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. 


Related Reading:

The Sexual Health of Asian-American/Pacific Islander Young Women: Focus on Assets

Sex Education among Asian American College Females: Who is teaching them and what is being taught

Lets (Not) Talk About Sex

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

4 thoughts on “The sexual education of Asian Americans

  1. I can relate to the avoidance strategy that Asian parents employ. However, I always remember very strict rules that are set out by some parents with regard to the sexual behavior of the children. Some of the Asian kids I know had very strict curfew growing up, always had to tell their parents where they were going even during their college years. I remember one of my close friend had to promise her father that she will not share the same bed with any boy while in college. I guess at the end of the day, Asian parents are preaching total abstinence rather than safe sex. Perhaps if you can research on how sexual education work in the various countries in Asia and compare it to the Asian American experiences in the U.S as well different ethnicities around the world, I think it would make for an interesting analysis.

    1. It sounds like your friends were on the receiving end of implicit messaging. I would characterize my experience as being a combination of avoidance and implicit messaging.

      A comparison across cultures and countries would be interesting, but I’m afraid it’s beyond the scope of my blog.

  2. I know this is disturbing, especially for anti-racist whites, praising for more culturalism, while ignoring all the consequences coming from interracial relationships. But the fact actually tells us that interracial dating is responsible for the high rate of STDs found among asian women. In East Asia, for instance, I failed to find such gender difference in STD. The lack of power when it comes to sex with white men is, in my view, the best explanation for these figures. I discussed the issue below :

    I would not be surprised if you would object to the argument. One thing I understand clearly, is that when ethnic minorities, leaving their country, went to western countries, they seem to be easily brainwashed by liberal ideology (i.e., the praise of multiculturalism and intermarriage). Ethnic minorities rapidly shift their way of thinking, conforming to that of whites, and this is particularly true for minorities who have grew up in western countries. Even in France, where I actually live (but not for long) there are a lot of chinese I hardly trust. Multiculturalism is like cigarettes. When you start, it is difficult to stop.

  3. Wow! Meng Hu, you seem to have a strong argument and your blog in support of your position on this topic is a definite read for those who value more detail. Thank you for sharing.

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