And why it shouldn’t be that way for other kids
When I was a child, reading books by Sidney Sheldon was banned in my house.
Maybe my parents knew that these books had a lot of lurid sex scenes, or perhaps it was the violence and revenge that led my parents to believe these would be too much for my “innocent” brain to handle.
I don’t blame them.
I live in India — a country of 1.3 billion people and 0 sex education. Talking about sex is akin to talking about wanting your parents to die so you could inherit their property.
No, it is actually worse than that.
Talking about wanting your parents to die makes you greedy. But, talking about sex makes you a depraved, immoral person who has no place in society. And God forbid if you’re a woman who is remotely curious about the birds and the bees!
Needless to say, my parents wanted to avoid the shame.
The Forbidden Book
When I picked up Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight from the shelves of the school library, I immediately knew I wanted to read this. At the same time, I also understood that I had to hide the book from my parents.
The back blurb said:
A gripping, glamorous novel of scorching sensuality and heart-stopping evil.
A beautiful French actress whose craving for passion and vengeance takes her from the gutters of Paris to the bedroom of a powerful billionaire; a dynamic Greek tycoon who never forgets an insult, never forgives an injury; and a handsome war hero lured from his wife by another woman.
From Paris to Washington, Hollywood to the islands of Greece, The Other Side of Midnight is the story of four star-crossed lives enmeshed in a deadly ritual of passion, intrigue and corruption.
And so, I hugged the book to my chest and shoved it to the depths of my school bag so my mother wouldn’t find it even if she checked my bag like she sometimes did (don’t be shocked, but the concepts of privacy and personal space don’t exist in an average Indian middle-class household).
The first thing I did on reaching home was to hide the novel beneath the blankets and stuffed toys on my bed. In hindsight, I needn’t have taken this extra precaution because that day, my mother didn’t check anything.
Like a Russian spy on her first mission, I felt like the first step of successful infiltration was completed. All I needed to do next was to read the book and give it back before my treachery was discovered.
And so, after my parents tucked me in bed and bade me good night, I stayed awake for some extra hours for the next four days and devoured the novel.
The plot was riveting, full of twists and turns and a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter that almost made me want to give up on sleep and keep reading. The characters were compelling — women with so much strength of character I knew I could never muster.
But, to my thirteen-year-old mind, it was the sex scenes that stood out.
No teenager I knew in those times had access to any form of sex education. It was the late 2000s, and we neither had phones nor the internet to look up anything that might pique our interest. I am not exaggerating when I say that the sex described by Sidney Sheldon was the first time I ever encountered anything remotely resembling sensual pleasure in the pages of a book.
And this hit me hard.
I used to lie in bed long after the lights had been turned out, unable to sleep, aware of the strong response my body was having to the scenes I had read.
Until then, I’d had crushes on guys, but the extent of my fantasy ended at cuddling up to them and maybe some sweaty hand-holding. The idea that a naked man could be desirable (and worse, the fact that I would need to be naked in front of a lover someday) was gross, and yet, it strangely fascinated me.
I twisted and turned, replaying the scenes I read about over and over in my head, wondering how I would feel if I were in the Noelle’s (the protagonist) position.
Sheldon did not explicitly explain what happened during sex (he didn’t need to; his target audience wasn’t thirteen-year-old girls who had no clue what went in where and how long it was supposed to last), but he described enough to make my imagination flare up and fill in the blanks.
I understood that a man’s item had to be inserted into a woman’s thing, and weirdly, this idea made my thing throb with a strange pleasure — the likes of which I had never known before.
I was also aware of another feeling, a sensation of wetness between my legs I hadn’t realised till then. There was a sweet ache down there like a fire had been ignited — one that I didn’t know how to douse.
I was scared as if I was committing a terrible crime but excited at the same time, because, gosh, this felt so good.
I kept the book with me for two weeks after I finished reading, partly because I couldn’t find a way to take it to my bag without my mother spotting, but also because I had bookmarked a few scenes that I couldn’t stop reading again and again till I almost had the words memorised.
It was like a drug that intoxicated my senses and made me lose my fragile grip on reality. I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was right or “moral”, but I knew I wanted it.
And that’s what made it all the more complicated.
A Poor Substitute for Sex Education
All the confusion, the conflicted feelings, the guilt of having somehow betrayed my parents that my thirteen-year-old self struggled with could have been avoided if I had access to proper sex education.
I would have understood that teenage is a time when my body is changing, and it is natural to be aroused by erotic descriptions in media.
That being curious about boys and wanting to feel their item inside my thing did not necessarily make me evil, and that this was an emotion all kids my age dealt with.
Looking back, it makes me chuckle that Sidney Sheldon’s words gave me the first arousal of my life, and if I was conscious of what it was back then, he could have also given me my first orgasm. But, I wasn’t, and instead, here I am, writing this story of all that could have been different.
I have several friends who argue that sex education is evil because it might give teens “ideas” and lead to a lot of premarital sex in schools. But, even without sex education, teens would find some way or other to find out about sex, and when they do, incomplete information can be more dangerous than a well-planned class on SexEd.
After all, you can keep teens away from the knowledge of sex, but can you keep teens away from their hormones?
One way or another, they are going to find out about sex. But when they don’t know fully why they are feeling what they are feeling, it can give rise to feelings of intense confusion and self-blame (especially in a country like India where there have been instances of honour killings of women who indulged in premarital sex).
Is it better for an entire generation to live in denial than be exposed to the truths of life they would have to deal with sooner or later?
Of course, I cannot speak for the entire nation. I can only speak for myself.
And I firmly believe a lesson in school about what sex is and how it works would have helped. Most importantly, the knowledge that thinking about sex and wanting it is normal would have saved me from all the shame and secrecy I had to deal with when I was thirteen.
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