WATCH NOW: 5 Tips on Changing Mindsets Through Conversations by Anju Kish

Challenges make life interesting. Overcoming them makes life meaningful. Sex and sexuality have been taboo topics in our country for generations. Children grow up with nil or wrong information, ideas and notions about their body and about human relationships. It impacts not just the understanding of these very fundamental concepts but also our behavior towards others and society in general.

Untaboo – A Mumbai-based Sex & Safety Education Company has dedicated itself to breaking the taboos around sex and sexuality through awareness talks, workshops and parent-child discussions. Its Founder, Anju Kish, is a mother of two, journalist turned award winning author, sex educator and Tedx Speaker. She has set herself on the path to provide accurate, age-appropriate sex education to children and adolescents thereby making sexuality and safety education acceptable and accessible to all. In a conversation with Samira Pillai, she shares her thoughts on what keeps her going despite the strong walls of silence and how she is bringing the subject into mainstream.

Please tell us what drove you to sex education as a subject.

I began my career as a writer and journalist, and then moved to advertising and copywriting. I took a sabbatical when my baby was young and started freelancing as a writer. When my son was about six or seven, he started asking me a lot of questions about how babies get into the tummy, which typically every child does. I wanted to give him the right answers, without making up any fairytales. So, I started looking for resources to help me answer his questions. Unfortunately, the Internet was not what it is today. The existing resources were very few, did not answer those questions and were very adult-oriented.

I found a few resources abroad, which were good and spoke to a child in their language. I thought to myself – we have nothing like this in India, I am a writer… why don’t I do something? If I’m struggling to find answers, I’m sure there are others like me struggling to answer their kids’ queries too. There was so much we needed to be talking to our kids about, but no conversations were happening, and I decided to pick up the baton, so to say. I quit my career as a copywriter and ventured into the field of sex education.

I did hundreds of hours of research, started working on a book on the subject, while scouring for some formal study on the subject. Surprisingly there were no courses offered in the subject, but ultimately I came across a short course conducted by Dr. Rajan Bhonsle. It was a comprehensive program and I learnt a lot from it. I then spent close to one-and-a-half years creating content for children and transforming it into a program which was child-friendly had games and was interactive and impactful. Finally, in 2011, I launched my company.

In the nine years that you’ve been in this field, what kind of changes have you observed?

When I started my company, it was called ‘Out of the Box’, because sex education at that time was an out-of-the-box idea. At that point of time, the doors were quite tightly shut to sex education. More than workshops for the children, we started doing mind unblocking talks for parents, stressing on the importance of this education in their child’s life. We had to decode sex education for people, we had to emphasise that sex education is not a talk on sex. It is an ongoing conversation on body, positively accepting changes, emotions, relationship, safety, consent, empathy, respect and so much more. The change was slow, but it was there.

However, since the last 3-4 years, we have seen this change pick-up speed. There are still mind blocks, but they are breaking slowly. More people are now open to sex education for their children, though there are ifs & buts around it still. The increasing exposure of children to adult content made us realise that Sex education cannot be treated as an out of the box concept, it needs to be brought out into the mainstream by breaking the taboos around it. So we re-branded ourselves and Out of the Box gave way to UnTaboo.

Since your workshops cater to different age groups, how does the language and tonality for the workshops and the content that you are creating for them differ?

The content changes with the age group since we cater to kids from age 5 to almost 21. What doesn’t change is the tonality. We have created a style, which really works for us. The language used is very easy and lucid. We try to simplify concepts as much as possible, using metaphors and analogies to explain concepts. This helps people tide over their embarrassment and open up. We use a lot of humour, doodle illustrations and animated videos, to connect with children and parents.

Can you tell us more about the visual components of UnTaboo?

With sex education, people think of science and biology. They expect the website to be very academic, maybe a little dull and boring. We wanted to move away from that. Sex education is a sensitive and important topic. But who says that learning it can’t be fun? We wanted to create a pleasant and comfortable space. We knew using very cartoonish images makes it very child-centric, and we are not just dealing with children. We deal with adolescents, young adults, parents and also corporates at times. We wanted something which appealed across the generations and found that caricatures and doodles appeal to people across the board.

The first point of contact for these workshops would be the parents. How do you connect with parents to start this conversation and break mindsets? And how do you further transition to the children?

It’s always been the parents that we have to reach out to. I call them the gatekeepers and only when they are convinced with our work that they give us access to their children. Being brought up in India, we all have notions about things. Some are ‘formed’ notions based on our experiences and learnings, while others are ‘preconceived’ notions, passed on from one generation to the other. Unfortunately, sex education is one such preconceived notion that needs to be changed.

I’ve found that people change their minds when they see logic or value in what we are saying. We do a lot of mind-unblocking and awareness talks with parents, organizations and schools, logically trying to tackle the resistance to sex education, stressing on the importance of this education backed by research papers and real life examples. And we see a big shift after such talks. The preconceived notions give way to new thoughts and perspectives, helping untaboo sex education.

Secondly, we’ve had fantastic word-of-mouth publicity. People who have attended our workshops highly recommend us to other parents. They also send their older or younger kids to us while also waiting to bring back their kids for the next level of talks. Our work has expanded purely on recommendations and we have reached from 0 to over 1 lakh people touched completely organically.

Changing mindsets of others is a very different ball game from changing your own. Have you ever had to dig deeper to change thought-processes?

Image courtesy: untaboo.in

Image courtesy: untaboo.in

We are constantly working to change the thought processes as far as sex education is concerned. There are deeply entrenched reservations and we have to work doubly hard to break through those resistances. I always say that sex education is like a fire extinguisher – there is no real need felt. The threat of fire is very real and yet, most people don’t keep a fire extinguisher at home because they feel it’s not going to happen to them. A building will have a fire extinguisher because it’s mandatory, but very few individual homes have them as they don’t feel a strong enough need. However, the moment there is a minor accident at home, or a fire breaks out in the neighbourhood, people rush to buy fire extinguishers.

That is exactly how it is in the field of sex education. Most people don’t feel a strong enough need for it unless there is a trigger. However, when they find porn sites on their child’s laptop search history or there are cases like the Bois locker room, child abuse cases in schools or even the Nirbhaya case for that matter, the threat suddenly seems very real and acts as a trigger. Calls to our office increase, parents and schools wanting details about our programs. I really hope that parents realise the importance of this education, and don’t wait for triggers and fears to lead them to it.

What are you doing to put out the message that there is value in sex education? 

To be able to see value or merit in anything, the first thing people need to do is open their eyes to even cast a glance at it. So, we at UnTaboo have been exploring various formats to reach out to different audiences and get them comfortable enough to explore it and then see the value for themselves.

‘Break the wall of silence’ is my mind unblocking talk for adults, then we have a highly entertaining musical Play on Puberty titled ‘Growing Up’ which brings parents and children on the same platform and helps educate while breaking the ice between then on these sensitive topics. My blogs for parents at anjukishblogs.com and my expert columns at TweakIndia.com are focused on explaining concepts easily to parents, so that they can then impart this education to their children.

My first book is focused on young kids and the next two are for teens. I do Ted talks to make people see the possibilities of change sex education can bring, not just for the children but to the society at large. I also use the platform of Stand-Up comedy to make people laugh about their mind sets and thus plant a seed for thought there. Besides these, ofcourse, we offer age wise and grade wise workshops for children as in school and out of school programs. From time to time, we also do music video, short videos and thought provoking posts on our social media to untaboo sex education.

The UnTaboo School Programs are usually a once a year intervention, where we do sessions for Grade 1 to grade 12 plus sessions for Teachers, Parents and Non-Teaching Staff. When we go back the next year, we add on to the knowledge base from our last intervention with them. An idea scenario however is when you can have multiple interactions with the children in one academic year. You take a session with them and then go back after a few months, when they have had time to process that information and take any further questions they have, before adding on more information to their knowledge base.

All of this cannot be easy to manage. How do you accomplish this so proactively?

I was a one-woman army for a long time. Then along the journey, people started joining me, people who believed in the cause. Today too, UnTaboo has a very lean team, but frankly, being a small company does not make much difference because the motivation to bring about a change is very strong.

The difficult part initially was tackling people’s reactions towards me being a sex educator. Introducing myself as one to the family was slightly difficult, facing jokes and sly comments by friends was another. But over time, I got used to it and they realized what sex education was not about sex, but about education and their attitudes changes. UnTaboo is listed as a sex education company on Google and we have realized that the word ‘education’ becomes invisible when placed next to the word ‘sex’, thus we receive a lot of calls from people looking for ‘sex’!! It makes us even more determined to change this mindset about the word sex and untaboo sex education.

Humor plays an important part in the conversation around this subject. What other traits are necessary, especially when discussing sensitive and discomforting subjects like sex education?

Humour plays a very important role in helping people tide over their embarrassment of having conversations on such sensitive topics. The other very crucial trait to make this conversation comfortable is a non-judgemental attitude. Questions mostly come from a place of confusion or ignorance. It may appear shocking or offensive to you, but we have to understand that it is coming from a place of curiosity. If a person is open and daring enough to ask, then you better not judge them. At UnTaboo, there is no judgment. But children or teenagers initially test us by throwing shocking questions as us, but we answer it with the same sincerity, as if it were being asked with the intention of actually knowing. They soon realise that we are being very genuine in our answers, we are not lying or judging them and thus, they can trust us and open up – it is a safe space.

Another thing I would recommend parents to so is ‘have conversations and not advising sessions’. Children switch off when we go into our advising mode. As sex educators, we explain concepts to children, give them the pros and cons of situations, explain repercussions of actions to them, get their views on it and then leave it at that. If we can do this as parents too, you will find that the children are more receptive to listening and learning.

This awkwardness to talk about sex is deep-rooted in our generation. From parents and grandparents at home to teachers at school. Isn’t it an uphill task to fix this?

Parents pass on the onus to the schools and schools hope parents will take it upon themselves. As a result there is silence on the subject. The internet is doing the talking with the children and the unfiltered and age inappropriate content there is creating havoc. It is thus important that the parents and schools pick up the onus of talking to the children – whether themselves or through an expert.

An expert intervention is necessary even at schools because one has to understand that even a teacher at school has a mindset which comes from having been raised in an environment where these talks were taboo. Obviously, they are also often embarrassed to take on this education. Thus it becomes even more crucial to not just have these sessions with children in schools, but also to have mind unblocking sessions with the teaching staff, parents and non-teaching staff at schools. It is only when everyone is on the same page, that change will begin. Yes, it sure is an uphill talk, but so is conquering the Himalayas and it has been done!

Tell us about the book, How I Got My Belly Button. Was this an idea at the back of your mind or did it develop as UnTaboo progressed?

Boman Irani, Pooja Bedi, Anju Kish and Manisha Koirala at the launch of “How I Got My Belly Button” in 2019.

The book was published in 2019, but my journey into the field of sex education started with the book way back in 2010 when I took on the onus of creating a child friendly resource on sex education for children. I wrote my first draft of the book, and then the book just went on the back burner when I started UnTaboo. It was only in 2018 when I pulled it out again and I was so glad that I had not published it way back in 2010. At that point of time, I had written a rough draft based on my online research, but now I had the experience myself of teaching sex education to thousands of children and seeing the ground realities. I started re-writing from scratch and what emerged was a book on sex education in a story format, which went on to win the ‘Best Children’s book of the year special Jury Award’ in the year 2020.

Please share with us some impactful stories you have experienced as a sex and sexuality educator.

Lots of stories keep popping up in the Untaboo Moms’ WhatsApp support groups. These are age-based WhatsApp groups, which are open to only Mothers. It is a wonderful platform to connect with mothers of same age children and share and seek solutions to problems faced. If your child has asked you something tricky or if you are confused about something regarding your child, then you post a question on the group. Experts at UnTaboo will respond to the question. Not only us, other moms on the group also respond saying, “Hey, my kid asked me this too and this is what I answered or how I tackled the situation.” You have so many views to choose from plus a support community.

The stories of change, which we hear is what keeps us going. A Father shared, how comfortable his daughter is talking to him about Periods and even seeking his help when she gets menstrual cramps. This comfort level came about post the Puberty workshop she and her parents attended at UnTaboo.

A mother broke down, saying she will forever be indebted to us for the change which her son managed to bring to their conservative household. After being part of discussions at our workshop about the myths surrounding Periods, he started these conversations at his home with his grandmother, showing her videos he had seen at the workshop and having a dialogue for almost a month with her. The unexpected happened – the grandmother summoned all the women of the household and told them that they could pray in the family temple during their periods. It was a revolution in their home. Sex education actually has a ripple effect – it impacts more people than the ones directly touched.

Recently a lady called us saying she really wanted her son to attend our workshop but the father was not agreeing. He felt such things are not to be spoken about and her mother-in-law agreed with him. The lady had heard a lot of good reviews and was very keen on sending her son, so despite a lack of funds to register, she borrowed money from a friend and sent him. The son then began discussing what he learnt at home, amazing both his father and grandmother with his maturity and positivity. Apparently, now they want the lady to send her younger child as well. We look forward to such stories, especially on tough days. They get us back on our journey again with renewed energy.

What would you say is your personal dream for UnTaboo and sex education?

My dream at UnTaboo is to make this education acceptable and accessible to all. But if you were to ask me what the ideal situation would be? I would say a dream come true would be when sex education is made part of the curriculum in the country. Having said that, I would also state that it is not what you teach, but how you teach it, which makes a difference for the learners. This is also not a one-time conversation, but a continuous conversation. At every stage in life, you need to know something, Sex education is actually a ‘womb to tomb’ education.

Sex education is a continuous conversation and it is not necessary to have an expert do it, you as a parent can open these conversations too. It really does not matter who does it, as long as it happens.

– Written by Sneha Kamat Bhavnani