The need for reforming sex education: My formative years
By: Swikriti Kattel
Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
During my formative years, my self-esteem and social skills were damaged by pathetically inadequate sex education and the generationally perpetuated notion that teaches young girls that their worth is dependent on male attention and validation.
I endured long-term trauma during high school, which induced complex mental health issues.
After experiencing social anxiety and depression for years, I made an appointment with the university counsellor. I rocked up to my first appointment and told him that my social anxiety was affecting my social life and mental health.
He asked me to tell him about my past. I knew a counsellor would dig into my past to get to the root of my misery, but it made me more uncomfortable than I had imagined.
In my first session, I tried to ‘take control’ of the narrative. I traced the cause of my problems to my torturous ‘graveyard shifts’ at a fast-food restaurant and the frequent racist experiences I encountered almost every other day. I explained how I felt judged, humiliated and not accepted by the people around me.
He told me it was likely that my work experience caused my social anxiety to flare. But he also encouraged me to open up more about my past.
I was not ready to dig any further into my past. I’d had social anxiety before I worked at the fast-food joint, but I did not want to tell him that.
I continued with the counselling sessions and started taking an anti-depressant. Slowly, I began to recuperate. I joined a social club at university, engaging in impactful work and making good friends in the process. I was beginning to be able to push through bouts of depression and find contentment in small things I did.
During this time, I started dating a guy I’d met on a dating site some months back and we fell in love.
An uneasiness lingered. I realised how dependant I had become on other people’s validation and how I was so harsh on myself.
Whenever my partner exhibited any anger or annoyance, I blamed myself to the point where I shut off entirely or started crying. My partner and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
Image: Priscilla Du Preez
One day, my partner was at work when my ex-boyfriend – my ‘high-school sweetheart’ – called. We had remained “good friends” even after we separated, but I had not talked to him since I got together with my partner.
For some reason, talking to him felt wrong. He texted me to say he was away from home and wanted to talk. I could tell what he was expecting and told him I was seeing someone. He apologised and the conversation ended.
When my partner came home, I mentioned the call.
“He only calls you when he is away from home. Are you sure he is as good a friend you think he is?” he asked.
I tried to dismiss his concern and told him there was nothing to worry about.
I was usually articulate and expressive when sharing stories about my past with my partner, but I was brief with the story of my ex-boyfriend. This time, my partner admitted that he felt insecure about the issue and didn’t let it go. He kept prodding and I became extremely agitated and told him not to push me.
It led to a heated conversation and floodgates of buried memories burst open. I was overcome with a deluge of emotions so strong that I broke down completely, crying and screaming at the top of my lungs.
“You don’t understand because I have not told you the full story. In fact, I have not told anyone the full story; all that people know are fragments,” I said, bawling.
He looked so guilty and apologetic. He took me to the bedroom and comforted me until I could sit up and talk.
As I recounted the story, I realised it was my first time reflecting on what had happened to me. I had buried it so deep.
Being able to share the story with him felt liberating, but flashbacks of the unwanted memories came surging in, making me feel worse day after day.
The only solution I saw was to talk this through what I remembered with my ex-boyfriend, with whom the real issue lay. I needed to know what he thought of it; if he even remembered what he had put me through. Also, I wanted to release the resentment I had built up.
I texted him, typing my heart out to let him know how disturbingly unusual the start of our “relationship” was – that in our early teens, we had already felt each other’s genitals before holding hands or sharing a kiss. I reminded him of the times he forced me to feel his penis on the school bus and the pressure to send him nudes every other day, and how he would emotionally blackmail me when I would say no. I reminded him of the time we had sex – how he put two fingers inside me and was so relentless, how I asked him multiple times to get them out, how I kept pushing his hand away until there was no energy left in me. I remember that I cried for a while and then fell asleep as I was exhausted. I remembered that for all these years I had suppressed it so deeply and consciously distorted the incident in my memory; overwriting it as if it was consensual when it was clearly not. I remembered how he criticised my appearance and compared my physical features and intelligence with other girls he was attracted to when I was seeking validation. All in all, I believed it was the only romantic connection I deserved because I was not good enough for anyone. It absolutely crushed my self-esteem.
I received a backhanded apology from him, which was infuriating, but I decided that his role in my journey was over and I was going to focus solely on myself.
A few days after I sent the message, I had another session booked with my counsellor. I hadn’t seen him since I opened up to my partner about my previous relationship and I was looking forward to this session.
I wanted to be able to open up with my counsellor and seek advice about how to cope with the flashbacks and the jarring emotions I was experiencing. I told him the story with all its gory details.
He let out a sigh and said, “I had no idea you went through something like that – do you realise you were sexually groomed?”
I realised that the reason I had hidden this episode of my life was that I always advocated against emotional abuse, rape and sexual assault. I had helped friends speak up and press charges against their harasser, but I had let the same thing happen to me and not done anything about it – even when it had such a major role in shaping my relationships, mental health and my self-worth. I couldn’t accept the fact that I was unable to retaliate against a guy who was just a couple of years older than me.
No matter how often I preached that there was no need to feel shame and guilt about sexual abuse, and that shame should belong to the abuser, I was living with the same inherent shame and guilt.
I knew that sexual grooming involved someone in power taking advantage of the more vulnerable. I was not, however, ready to admit that I had been sexually groomed by someone I hadn’t realised had power over me. I had not realised ‘power’ could appear in so many different forms.
It took several counselling sessions and conversations with my loved ones for me to come to peace with the fact that I had been wronged, that I was not weak for letting this happen to me and that I did not deserve any of it.
Everything started making sense. My social anxiety and shattered self-esteem had an explanation – I could comprehend why I always felt like I was watched and judged and that I had to continually prove my worth, leading to shocking anxiety and self-doubt.
It was the experience of being scrutinised, constantly, and being compared with others for my personality, looks, intelligence and actions during my most vulnerable years – the developmental years that were meant to shape my identity and personality.
I started to accept the fact that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me. I realised that with therapy, and being kinder to myself, I could get over my self-doubts and feel confident in my own skin.
Another huge relief was to discover that my struggle to connect with people and to trust them stemmed from trauma due to my previous relationship and that I was actually capable of forming real friendships and companionships, feeling loved, and being able to love and trust people again.
Months have passed by. I am now able to express my opinion more easily. I am growing closer and closer to my partner and we have moved in together. I am starting to be able to indulge in creative writing without the fear of criticism and have been keeping a journal for myself, too.
I feel that there is a need to analyse what I went through on a larger scale. Why was I – a girl in her early teens – so desperate for attention and validation from a guy that I kept on dealing with all the emotional abuse, criticism and non-consensual sexual acts without speaking up against it, not even once? Why was the guy not at all aware of the need for consent and the implications of abuse and manipulation? Why do young people struggle to navigate sexual relationships, emotional relationships, and sexual responsibilities? Why are some young people unaware of sexual orientation, gender identities and trans rights?
When I recall the ‘sex education’ we received in school, all it ever taught us was biological information about cisgender males and females. It didn’t even mention safe sex but used the term ‘family planning’ tactically to rule out any reference to sex ‘outside of marriage’.
Some schools, now, have better sex education. Still, it is nowhere near sufficient. How can we expect a world without mental health issues, sexual assaults, rape, homophobia, violence against the transgender community, and male entitlement over women’s bodies with such terrible sex education and perpetuation of harmful gender stereotypes as well as gender roles around the globe?
It breaks my heart when I imagine the confident woman I could have been. I try to look back and empathise with that creative and intelligent mind that once thought it was dull and useless. I apologise to my body, which has been through a lot but is still standing fit and strong.
And, finally, I pay homage to all the opportunities that slipped away from me. Society always finds ways to engender trauma on women and minorities, one way or the other, hindering us from living up to our potential. A full recuperation seems like a long way ahead – however, retrospectively, I am immensely proud of my progress thus far.
Apart from the daily 9 to 5 grind in the consulting industry, Swikriti indulges in creative writing – especially opinion articles geared toward social issues, as she is passionate about social justice and is always looking out for opportunities to contribute in that space. She also enjoys listening to melancholic folk tunes and watching psychologically bizarre and unsettling movies.