Putting the 'C' in CSE: A Glossary of Important Terms

Comprehensive Sexuality Education has evolved from sex education, to sexuality education, and finally into its present form. CSE, like we have said before, covers a vast array of issues and topics within sexual and reproductive health. Across the world, however, there is considerable push to limit the scope of CSE and omit certain ‘controversial’ issues. Problem is, different countries find different topics controversial; some consider abortion contentious, while others have a problem with the word ‘sex’ itself! This selective acceptance of sexuality education must be resisted, since it is these uncomfortable, debatable, and differentially interpreted topics that most adversely affect our sexual and reproductive lives and health. 

With this in mind, The YP Foundation has put together a helpful glossary of terms that must be a part of any sexuality education curriculum for it to be comprehensive!

The sex anatomy spectrum

Our biology textbooks tell us that there are only two sets of sexual and reproductive organs – male, and female. Everything that does not fit in these categories is treated as ‘abnormal’. But these organs are often more complex than we acknowledge. Our reproductive organs and its various parts occur in a variety of sizes, shapes and combinations.

One way that we can break the strong association we make between this variation and ‘abnormality’ is by removing the category of male and female altogether when defining reproductive organs. So without further ado, here is that list: 

  • Vulva refers to a set of external genitals that typically comprise the labia, mons pubis, clitoris and vaginal opening.
  • The labia make up a majority of the externally visible portion of the vulva, and surround and protect the clitoris, urethral opening and vaginal opening. It’s commonly differentiated into the labia majora (outer lip) and labia minora (inner lip), both of which show significant variation in color, shape and size.  The former looks like a pair of fatty folds of skin that develops hair during puberty. The latter exists between the labia majora and is two thin folds of fat free, hairless skin.
  • The clitoris is a sensitive erogenous zone and its sole function is to provide sexual pleasure. It’s located at the top of the vulva just above the urethra. It varies in shape, size and sensitivity.
  • A small hollow muscular organ, the uterus holds and nourishes the foetus from conception to birth (described further down).
  • The canal that forms the passage from the uterus to outside the body is called the vagina.
  • The penis is an outer sex organ that's made up of spongy tissues and blood vessels. It contains a tube called urethra that lets urine and semen (latter during sexual excitement) pass through and exist the body.
  • The ovaries are two glands that contain thousands of immature eggs
  • Testes are two ball-like glands that are contained in the scrotum, which is a sac-like structure. The main function of testes is to produce sperm and testosterone (which is a hormone). Sperm are the cells that contain sex chromosomes.
  • Fallopian tubes carry the egg from the ovaries to the uterus.
  • The hymen is a tissue membrane that partially covers the vaginal opening, to protect it during developing years. It may or may not exist in everyone who has a vagina and its presence or absence does not share a necessary relationship with virginity. Hymens vary wildly in elasticity and presentation.
  • The epididymus stores the sperm until they mature. From the epididymis, the sperm then pass through a tube called the vas deferens first to the seminal vesicles and then to the prostate gland, both of which nourish and lubricate the sperm. The sperm, along with the lubricating and nourishing fluids, is called semen, which is a whitish fluid.
  • The vas deferens then carries the semen towards the penis and the outside world.

The process of the development of these sexual and reproductive organs is called puberty, which usually marks the onset of adolescence. This period of physical, psychological and social change and development continues till the onset of adulthood. 

  • Around puberty sometimes semen comes out of the penis at night, during sleep. This is called nocturnal emission, night fall or wet dreams. Nocturnal emission is not necessarily accompanied by sexual feelings or sexual dreams. This is a common occurrence, as semen cannot be stored by the body at the rate at which it's made.
  • Menstruation, (also known as periods, and colloquially by many different names) is the process by which blood and mucosal tissue from the lining of the uterus and the unfertilized ova come out of the vagina every month for a few days. Menstruation usually begins during puberty and ends with menopause. One does not menstruate during pregnancy, as the lining provide nourishment to the foetus.
  • Conception refers to the process by which the sperm fertilizes the ova. The zygote formed from their fusion then implants itself in the uterus. This leads to pregnancy.
  • To prevent pregnancy from occurring, certain artificial methods are used, which are collectively called contraceptives. There are several kinds of contraceptives like condoms, birth control pills, emergency contraceptive pills, IUDs, diaphragms. There are other contraceptive methods, usually surgical, that are more permanent methods of preventing conception.
  • The process of terminating a pregnancy is called abortion. There are multiples abortion methods, depending on the length of the pregnancy, including medical abortions (in which one has to take medicines) and surgical abortions (differs in different countries based on the law). Abortion is a highly politicized issue, which is why there are many laws around it in each country, some of which criminalise abortion.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI) are infections that are transmitted through sexual contact (exchange of sex fluid or even blood). Reproductive tract infections (RTI) are another type of infection, which refers to those that affect the reproductive tract. Although they are two different things, they often overlap (some STIs can be RTIs but not always, and vice versa). RTIs can either be caused by an overgrowth of organisms already present in the tract or by the introduction of certain bacteria into the tract during sexual contact or medical procedures. 

All Things Sex-y

This term is used to refer to two things. One meaning includes all the activities we engage in (either alone or with other people) for sexual pleasure (and occasionally reproduction). 

  • Intercourse refers to penetration of the vagina or the anus by the penis or any other object
  • Outercourse expands the meaning of sexual activity to include everything, other than penetration, that is done for sexual pleasure.
  • All acts that we do to sexually pleasure ourselves are known as masturbation. One way this is done is through exploring one's body usually by touching or rubbing our own genitals.
  • The peak or climax of sexual excitement is called an orgasm. It is an intensely pleasurable feeling usually centered around our genitals and may or may not be accompanied by release of sexual fluids from the body.

 

In any discussion about sex, consent has to be centre stage! Simply put, giving consent means to actively, enthusiastically, and explicitly agree with something, with full understanding of the situation and without pressure of any kind. This term in a CSE framework comes packed with various implications of violence and violation of rights and entitlements.

 

Sex also refers to the physiological and chromosomal make up of a person present at birth that results in assigning categories to them as we have defined here:

  • A person is assigned male at birth on the basis of the presence of a commonly occurring combination of external genitalia – the penis and the scrotum.
  • If a person’s genitalia at birth appears to be a vulva, they are assigned female at birth.
  • Intersex is a term assigned to persons who present atypical composition or combination of genitals, hormones, chromosomes, etc. Intersex is not a defined category, and there is no consensus on what characteristics decide whether to place people in this category. It tends to be decided by doctors at birth, who vary considerably in their opinion. 

The gender spectrum

Gender is a social construct that consists of specific traits, roles and expectations that society attaches to males and females. There are two distinct prototypes that defines ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and what their lives and behaviours should ideally look like. But these prototypes perfectly fit only a small percentage of people; most of us are combination of both. Thus, the understanding of gender is expanded, allowing us to see it as a fluid spectrum (instead of as just one or the other), where several different experiences, identities and expressions exist and are accepted.

The constant interaction between how society sees you, how you experience yourself in relation to society and how you choose to define yourself make up your gender. This is not fixed, and can change multiple times over the course of your lifetime, depending on what identity you are comfortable aligning yourself with. This necessarily means that there are more identities that can be listed, but here are some of them:

  • A cisgendered person is one whose gender identity reflects the sex assigned to them at birth.
  • Trans is an umbrella term that houses many different identities that describe someone who doesn't relate or identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. These are very diverse and include identities like trans man or woman, transvestite, bigender, gender fluid, pangender, agender, gender non binary, gender neutral, and gender two-spirit, among others.  

Trans identities can be independent of one’s anatomical/physiological sex. It is also separate from one’s...

...Sexual orientation and identity,

which is understood from our experience of sexual and romantic attraction and towards whom we direct these feelings. Like gender, sexual orientations are fluid, can change over time, and have many different labels, some of which are: 

  • Heterosexual – being sexually or romantically attracted to the opposite sex/gender.
  • Homosexual – being sexually or romantically attracted to the same sex/gender. Other terms include ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’.
  • Bisexual – When an individual is attracted to male and female sexes/genders.
  • Asexual – When one doesn't experience sexual desire or attraction.
  • Pansexual – Persons who are sexually attracted to another of any sex or gender.
  • Demisexual – being sexually attracted to individuals that one has formed an emotional connection with. 

The word queer also falls within this category, as well as in the gender spectrum: while it was initially used as a pejorative term for homosexual individuals, it has since been reclaimed by many people (who are not heterosexual or cis-gendered) as a term that’s broader and more ambiguous in its scope than LGBTQI+ labels.

Sexuality encompasses everything we’ve talked about so far, and as a concept, is one that’s constantly evolving and changing. Sexuality can be experienced and expressed in thoughts, desires, values, behaviors, roles and relationships. It is also influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political and cultural factors.