Remembering Dhun Panthaki, India's First Female Sex Educator - Homegrown

Remembering Dhun Panthaki, India's First Female Sex Educator

[Update: Our interview with Miss Panthaki was conducted over two years ago and even in those brief few hours, it became amply clear that she was a force to be reckoned with. She passed away a few months post our story’s initial publishing, but continues to live on in every word. Yet it’s in the spaces in-between that her spirit feels strongest. Today, her story stays relevant as a tribute to the kind of thinking she loved to foster through her teachings–progressive, liberated and open-minded.]

“Sex is about pleasure, the question is pleasure for whom?” smiles Dhun Panthaki, a Mumbai-based sex educator who began her work back in 1967 when sex education, let alone the existence of a female sex educator, was unheard of. Swimming through the tide of ridicule and humiliation, Panthaki’s dedication has paid off over four decades later, as her name has become synonymous with progressive thinking when it comes to all matters related to sex. As one of the oldest sex educators in the country with a great repertoire and reputation, suffice to say she has more than a few immortal stories up her sleeve so we caught up with her to find out more about her well-lived life.

“I was a biology teacher in a school and became the de-facto person for teachers who wanted to explain sexuality to students. I used to get complaints that children are using foul sexual language and both girls and boys are being affected by it. I started giving basic education to tenth graders but I realised it was too late to mould their mindset. So I began with 9th graders. I began to teach them about respecting privacy and not being ashamed of periods. Soon there were complaints from fourth grade students. I heard a young girl was being molested by her driver in the absence of her parents. I realised that we have to begin much earlier than we thought,” said Panthaki who trained in Indiana University, USA in the field of counseling.

Image Credit: Tanya Prasad
Image Credit: Tanya Prasad

Is there ever a right time?

Panthaki is of the belief that sex education is an all-time movement and should begin once a child starts knowing their private parts. “Children have a habit of playing with their parts. If a toddler is fondling his penis, the reaction of a parent towards that act attaches itself to the situation. If a mother reacts with disgust and anger and reprimands the child, he will think that it is shameful and something to be embarrassed about. Children don’t have to words to express their feelings. It is a parents job to give them the right words and terminologies to express it. Sex is values, attitudes and habits. If a boy knows that his will is supreme and he gets what he wants, a rejection from a girl will be confusing and not digested. He may grow up to be an abuser,” she explains matter-of-factly.

The Bible for sex educators

Wearing a necklace pieced with white beads and her trademark spectacles and lipstick, Panthaki’s hands are living proof of the many hours she put in to create a sourcebook for educators called the ‘Education in Human Sexuality.’ The 300-page-long manual looks at sex in a holistic manner right from childhood, adolescence, marriage, contraception, gender and pregnancy to diseases, sexual abuse, abortion, sexual perversion and healthy sexual expression and practice. It even has a foreword from Dr. Mahinder Watsa, the famous sexologist from Mumbai Mirror’s pages. Considered as a Bible for some, the book was released in 1997 for anybody who was concerned about their sexual development. “The book sold 3000 copies and all the proceeds go to FPAI. The thing is… people don’t want to be seen with the book. They can crack jokes and say all types of things about sex but not be associated with anything that gives knowledge about the same. Everything in our lives is some form of sexuality. We don’t just talk about the physical act of sex, but how it manifests in genders. I try to teach people that sex should be safe, legal, consensual and respectful,” she said.

With around 50 years of experience, Panthaki’s introduction to sex education was facilitated by Dr. Sarah who saw her in a program and pushed her to take it up full time. “I was bashful and under-confident then. I visited a lot of places and heard so much from so many people. There were future educators who took sessions with us and one time in Agra in the 70’s, this man left us shocked. He was a prospective educator but his thoughts about the duties of a wife in a relationship were surprising. He said he expected a hot meal from his wife at whatever time he decided to come home in the night. He was adamant that even if she falls ill or is tired, it was her duty to serve him. Once we had a conference with other noted doctors. I was presenting my work when a man said that how can an unmarried woman like myself talk about sex? There were parents who were offended with the prospect of children knowing about child birth, HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. There were also doctors who would loath homosexuals and say ‘I will never allow my son to be gay.’ I mean, nobody takes permission to be gay and as an educator, what inherent values are you projecting? You are supposed to be non-biased and non-judgemental. When an older man approached my colleague to talk about an incestuous relationship he wanted to end, he just reacted with shock and disbelief which is not a sign of a good educator. Your personal opinion cannot cloud the wellness and health of your patient or student. People who are uneducated in these matters go on to take top positions in the parliament, watch porn and stop sex education from being imparted in schools,” she said.

Panthaki’s family saw her as a medical professional and The Family Planning Association of India found their volunteer. She has taught not just in private and public schools but to pavement dwellers and street children as well. “Parents are happy that someone is talking to them about important things and how to protect themselves. An educator must seek consent before imparting their knowledge. Parents in the Basti have been encouraging and relieved that someone is talking about these matters to their children. I wanted to show childbirth to 14-year-olds and the video ‘To Janet, A Son’ had pretty explicit images. We wrote letters to their parents to seek their permission. I educated the staff about the video and had reviews of the films. I spoke with the students if they would like to see such a film and gave them the option of leaving the screening if they didn’t like it or shut their eyes. Lots of them did squirm but we got reactions. Boys were intrigued that girls have to go through this. One boy even asked me that if a man left a woman, would she go through this alone? A girl said she never wants to have children and we told her that the pain is temporary but the joy of holding a small baby in your hands makes you forget everything. It is just like getting an operation or breaking or hurting your body. You have to face pain one way or the other,” she said.

“When a person approaches a sex educator or a doctor with his problems, there is always an anxiety about the comfort, judgement, critique and opinion. We should be aware about that and make people comfortable. Our work is to make people aware about the many possibilities that exist in their reality and being sensitive to them. People are just very insensitive to other people’s feelings today. Anything casual is not enjoyable,” she said.

Image Credit: Tanya Prasad
Image Credit: Tanya Prasad

The truth about men and women

Panthaki has a strong stance on the desires of women and the policing of their bodies too. “A female anatomy is better developed than a man’s. She has more organs to carry out similar functions and has more stamina and is capable of multiple orgasms. Men think they are more sexual than women when it is actually the other way around. Women’s bodies are considered a means to acquire sex in our culture. Either they are over-sexed or not given the freedom to desire sex. There are many married women in the country who have never received sexual satisfaction. The men believe that if they enjoyed it, it automatically translates to the women enjoying it. If she doesn’t like it at first, she will get used to it and start enjoying it. Men think that women have or can have orgasms and women are unaware of it too. Every person knows so little about how the other body functions. We spend so much on lavish weddings and their preparations but do we ever talk to the bride and groom about their bodies? It’s about Majaa but for whom?” she said.

The age group she feels most excited to teach is children, however. “They are so honest and innocent. They are more open-minded and have less inhibitions. Adults giggle at the slightest of sexual words. If you say breasts or nipples, they giggle. They are cynical and argue a lot. They generalize too much and don’t think beyond their immediate circle,” she said. She has strong views about parents not being good role models for their children. “Parents need sex education before their children get it. Don’t have children if you can’t take care of them because they didn’t ask to be born, you brought them into this world,” she said.

The bendier the rules, the better

She believes that sex education should be woven into the curriculum but should be flexible according the demands of the situation. “A good sex educator will not keep a set pattern and curriculum. They will weave a program according the mood, situation and age group. They will ask themselves, why was I called here and what problem needs to be addressed in this environment and accordingly bring a unique program for the particular set of people. They need to very non-judgemental. There are many good sex educators in our country today and times are changing rapidly with women being more assertive about their rights. We need to think about the power play involved with the idea of physical act of sex and the manifestation of genders in a holistic manner. The structures are becoming more complicated and we have to adapt and learn continuously,” she said.

Dr. Rajan Bhonsle is a well-known sexologist in Mumbai who also offers the only certified course training people in sex education. He is also the Head of Department for sexual medicine at KEM hospital. With over thirty years of experience in treating and educating people in sexuality, he is all praise for Panthaki. “She is older in this field and came much before me at a time when sex education and that too by a woman was a taboo topic. Dr.Vitthal Prabhu had also released a book around that time and both of them are among the oldest educators in the country beside Dr.Mahindar Watsa. I have immense respect for her. She worked tirelessly to provide sex education without a motive to gain fame or money with knowledge her only driving force. Doctors could still get patients with their programs but not for madam Panthaki. Others have written about sexuality in scientific terms but she has dealt with it in a more holistic manner,” he said.

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