When was the first time you learned about sex? For many of us, it was before we turned 18, regardless of whether we had the correct information.
Bombay Begums came under fire for its depiction of minors (high-schoolers) engaging in sexual activities. It brought up the debate of how sexuality in media affects children and whether they should even consume such content. But if this is something we all knew in school and probably participated in during our teenage years, what’s the big deal? Why is it problematic, and why should we talk about it?
Sexual Development Begins Early
Sexual development, sexuality, and sex are often used interchangeably in our conversations.
Sexual development, like any other form of human development, begins right when we are born. Health studies show that it is normal for children, as young as 7, to be curious about their bodies and have questions about sex. The way our parents and our school respond to these questions forms our first lessons in sexuality.
So if our parents reacted negatively, in aggression, or disgust, or disapproval, it leads us to believe that anything related to sex, including our feelings and our bodies, is wrong.
In an Indian family, these conversations are almost non-existent. I cannot recall one incident, apart from talking about periods, where my parents spoke to me about sex. If I ever asked, they ignored me or lied to me.
This makes children see their parents as less credible sources and discourages them from opening up about uncomfortable, or even dangerous, situations that may come up later in their life. When parents actively disengage from these topics, that is when pre-teens or teens turn to media for answers.
Sex Is Everywhere (Well… Sexual Content)
I was 15 or 16 when my friends and I watched Fifty Shades of Grey. As an adult now, I am aware that the movie was problematic, but did I know that while watching it? Absolutely not!
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to such depictions because they’re not cognitively developed enough to understand them, let alone critique them. It sets a dangerous precedent as to what is considered attractive, romantic, and consensual. It develops their beliefs and ideas not only about sexuality but also gender identity and gender roles.
This is why some of us can recall emulating the behaviours or ideas we watched on screen. These messages can be, ‘boys should always make the first move’, ‘girls don’t have the same sexual desires as boys’, ‘girls shouldn’t approach first’, or ‘saying no is only teasing’.
Is Abstinence the Answer?
The only form of sex education most of us received was ‘abstinence until marriage’. It advocates for monogamy, heterosexuality, and presents ‘virginity’ as ‘purity’. This is a result of our religious and cultural belief systems that view pre-marital sex as disgraceful or immoral.
And it never works.
Despite the number of times we had been morally policed, we still went out and sought these experiences. Or at least, were curious about it.
With insufficient information about contraceptives and STDs, teenagers can put themselves and others at a health risk. Moreover, the shame attached to sex can make a teen, who might be exploring their sexuality, feel guilty and ashamed of their body.
Think about the days when we were teenagers. There was this tag of popularity that came along with knowing anything about sex. And if we didn’t find answers at home, we found them through the media.
To paraphrase what Ross O’Hara, a Psychological Scientist said,
“Between the ages of 10 and 15, the tendency to seek more novel and stimulating experiences of all kinds is higher. Combined with the fact that the brain is still developing, it makes it harder for teens to think logically.
Therefore, the movies give them a kind of ‘sexual script’ on how to behave when confronted with complicated, emotional situations.”
Generally, teens are extremely private. So, if parents had not spoken to them about such topics in their growing years, it is unlikely that they will approach their parents at this stage.
So Then, #Cancel Bombay Begums?
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) had asked Netflix to remove Bombay Begums from its platform. Their reasons cited, “wrongful depiction of children that will pollute young minds and may also result in the abuse and exploitation of children at the hands of perpetrators”.
I will exclude the other scenes discussed in the report, which show underage drinking and drug use. Instead, I want to focus on the following scenes.
14-year-old Shai has a crush on her classmate Imran Siddiqui. In one scene, her classmates are talking about attending a party where they plan to dress up in ‘something shimmery, something slutty’.
In another scene, a schoolgirl is sending pictures of her breasts to Imran, but mocks Shai because hers are still not ‘developed’. Shai’s mom reassures her that she needs to live for herself, and does not have to impress any guy.
Let’s also remove the religious angle in the argument; the Hindu-Muslim dynamic.
Okay, tell me I’m not the only one who related to this scene! In my opinion, the director aimed to show the body-image insecurities of a teenage girl who felt the need to sexualise herself to impress her crush.
Mainstream movies have a patriarchal and sexist gaze that makes young girls feel the need to sexualise themselves to be loved and accepted. I was constantly made fun of for my bra size in high school. I was extremely insecure about it, especially when my then-crushes or boyfriends made comments on it too.
For the ones criticising the scene or supporting the ban of the show; if you’re on that side, and have no biases regarding the religious angle, I wonder if you feel the same about Sex Education? Or other TV shows, like Riverdale, Atypical, One Tree Hill, that depict high-schoolers in the same way?
What I do have an issue with is the age of the actors playing teenagers in Bombay Begums. From Aadhya Anand’s Instagram, the actor who plays Shai, her age is probably 13 or 14 years. However, I could not find the ages of the other actors who play her classmates.
The narrative or the storyline is not wrong. But when the actors are minors and play such scenes, it raises an ethical issue and is wrong. In series like Sex Education, which also surrounds the lives of high-schoolers, adults play these roles.
Who Should Be Responsible?
Um… parents. Period.
It is ridiculous that the burden of responsibility is placed on directors, actors, and music artists, to censor their work because children watch their content. Parents are the ones who should be mindful of the content their children consume.
Bombay Begums, and similar shows, come up with an 18+ rating. Moreover, banning the shows will not stop children from seeking this content from somewhere else.
It has been proved in many research studies that exposure to sexual content in media does not have a drastic effect on teenagers. They don’t reject the values and information they have acquired since childhood from their parents or other adults in their life. Yes, movies do have an impact on their behaviour.
For example, I believed I needed to appeal to the male gaze when I was younger, but I was always extremely anxious when it came to sex. While I derived my understanding of sexuality from movies, my anxiety came from the values I was taught as a child.
So, if you are a parent or a soon-to-be one, please:
- Begin and encourage conversations about sexuality (according to their age and level of development) early on.
- Educate them that gender identity is theirs to define.
- Tell your teenagers that there is no pressure to be sexually active.
- Reassure them that their home is a safe space. That they can talk about any difficult feelings, their changing identities, or any concerns about their body.
Because when I was a teenager, I wished my mom told me that I didn’t have to change the way I looked for a boy. That I was beautiful, and my anxieties and insecurities were valid and normal.
So, instead of blaming the world and its media, let’s start with us, shall we?