you would soon be very close indeed. So close that there would be no space for even a piece of hay to be squeezed between you, then you would have to marry the boy and bring up your child according to his caste.
Tell me this, Usha? Do you enjoy the way of life that we have? Do you like to have a big house and land and servants to help you? How would you feel if you lived in a tiny shack and spent most of your time out in the sun working very hard in between rearing your babies with no help at all?”
Usha looked very serious. “I don’t think I would like that very much, Father,” she said.
“Then why not wait and give yourself properly in marriage to a suitable young man who will provide you with a lifestyle that you are accustomed to. There is plenty of time in spite of what your mother says. She was eighteen when I married her. She refused many suitors before her perfect man came along…”
My Father looked meaningfully at mother before he turned and left the room.
Usha looked down cast. “What do you think, Mother?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any hurry really, dear. I do agree with Father that it is best to keep your love and your body to yourself until someone suitable in every way comes along. You can be sure that he will. How many unmarried women do you know?”
My sister could not think of any at all.
“Well, my dear, best keep yourself to yourself, stay chaste rather than be chased, that’s what my mother used to say to me! And when a really good suitable hunter comes along, you will be able to enjoy the chase!” My Mother patted Usha. A silence followed. My sister stood up looking wistful.
“Well, I’m off out to climb a tree. You coming Ramu?” she sighed.
“I’m glad you’re not going to get married yet,” said I. “It’s good to have someone to climb trees with. Father says I’m too old to be climbing trees, but I love it!”
Society is gradually becoming more mixed up these days, as education allows those with ability from the lower classes to have good jobs and earn good incomes. In modern times we say that everyone is equal, all human beings are due the same respect.
Usha’s father was worried that she might fall in love with a young man who could not provide her with the sort of life that she was used to. This is a practical consideration and a matter of real concern for parents, then as now. In those days, (and indeed even now in some areas of countries such as India and Pakistan) girls got married as soon as their periods started. This was to make sure that if a girl became pregnant, she and the child would belong to a family that would be able to support them both emotionally and financially. Although the girls were very immature, the extended family system would look after the young parents and help them to bring up their children. The girl’s mother-in-law would always be available.
GUIDANCE ON SEXUAL SELF-CONTROL
This is a tricky subject for many people in today’s world because we live in a liberal society, in the western world at least, where unlimited sex can appear to be OK. It is particularly difficult for young people who somehow have to find a sensible way for themselves through all this freedom.
What is a sensible way? Pressure from friends, from TV ‘soaps’, from magazines and from advertising all seem to spell out a message that anything goes. People need to bear in mind many things before they start a sexual relationship. When puberty arrives and our bodies change and sex hormones start to make us feel attracted to the opposite sex, it can be very tempting to start to experiment with sex. But at that stage in our lives it is a dangerous game to play. Maturity helps us to make better decisions.
When people are more mature sex adds to the joys of a loving relationship, but it is important that the love comes first, not the sex. It is true that love sometimes follows sex and this is because sex can be such a powerful experience, but this creates great difficulties between people. Relationships built on sexual attraction alone soon become weak because all the other things that make a strong relationship may be missing. Things such as shared values, interests, family backgrounds and education are the true basis of relationship. Sexual appreciation should come after these aspects are considered. Sex is a promise of loving attention to the other person, but many people have forgotten this. They have short-term meaningless relationships, often of the sort where one of the partners ends up feeling ‘used’.
Sexuality is a beautiful gift to be enjoyed in sexual intercourse or we can choose to express it’s energy and excitement in other ways, through our creativity, dancing or singing or other exciting experiences. Casual sex is an empty, meaningless and dangerous activity. On the other hand sex in a loving and committed partnership strengthens the bonds between partners and brings them closer in understanding. That is not to say that the sex act is an essential activity in all loving partnerships. Some people find that it becomes unnecessary in their relationship at a certain age. Others continue their sexual activities into their sixties and seventies and consider it to be a very important part of life.
All creatures have an instinct to reproduce. Human beings are drawn to reproduce and form lasting relationships in order to look after their young. For us sex is a means of creating children and also a means of giving and receiving deep and loving pleasure. Sex is fun and is there to be enjoyed. It is a very strong desire in humankind but if it is treated with disrespect, it can lead to many problems.
When people have careless sexual relationships, the result is that fatherless babies are born to girls and women who are ill equipped to look after them. This is happening all over the world. In the UK figures in the year 2007 showed that we have more teenage pregnancies than any other country in Europe. Many children are brought up by only one parent. For the children this creates a huge gap in their lives, either having no father or sometimes no mother. The young parents miss out on having a supportive and loving partner to share the joys and also the many difficulties of bringing up a family. It can be a very hard and lonely job for the single parent.
Girls may decide to have an abortion, a very difficult decision to make. Occasionally, if old-fashioned methods are used, they may have difficulties in becoming pregnant later on when they do have a loving partner and they both want a family. Although there are many modern solutions to unwanted pregnancy, they do not come without a price: Pressure might be put on a girl to have casual sex because of the easy availability of contraception and ‘morning after’ pills and she could pick up one of the many sexually transmitted diseases. Some of these diseases cause sterility (being unable to have babies), some are difficult to treat medically and may affect people for the whole of their lives; some such as AIDS are often fatal. Although these diseases are relatively uncommon, more and more people are affected by them, especially people who are promiscuous (those who have casual sexual intercourse with many partners)
So when dealing with sex the first consideration is respect for oneself and for the other person who is involved. It is best to let sex develop in committed relationships. Perhaps the relationship will not turn out as you hoped, but at least you will have loved and respected the other person, and were also loved and respected yourself.
We need to understand how our bodies work. It is dangerous to hide behind ignorance and the excitement of being swept away by the moment. If we do decide we are mature enough to cope with the possible results of pregnancy, then the safest way we can do this is to use contraception properly. It does not come with a hundred percent guarantee of safety, either from pregnancy or from picking up a disease, but it does reduce the likelihood of either or both, depending on the method used.*2
In the West it is now considered quite normal for children to learn about their own bodies by touching them and getting used to the sensations produced. It is not something to feel guilty about and for some people it releases tensions and removes the distraction of sexual thoughts. In the West girls and boys do go out with each other before marriage. Young people have to decide what is responsible behaviour, and ‘how far they can go’ without risk to their health, happiness, or to their future. Sober, clear-headed decisions are required to keep you out of trouble.
The average age of first sexual experience with another person in the UK in the 1990s was 17 for girls and 15 for boys, but most of those who had had early sexual experiences said they wished they had waited longer*. They had been pushed into experimenting with people they had no real feelings for, or had acted out of curiosity. Some had been under the influence of drink or drugs which dull the mind and make bad decisions more likely. Once a young person starts this kind of activity it can become harder to refuse the next time or the next person. Are young teenagers really ready for serious relationships, which could result in pregnancy and the responsibility of bringing up children, or for making agonising decisions about abortion? The world trumpets sex in nearly every advertisement, in most TV programmes, in magazines and in newspapers. It is easy to be taken in by all this publicity and to want to join in with what appears to be going on. Thoughtful people do not act in careless and irresponsible ways. The subject clearly needs some very careful thought and discussion before decisions are made.
Questions to ask yourself, or to discuss with friends, parents and teachers
· What to look for in a relationship?
· What makes a good relationship?
· What sort of peer pressure is there in relationships? (Peers are people of our own age)
· What sort of pressure may we get from a partner?
· Where can I get information about sex education? *2
* National Children’s Bureau, leaflet 158, Highlight 1998.
· Ref.4. Wellings, K and others (1994) Sexual Behaviour in Britain: The National Survey of Sexual attitudes and Life styles. Penguin
· Ref. 16. Thompson, R and Scott, (1991) Learning about Sex: Young women and the social construction of sexual identity
*2 Materials and information are available from Sex Education Forum < National Children’s Bureau, 8, Wakley Street, London ECIV 7QE Tel 020 7843 6056