PSA: HIV and the Asian American Woman

Although the rate of new HIV infections has slowed in many regions of the world, the disease continues to grow among Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs), particularly API women. Dr. Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a Boston University professor, is the lead investigator of the API Women’s Sexual Health Initiative Project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. This research examines sexual risk behaviors, mental health and substance use among API women as well as the role of gender power control.

According to one of Hahm's studies, the likelihood of ever having a sexually transmitted disease was 4 times higher among young Asian American women than young Asian American men.

Hahm is the first to test if the well-established Theory of Gender and Power—which argues that a woman with less relationship power is more likely to be involved in HIV and sexual risk behaviors—holds true for API women. Safer sex practices and HIV risk behaviors have been tested within this theory among other minority groups, but not yet among API women.

For two years, Hahm and her team of researchers have been collecting data from approximately 700 API women who are children of immigrants. These API women were primarily Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese since they make up a large portion of the API population in Massachusetts, the site of Hahm’s research.

Hahm found that once API women start having sex, their sexual risk behavior is the same as for women of other races. The difference is that API women do not begin having sex until later.

Hahm also found that the level of power API women have in a relationship does not influence the safer sex practice of condom use, whereas the power level is significant for women of other races. According to Hahm, some API women actively choose to forgo condom use due to personal preferences, regardless of whether they have a controlling partner.

Although the level of power among API women did not seem to have an effect on condom use, it mattered when it came to engaging in HIV risk behaviors such as having multiple sex partners and experiencing forced sex.

Hahm said that API women in her research who claimed to have lower power in the relationship were more likely to be depressed and susceptible to HIV risk behaviors. Depression, therefore, is an important part in Hahm’s research.

Another piece to her research is the model minority myth. “Asian American women believe they are immune to HIV,” said Hahm. “They believe in their partners. They don’t question. They accommodate the men’s request, not because of power, but because they’re not concerned about HIV. They are only concerned with pregnancy. This is a false sense of security.”

Due to the model minority myth, API women believe that they are “invincible” and that they will not contract HIV. As a result, many API women and men do not get tested. Some health care providers also carry this perception and thus do not encourage API women to get tested for HIV. Hahm’s research shows that sexually experienced API women are the least likely to be tested for HIV than women of any other race. Furthermore, even if API women believe they are carrying HIV, shame and stigma stop many of them from testing.

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