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An Asian American Perspective: How to Address the Stigma Surrounding Sex

Sex is everywhere. It’s harmonized in metaphoric lyrics, illustrated in steamy movie scenes and featured in provocative billboards and magazine ads. Regardless of your gender or relationship status, sex inevitably will cross your mind at one point or another. Yet, particularly among the Asian American community, it is rarely an open topic of discussion, and talking about it is a taboo. This makes it extra difficult for us because we often simultaneously identify with our American peers, speaking more openly about sex, and are bound by Asian cultural norms, which don’t promote sexual expression or behavior.

Think back to the time when your parents gave you the “sex talk”—did you even get one? I didn’t. Everything I learned about sex was through friends, school and the honest relationship I’ve built with my gynecologist. This makes a lot of sense, since sex obviously is a very personal topic—and it’s not exactly easy to share the intimate details of your sex life with your friends, let alone, your parents. Moreover, talking about the risks that come with sex, like STIs and pregnancy, can be overwhelming. In fact, according to the National Asian Women’s Health Organization, more than half of Asian American women are uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health with their mothers and even more so with their fathers and brothers.

One reason why Asian culture isn’t as open about sex as others is that it’s never been “normal” to talk about sex. It partly comes down to how you can almost bet that your parents disapprove of premarital sex. This belief is so widespread that it’s essentially become taboo to talk about any aspect of sex, not to mention sexual health, in fear that discussing it would encourage you to become sexually active. In fact, these opinions are agreed upon by all Asian American ethnic groups, according to a study conducted by Advocates For Youth, an organization that promotes effective reproductive and sexual health programs for adolescents in the U.S. My own parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents never spoke of their romantic or sexual history and shamelessly preached against premarital sex because they were afraid that talking about sex would make it seem like they are condoning it—even though they never actually explained this concern.

Another part of this problem is that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders lack access to sex and STD education services that fit their needs of sharing two different cultural norms. While sex might be openly discussed in an outside environment, like in school or through media, hard-line views at home may discourage Asian American and Pacific Islander teens to take necessary measures for ensuring sexual health. They can be more reluctant to discuss sexual concerns with a doctor and utilize other sex education services because it makes them look like they are sexually active, which their families would not likely approve. If their sexual identity is different from the heterosexual norm, being open with family members and getting the support they need can be even more difficult.

Due to this lack of access to safe sex education and resources, while Asian Americans tend to have lower rates of HIV and STDs than other racial and ethnic groups, they also have the lowest HIV testing rate. According to the Banyan Tree Project, a national social marketing campaign to stop HIV/AIDS-related stigma in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, 69 percent of Asian Americans and 56 percent of Pacific Islanders have never been tested for HIV. HIV infection among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is also growing at a rate higher than any other racial or ethnic group—14.3 percent increase for women and 8.1 percent for men between 2001 and 2004, according to a Center for Disease Control report. Furthermore, 40 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders almost or never discuss safe sex or condoms with their sexual partner, according to the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center.

So why aren’t Asian Americans getting tested? As with anything else related to sex, there is a lack of communication in the community about why testing is important. Beside the cultural norms within the community, like associating STIs with promiscuity and drug use, underlying problems also include cultural stereotypes that enforce the stigma surrounding sex. Under the model minority model, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are identified as intelligent, wealthy and successful, and the model has become a universal social mask that hides issues like individual health and educational needs. And when Asian American women feel pressured to conform to the stereotype of innocence and passiveness, they might be further discouraged to speak out or visit a gynecologist.

But we should all care about getting the conversation going, especially when health issues like STIs are involved. “STIs don’t care about your race, your socioeconomic status, or how educated you are,” reasoned Dr. Michelle Sia, associate director of the residency program and instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University. We can make sex less of a taboo by simply accepting it as a very real part of our lives and talking about it openly with our friends and family. You can start by talking to your parents about your relationship with your partner and how you’re both respectful and honest with each other.

Even if your efforts don’t get through to your parents or other adults, you can try speaking with other young women. Dr. Sia pointed out, “Your parents aren’t the only ones who can help educate you about safe sex and offer advice.” At least you’ll have shown them you’ve maturely thought things through, and there is always someone helpful out there to talk to. Yes, sex may be very personal and intimate. But in the end, talking about it will help us—and our many relationships—be healthier.

Header credit: Shutterstock

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