According to 2009 CDC figures, only 27% of male teens (age 15-19) had spoken with their parents about abstinence and contraception. A sobering statistic? Maybe. A surprising one? Not really. I spent a moment of self-reflection and realized that I have never, to this day, spoken with my parents about sex let alone ways to prevent teen pregnancy. Aside from shielding my eyes during sex scenes in a movie, or what my parents called tầm bậy tầm bạ (perverted), they were largely mum on the subject of sex. While some parents advocate avoiding sex, my parents’ collective strategy was to avoid talking about it altogether. I suppose part of the reason was an unspoken expectation that parts of my “education” would be handled by my older brothers. After all, my parents are Vietnamese immigrants, strangers initially to American culture unaccustomed to its norms and values. Their logic was that some things might be better addressed by my brothers, my family’s trailblazers of the American experience. I have three older brothers and only one has made a passing attempt at sexual education: an awkward, mumbling monologue about STD’s before they were called STI’s and to “make sure you use condoms to avoid them.” No mention of how to use them, no demonstration of how to put one on a banana, nothing about getting a girl pregnant. It felt more like an obligation than an education. The reality was that by the time he initiated “the conversation,” I had already been informed. I learned everything, well nearly everything in my 8th grade health class. Where my family failed me, public education prevailed.
I wondered how many other Asian Americans shared my experience growing up sexually uneducated by their parents. I had long inferred that their silence indicated that sex was simply a matter of cultural taboo. A 2006 study of 165 Asian American college students indicated that parents provided minimal education on a range of sexual topics with the least amount of information being provided from fathers to sons. The study also indicated that the students received implicit messages that conveyed strict sexual behavior. Statements such as ‘”romance is for marriage” or that “dating can wait until college” conveyed clear expectations about their children’s sexual conduct without ever explicitly referring to sexual intercourse.’ As to why Asian Americans receive such little sexual information from their parents the authors of the study speculate, “If parents do not initiate these discussions because of the taboo, as was suggested by many of the open-ended responses, then their children may feel that it is not their place to ask such questions. At the same time, a lack of shared vocabulary or difficulty in expressing complex ideas may also create obstacles to intergenerational knowledge or values transmission in some immigrant families.”
Despite this lack of sexual education, the birth rate for Asian American teens remains the lowest amongst all ethnicities (teen birth rate across that board has decreased to historic lows). I was unable to find abortion statistics specifically for Asian American teens, however it has been reported that for Asian American women the percentages of pregnancies that end in abortion is 35% (compared to 18% for white women).
Although the rates of STD’s (gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphillis) in the Asian American population at large is also lower than other ethnicities–some of which could be due to underreporting, a review of the CDC’s statistical data by Professor Hyeouk Chris Hahm suggests, “that Asian American young women are at risk of high STDs. For instance, Asian American women had a higher prevalence of STDs than White women in both 1995 (10.4% vs. 7.7) and 2001 (13.5% vs. 8.3%). The incidence of STDs (not diagnosed with STDs in 1995, but developed STIs in 2001) among Asian American women was also higher than that of White women.” Slightly dated figures I know but what follows is cause for concern. Alarmingly, the rate of HIV infection has been steadily increasing in the Asian American community. As the Banyan Tree Project reports, “Recent analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that Asians and Pacific Islanders (A&PIs) have the highest rate of increase in new HIV infections in the nation, the only statistically significant growth among any racial or ethnic group. Though HIV is still seen as a men’s issue, the rate of increase for A&PI women is actually higher than that of A&PI men.” Confounding this issue is that Asian Americans are least likely among all ethnic groups to be tested for HIV.
Whether the increase in STD rates but low teen birth rates for Asian Americans can be directly attributed to the lack of explicit sexual education they receive from their parents is unclear. But as Professor Hahm notes, “Forty years from now, Asian Americans are projected to be 11 percent of the national population. That could be a huge number of STD cases, in addition to related infections such as HIV/AIDS. It’s a potential disaster for public health. We need to understand the problem and create an intervention that works for these communities.” I don’t know if “disaster” is the right characterization, but it is an issue worth our attention where not talking about sex with our Asian American children may prove to be as effective as covering their eyes during a movie’s tầm bậy tầm bạ scenes.