By Dinithi Gunasekera
Forget about some rowdy boys leaving your French windows in pieces after a game of cricket, the auntie next door finding out that your great grandfather never actually owned acres and acres of land, or even worse, finding out that dishwashing liquid doesn’t taste half as bad next to any “delicacy” your daughter-in-law whips up.
In today’s episode of “What is the Worst Possible Thing that could Possibly Happen to a Sri Lankan?”, we present to you a child approaching his/her beloved amma and appachchi and asking inquisitively: “Where do babies come from?”
Suddenly you see them profusely perspiring with crimson-tinged brown cheeks, uncomfortable glances, and a stammer or two here and there, and what follows is the story of storks bringing a living being into the world.
In fact, our beautiful island is still so secretive with regard to matters of love and sex that you would be surprised at times to find a grey-haired couple displaying their affection for each other.
The issue extends to all too common examples of teens being severely punished by their parents for pursuing romantic relationships, to kids not knowing the difference between love and lust. It seems that in many ways, affection in its true and most human form is the forbidden fruit in our society.
The most recent example is the Police in Sri Lanka taking approximately 100 couples in custody, allegedly on the basis of “public indecency”.
Sadly, this is not news to the sweethearts and honeymooners of this country. In 2017, over 300 couples were arrested in Anuradhapura during a raid at a couple of parks. In 2010, in the same fashion, nearly 200 young couples were arrested and detained for “indecent behaviour.”
Oh, the sin!
From a legal perspective, these arrests are apparently made citing age-old colonial laws – Section 365A of the Penal Code and Section 7 of the Vagrants Ordinance, to be precise.
Human rights activist and journalist Kaushal Ranasinghe, in conversation with The Sunday Morning Brunch, expressed: “One of the major problems we face in Sri Lanka is that we still live in the Victorian culture of slavery that emerged during the colonial era. Their restrictions on love and affection based on religious beliefs at the time still operate in the minds of the people. Love and affection are therefore viewed as sins in society.”
Section 365A of the Penal Code and Section 7 of the Vagrants Ordinance, which are used to legitimise these arrests, date back to 1883 and 1842, respectively.
The systematic discouragement of issues of love and sex are doubled with added intolerance by the common man.
Through a number of interviews conducted among the youths of Sri Lanka, who wished to remain anonymous, we gathered that this notion is harnessed through and through. Here’s what they shared:
“We were at a café studying, and all the while slightly leaning onto each other, and the café manager told us that we won’t be tolerated because they are a café and it’s only for ‘working people’ – whatever he intended by that.”
“I have experienced that even people of my own age have asked me to sit apart from my significant other when they see someone older pass by. I think it’s the fear of being scolded which stems from conditioning in schools and households.”
“I was once at a café and the smoking area overlooks this single solitary house, and there were these people – couples – just hanging around. Suddenly, a guy came out of the door of that house with a broomstick and started shouting at them and asked them to take whatever they were doing inside because people live in that house.”
“I was in the restaurant area of a renowned supermarket once with my girlfriend and a couple of friends. My girlfriend was sitting on my lap but other than that, there was nothing going on. I wasn’t even hugging her. All of us were having a casual chat when an employee called us a disgrace and ordered us to leave. We left.”
“I have certainly got an occasional creepy stare and a judgmental look from an elder; apparently, it’s not normal for youths to act like this. Hence, shady corners and cheap ‘hotel’ rooms come into play.”
PDA in Sri Lanka
Public displays of affection (PDA), in addition to being discouraged by society, is now a punishable offense.
“I think Sri Lanka’s issue with PDA is that most of society doesn’t know how to mind their own business. They are constantly looking at what other people are doing and are in fact keeping tabs on other people’s problems. That’s why we can’t stand to see two people being affectionate with each other. It’s not wrong to be affectionate. It’s actually something that should be appreciated,” shared Bernadine Rodrigo, a law student.
“Of course, there’s a certain degree of affection that can be accepted publicly, but people holding hands or hugging is actually sweet and should be appreciated, especially with all the gruesome, violent things that are happening in the world.
“I think it also comes with the practice of simply not being open. Sri Lankans dwell in secrecy and are often embarrassed about very normal things. I think if people just learn to be more open and honest, accepting a certain amount of PDA wouldn’t be so difficult.”
Another youth shared: “I honestly think that people have the right to proclaim that they aren’t comfortable with PDA. Different people are differently tolerant to physical affection. However, if your disapproval is based on sexual prejudice and/or if your actions can physically or psychologically harm someone, then you should be held accountable.”
What else is taboo then?
If the most basic aspect of romantic attraction is taboo, what is indeed expected to be discussed of the more physical aspects? The fact that affection is frowned upon seems to be the effect of more pressing matters from which it stems.
“As a result of misconceptions about sex among children, there are many times I’ve come across children who think that kissing or touching can lead to pregnancy. I believe we need to have an open dialogue with the child about love and sex,” expressed Ranasinghe.
This is where the necessity of sex education comes into play. Although the taxonomy is off-putting to many at first glance, sex education is a broad term used to talk about not only sexual intercourse, but also many other aspects of human sexuality, anatomy, relationships, sexual health, and human development.
It remains a controversial topic in several countries, specifically in Asia, concerning the age at which children should start receiving sex education and the amount of detail to be revealed. It is specifically controversial in religious and cultural norms in which abstinence is practised and preached. Engaging in sexual activity for pleasure instead of reproductive purposes, pregnancy outside wedlock, and masturbation appear to be the main concerns.
One such golden opportunity to bring sex education to the forefront was the Hathe Ape Potha, which was to be introduced to the Grade Seven curriculum. Unfortunately, it saw strong opposition.
“They stated that this book should be burned,” related Ranasinghe, speaking of his experiences at a panel discussion regarding the book. “It is more useful for children living in rural areas than those living in cities.”
“A survey I conducted in this regard revealed that 40.5% out of the 350 participants in the survey had encountered some sort of problem due to the lack of sex education. Lack of proper sex education is one of the main reasons why they fell prey to sexual bribery, sexual harassment, and sexually transmitted diseases,” he added.
Police reports submitted to the United Nations (UN) from 2012-2020 records 142 cases of rape, 42 serious sexual abuse cases, and 54 cases of child abuse just within the first 15 days of 2020. With such alarming numbers of sexual violence, Sri Lanka is indeed in need of a reality check.
“The longer this topic is not talked about openly in society, the more it will benefit rapists and criminals. Many who oppose discussions on this topic are such people,” Ranasinghe stated.
Sex is normal
“Sex is the normal state of living beings. Culture is what distorts it. However, what sets man apart from other animals is that he is born with a brain that can control emotions. That requires understanding, and knowledge is needed for understanding. How can knowledge be acquired without openness?” former Sectoral Oversight Committee for Education (Sub Committee) Chairperson and former Sectoral Oversight Committee for Women and Gender Member MP Rohini Wijeratne Kavirathna questioned.
“As emotional beings, it is natural for people to be in romantic relationships. Today, Sri Lankan society talks about sex in secret, which may be due to factors such as our culture, civilisation, religion, and so on,” Kavirathna stated.
Change can only be brought forth by tackling the issue from the grassroots level itself, which is why it is essential that children should be made aware.
“Today, children have no choice but to live in a very insecure environment among adults. In my many years of experience as a schoolteacher, I have seen many children who have been raped or abused by their loved ones and were unaware of it. There are many instances where those children are in danger due to lack of knowledge.”
In the light of the Hathe Ape Potha project which was initiated and promptly dismissed by certain parties, Kavirathna revealed that those who oppose it today had not yet presented an alternative.
“According to sociologists and psychoanalysts, many criminals are victims of child abuse. In many opposing societies, children are being abused and cannot escape their situation even knowing the few things contained in the book.”
Kavirathna feels that it is essential to educate the children as well as adults. “Do you know how many people, not only children but also adults, suffer from this misunderstanding of sex? In addition to countless suicides and unsafe abortions, instances of marital rapes and sexual abuse plague our society in the aftermath.”
She further stated that there is an urgent need to develop people’s attitudes, adding that people need to change the attitude that the other sees sex as the enemy.
“My personal opinion is that social awareness is very valuable. Whether the child is a boy or a girl, they are the future of the country. It is our responsibility as adults to do everything we can to protect them,” affirmed Kavirathna in conclusion.
“It’s ironic how our Police follow colonial laws to this day, while the countries that imposed these laws back in the day have re-established theirs to fit the modern times. We as Sri Lankans hide behind the overused excuse of ‘preserving our culture’, while criminalising and demonising the display of consensual acts of affection; it will inevitably lead to non-consensual physical and sexual abuse behind closed doors,” stated Paramie Muthukuda, a final-year medical student at the University of Manipal.
Until the umbrellas that our young lovers hide under become unnecessary, and until amma and appa teach kids where babies really come from, there would be little to no change in the news headlines that report the abuse and the suffering of many innocent lives.
Main photo: Photo by Inset Agency on Unsplash