Why Asian Americans Need Better Sex Ed

Sex ed is too often not culturally competent for people of color, as it's tailored for white culture. That needs to change.

[Photo: A young, brown teen whispers into an elder's ear.]
For all young people, culturally competent and compassionate sex ed means building healthier relationships with their bodies, sex, and sexuality, which can improve their relationships and their lives. Shutterstock

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

Like many South Asian Americans, I didn’t get much sex education at home. Now, as a sex-positive reproductive justice activist working in public health, I want to change our understanding of sex ed so that younger generations can access the culturally competent sex ed I wish I had during my youth.

Growing up, my parents were progressive and allowed me a lot of independence, encouraged my budding feminism and interest in the arts and humanities, and never pressured me to take the “traditional” path of success expected of many immigrant children. Though many in my parents’ families had arranged marriages, they did not, so it was never expected for me and my sister. Still, my parents were deeply religious, and—having grown up in India in the 1960s and ‘70s, where openness about sexuality was hardly the norm—sex was stigmatized to the point of silence in my household. That silence around sex meant that certain repressive values about womanhood and purity were also passed down to me and my sister.

This silence stood in stark contrast to the experience I was actually having as a young person growing up in New York City, where groups of teenagers would gather near nightly in Riverside Park for 40s, blunts, and making out; where someone’s parents were always out of town, leaving an unsupervised apartment to party in; and where everyone had condoms in their bag and knew girls who were giving blowjobs at 12 years old.

I was lucky to attend public schools that, though far from being comprehensive, did offer sex ed that informed us about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), taught us how to roll condoms on bananas, and shouted out the local Planned Parenthood. It never even crossed my mind to talk to my parents about sex or dating because the expectation of secrecy was so engrained in me. I learned about sex through whispered, giggling conversations with girlfriends, episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation, fumbling hookups at high school parties, and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a revolutionary book on women’s health and sexuality.

Growing up between this world of sexual openness and fluidity and the more repressive world of my parents and our religious community was confusing. Like many Indian American girls, I oscillated between the pressures and expectations of my parents and my desire to experiment—all against the backdrop of an immigrant context where sexuality was inherently linked to issues of family, cultural loyalty, and ethnic purity.

In the world of public health, we know that there are negative impacts when sex education inevitably fails to reach young people of color. And despite the prevalence of the “model minority” myth, which aims to separate us from other communities of color by setting us aside as “exceptional,” that also includes Asian Americans.

Multiple bodies of research show that parental communication about sex causes a delay in sexual activity among youth and reduces risky behavior. Teens who receive clear messages about sex from their parents are more likely to use condoms and birth control, and this is especially true when it comes to young women who learn about safe sex from their mothers.

It’s not that I blame my mother or any Asian parent. When I spoke to her for this article, she told me that as a young parent adjusting to life in a new country, she didn’t intentionally ignore sex ed for her kids—she just didn’t have the tools, resources, and knowledge to do that kind of education herself.

What my mother needed was access to more culturally sensitive sex ed resources, but there are still many barriers in the way. For example, sexuality education and health-related materials, like books and pamphlets, are frequently unavailable (or poorly translated) in Asian languages, and there is a lack of outreach to Asian immigrant communities. This underscores a larger trend of communities of color in the United States having disproportionately less access to sex education and a lack of sex educators of color. Sex ed is often not culturally competent for people of color, as it’s tailored to a white cultural context.

I want to be clear that cultural silence and shame around sexuality aren’t inherently immigrant or Asian issues, and most people, regardless of race or ethnicity, grow up without comprehensive and affirming sex ed. But if we want better for our communities, we must look to community-oriented and -led solutions, and examine what culturally competent sexuality education should look like.

I reached out to Sandra Phanita Kumwong, a sexuality educator and full spectrum doula of Thai descent, to try to further understand the complexities of sex ed for Asian Americans. She said she believes bringing access to sexual health care in her community is inherently political.

“There is a pervasive stereotype that Asian women are quiet, subtle, and don’t take charge. At the same time, we’re hypersexualized and fetishized, only seen through a white male gaze,” Kumwong said. “Even if the people viewing us this way aren’t white, they’re intentionally or unintentionally upholding white supremacy by believing in constructs that were created to support imperialism, colonization, and degradation of Asian women and other women of color.”

For Kumwong, promoting empowerment through inclusive, pleasure-centered, evidence-based sex education is an issue of gender and racial justice. For all young people, culturally competent and compassionate sex ed means building healthier relationships with their bodies, sex, and sexuality, which can improve their relationships and their lives. Kumwong, like most sex educators, believes simply knowing about condoms and reproductive organs is not enough, and that marginalized people need to be represented in the field of sexual health education.

“The more comfortable the students get with you, the more risqué the questions get,” Kumwong said. “I’ve had questions like, ‘I heard Asian girls have slanted vaginas,’ or ‘If I have a racial preference, am I racist?’ or ‘Aren’t trans people faking?’ It’s really important for educators to have a good handle on the situation because these conversations unmoderated hurt students listening in.” In these situations, Kumwong addresses topics of racism and transphobia head-on.

As a co-leader of the Asian American Feminist Collective, part of our work is to create spaces for identity exploration and community building through an intersectional lens. Events like our annual Sex & Love Talk Circle have shown me the prevalence of cultural silence around sex among Asian American families, and how deeply its associated guilt, shame, and fear can impact us for years to come.

Sex education that’s inclusive, comprehensive, judgment-free, and compassionate is a critical part of creating communities that are more tolerant, loving, open, and equitable for everyone. When we see sex ed as an opportunity for racial justice, we are standing up for our youth and fighting to create the world they deserve—no matter their identity.