By Clarice Loke
Sex is an odd topic. We make shoddy work of pretending to avoid it in public; we scrub our syllabi clean of the three lettered word but leave in its synonyms; we allude to it through thinly veiled innuendos but speak about it constantly in tabloids, music, television and literature. We are at once obsessed and terrified.
In Ask the Sexpert, we meet Dr. Mahinder Watsa, a 93 year-old sexologist who, through a pithy column in the Mumbai Mirror, seeks to fill the void created by a conservative Indian education system, and a society whose silence on the topic has left many confused about even the most basic matters concerning physical intimacy. Dr. Watsa, whose column has been attributed with essentially beginning sex education in India, receives a steady daily stream of questions in his email inbox and the occasional client appearing at his door.
Although Dr. Watsa is a stranger to his troubled readers, they bring to him problems of the most private nature, ranging from the relatable to the outright bizarre (a particularly horrifying confession involved a couple who urinated in the tea they served guests). The answers they receive in return are to the point and often humorous, but always careful to emphasise mutual respect and consent. His work however is not without opposition. Activist Pratiba Naitthani serves as his antagonistic counterpoint, suing him in court with the argument that Dr Watsa promotes immorality.
Though set in India, the discussions and issues of this film are far from unfamiliar. My own formal sex education was patchy at best, consisting of strange charts which claimed “heavy petting” preceded hugging, worksheets where model answers often suggested it was up to girls to express discomfort rather than to suggest a system of mutual consent, and videos about abortion with talking foetuses and uncomfortably Christian tints despite the claimed secularism. Sex-ed was an awkward, unhappy, and often boring chore that teachers and students were desperate to be done with as quickly as possible.
In Singapore, many search the Internet where school failed to provide answers, albeit, without the aid of Dr. Watsa as a guide. For example, NUSWhispers is one famous pool where the articulated thoughts of the confused, scared, and embarrassed collect. And here too it seems the same questions are always being asked: Does so-and-so doing this indicate attraction? Is it weird to like a particular action? Is it weird to dislike it? Ultimately, salacious or simple as they may be, most confessions are simply asking for affirmation, seeking confirmation that as individuals, they are, in fact, like everyone else. The Internet, however, is not always as kind and empathetic as Dr. Watsa tries to be. Even the sincerest of posts may receive derision and cruel mirth, thus doing more harm than silence might have.
Despite this, I do not believe that the solution is for the Internet to police itself with a greater degree of strictness. After all, Dr. Watsa’s articles and the work that commenters do on NUSWhispers, though commendable, are merely a band aid on a leak that school systems and parents have left unpatched. It requires some cooperation between teachers and parents to address sexual knowledge with younger children. However, everyone would eventually need to piece together an understanding of their sexuality and the universal sticky issues of intimacy as they live through the journey of life and experience
About the author
Clarice Loke is a current sociology student and a big fan of quiet films that make her want to cry and terrible films that make her laugh. She has been volunteering with the Asian Film Archive since 2018 and has participated in Singapore International Film Festival’s Young Critics Youth Jury Program.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.