If stereotypical Asian parents drove cars like they doled out sex advice, you’d be experiencing some serious whiplash.
“Sex just isn’t talked about. It’s shameful. And then there’s all this pressure to have children, and lots of children,” said Katherine, a 39 year-old Chinese American.
This typical “abstinence until it’s time to get married and have lots of children" policy can send a potentially sexually active young adult into a tailspin.
New studies have shown that due to unique stigmas and a lack of communication on sexual health and sexual education in the home, Asian Pacific Islander Americans have lower rates of condom use, lower rates of HIV testing and, in some groups, high teenage pregnancy rates.
While many American adolescents have to suffer through the “sex talk” with their parents, most Asian American families avoid the subject entirely, and API youths have to rely on the public school system, friends, books or movies for their sexual education. Discussing sex is an extremely personal topic, and infused with taboo and assumptions. Many parents fear that even bringing up the topic of sex will actually encourage their children to become sexually active, even though a study by the University of Washington found that students who received comprehensive sex education are half as likely to become teen parents as those who get none or abstinence-only sex education.
According to the National Asian Women’s Healthy Organization, more than half of Asian American women are uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health with their mothers, and even more so with the male figures in the family.
“In my household, sex was hardly ever brought up,” said Justin, a 31-year-old Filipino American. “It was assumed that I came out of the ether, basically and that’s how it was.” But at the same time, living in America and being surrounded by American media, Justin was inundated with sexual images and stories. His mom’s solution? “Cover your eyes until I say when!”
All of this silence and trusting that other people will do the important job of educating young people about sexual health and the risks involved with sexual activity, has resulted in some surprising figures. The model minority myth has furthered the assumption that most API youths are not sexually active — they’re too busy studying and trying to get into a good college. That’s true to some extent. Compared to the national average, female API high school students are less likely to have had intercourse, and they lose their virginity at a later age, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. But, API youth were significantly less likely to use condoms at first intercourse than all other ethnic groups, according to a 2006 study by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health).
While Asian Americans may have lower rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases than other racial and ethnic groups, HIV infection is growing at the fastest rate among Asian Americans — 14.3 percent for women and 8.1 percent for men between 2001 and 2004, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that helps young people make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health, cites some cultural assets that APIs have that could set the right course for healthy, knowledgeable API youth, but those assets have to be utilized. A high level of parental involvement in their children’s lives in Asian families is a significant factor in helping youths to make the decision to not jump into sexual relationships too early. In a survey, API youth were more likely than any other youth to believe their parents would disapprove of them having sex. Fewer than 10 percent of young API women in the Add Health study who reported a high level of parental involvement reported having had intercourse.
Avoiding the subject with teens, or dropping vague but stern notions of disapproval that “boys are bad” may be as effective as stopping a moving train. But just stopping the train isn’t enough. Eventually, everyone needs to learn how to ride the train, and safely. That’s where Asian parents leave their comfort zone and leave it up to others to educate their children. Studies show that young API women have a high level of confidence about themselves, enough to refrain from sexual activity. An important step is using that self-confidence to apply it to healthy sexual behaviors, such as contraception and reproductive health care.
Thirty-three year old Anna said that situation exactly describes her sexual health experiences. “I felt comfortable enough with my own decisions that I wasn’t ready for sex in high school. But then when I was ready, I definitely could’ve been more responsible with my choices in using contraception and practicing good reproductive health,” she said. “The sex ed classes in high school didn’t make much of an impression on me — not as much as a close personal conversation with someone close to me would have.”
Economic and social barriers can have just as much impact, with parents working multiple jobs, or immigrants and refugees lacking insurance and a comprehensive support network.
Older siblings sometimes step in to fill that role of educator. “In 4th grade, my brother and sister broke into my dad’s porn stash, and they forced me to watch this movie with them so I knew,” says Justin. “I resisted and didn’t want anything to do with it, but my siblings were like, ‘this isn’t that big of a deal, so just get over it.’ They were my guides, because my parents were too busy keeping the family going.”
The original version of this story was published in the International Examiner