Written by Isha Bhangui and Tanaya Badgandi
Meet Mx. Vexy, the official mascot of Vex Ed. They are here to teach us to address the elephant in the room: having conversations about our sexuality is the first step to creating a more inclusive society.
Yes, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. We have all been forced to take a step back and confront the truths of this new reality. A year in now, we are all too familiar with the overwhelming discomfort that comes with the isolating nature of quarantine. As Dali Lama once said, “we human beings are social beings”. Unable to experience human touch and surround ourselves with the positive energies of others, quarantine has no doubt skewed our perception of normal, forcing us to adapt to the rapidly evolving world around us. It is easy to wallow, to give in to the dread that we no longer have a physical means of civil engagement or a tangible way of using our generation’s ubiquitous exposure to social media to raise awareness to surfacing inequalities. As students, we find ourselves now completely immersed in a digital space. This transition to a virtual platform however, though physically limiting, has not silenced youth activists dedicated to educating and empowering the communities they serve.
Students around the world have harnessed the expansive nature of the digital space to initiate important conversations and change the status quo. Redefining civil engagement, these groups have weaponized social media, turning it from a platform primarily dedicated to entertainment into a transformative resource for mobilizing support, shedding light on new perspectives, and shaping citizen action.
We spoke to an organization that did just that. Rooted in India, Vex-Ed is a youth-led organization that was launched in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic by a group of dedicated college students. “As an initiative for Sex Ed, Vex Ed derived its name from the word ‘vexed’, which literally translates to a problem that is debated upon”. More than just a play on words, the organization “represents youth who are vexed at the current status of sex education in their country” and establishes a forum for open dicussion about sexuality and consent, both of which are important topics that are stigmatized in modern day Indian society.
The core team is made of college students
—dedicated leaders, scientists, writers, and designers who are working to create a more inclusive society.
The students aim to use social media as a tool to diversify the conversation about human experiences and sexuality in their community. Vex Ed seeks to “provide comprehensive and inclusive sex education” and more importantly “normalize essential conversations surrounding sexuality, reproductive health, relationships, body image, and associted stigmas”, says Vartika Mishra, one of the project’s co-founders via an email-interview. The organization primarily utilizes Instagram to present research-based, inclusive content such as infographics and guest-written experiences written for and by the youth. The Vex Ed team is guided by skilled advisors: a group of psychiatrists, lawyers, activists and peer sexuality educators who lend expertise, credibility, and bring a professional, experience-based perspective to the organization.
The organization is based in India, a place where taboos around sex are aplenty. Unlike their ancestors, Indians have become increasingly uncomfortable talking about sensuality and sex openly. With bouts of colonialism, urban development and rapid globalization impacting traditionally held beliefs in the country, new taboos are surpassing and replacing old ones and Indian society has become a cradle for sexual frustration and confusion. As part of the Harvard Gender Violence Project, Professor Jacquelina Bhaba describes how this absence of gender education in the Indian curriculum has perpetuated male dominated patriarchies, leading to the pervasive acceptance of women being regarded as less, destined to be of service to men. She goes on to describe how people are “generally not comfortable talking about sexuality or reproductive rights even within the family, let alone within the classroom or workplace,” alluding to India as a puritanical society.
It is this deliberate avoidance of sensual topics that formulates a culture of denial and ignorance, leaving impressionable young men in a critical stage of life where they are sexually driven, no legitimate way of talking about or following through on their sexual desires in a healthy way. These skewed perceptions governing a woman’s value in society coupled with the inability to freely discuss tenets of healthy sexual and emotional relationships is a recipe for disaster, significantly contributing to the extremely high rates of domestic violence, teen pregnancy, and rape seen in India today.
According to Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy specialist Aditi Kulkarni-Khanade, “The picture is slowly changing, but I still see women struggling to talk about regular periods with their doctor; Confusion and paranoia [about sex and sexuality] are very common.”
That is what drives the team behind Vex Ed: “A large segment of our population currently gets their ‘sex education’ from misguiding and inaccurate sources, instead of their parents, teachers, or other reliable sources. It felt like the solution to this problem would be to work on the source, which would be today’s youth and tomorrow’s society. Thus, we started Vex Ed to bring comprehensive and inclusive sex education to urban as well as rural settings to create a more informed and sex-positive society.”
Though recently established, this team has a clear vision.
Aside from establishing the foundation of a sex-positive society, long term, Vex Ed “envisions a reduction in sexual crime rates in the coming decade by impacting awareness amongst today’s youth and tomorrow’s society.” With a multifaceted approach that includes digital and local outreach, pandemic-permitting, Vex Ed currently strives to attain its vision by working with volunteers to slowly begin diversifying their message and integrating their content into the curriculum at Indian schools.
Organization of such a visionary coalition was not easy. “Beginning with two people, it was definitely a long process reaching where we are today,” Mishra said. Along with a specific goal and a plan to execute it, the co-founders made sure to find a dedicated team of experts and creative professionals willing to go the extra mile to create and put out content. “Today, five months into the process, when we look back – we know we have reached somewhere, we know we have a dozen people on our team who are deeply passionate about our cause and are here to back us up.”
As students ourselves, we wondered how the team at Vex-Ed delegates tasks and balances their time between this project, school, extracurriculars, and self care– especially during a pandemic.
“The team really acts as a support system for each other and that primarily is what has helped us balance work even amidst busy schedules at times. Having deadlines, organizing to-dos, and prioritizing also helps the process. Most importantly though, Vex Ed feels like a personal project to all of us and this perspective allows us to manage the work effectively.”
Vex-Ed functions because it is created by people who fuel the project with their commitment and interest; they have created their own little community through the project. Both of these things are hard to come by at a time like this. As we approach the one-year mark of remote learning, inequities rooted in the education systems primarily in communities of color have become transparent. The lack of easy accessibility to learning accommodations and the inability to de-stress through conventional means of social interaction makes it harder for students to pay attention and actively retain information. Vex Ed’s initiative has demonstrated that perhaps using the causes that we are passionate about as a creative outlet may be a worthwhile option to explore.
For those looking for advice to start their own online revolution, Mishra says, “ Just do it. Once you start building up on your idea and begin the process of implementing it, things will automatically fall into place.”
With social media available at the touch of our fingertips and added down time, it has become easy to fixate on how lock-down has looked for each of us, falling victim to the tendency to compare oneself on the basis of presumed productivity. By choosing to focus on what activists and organizers are calling attention to or aligning our thoughts with a certain cause, we can transform our frustration into action. Fighting for causes that are meaningful on a personal level gives us the social connection we are longing for, and we and our community will be stronger for it.
Vex Ed is not only a noble cause, it is a reminder that we can turn our lock-down frustration on its head.
The Vex Ed team derives “personal satisfaction” from contributing to their community: “creating a society where all individuals irrespective of their sexuality are valued and respected, sex is a consensual and safe experience for all, people are informed and educated about STDs, individuals have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and people understand the true meaning of feminism. It’s a long way to go but Vex Ed is a step forward,” they say.
Vex Ed reminds us that putting care and attention to causes we care about, even during a global pandemic, is possible. Putting creativity into envisioning a long-lasting impact in the places where we see injustice can be a safe haven for both the cause itself, and our own mental health. We can use this time to learn how to wield our power through mediums such as art, music, poetry, or our personal platforms. Contributing to the causes that demand our attention can give us hope; it can give our community hope.
Let us allow this pandemic to make an activist out of us.
Edited by Ria Parikh