• Riya Kumar

“We Don’t Talk About It”: Sex and Sexuality in the South Asian Diaspora

America is entering into a new period of uncertainty with the news of a draft opinion by the US Supreme Court to overturn the landmark court case Roe v. Wade. The monumental Roe marked a new period for Americans to access reproductive healthcare—specifically abortions—without government intervention. With the sudden uptick in conversation about the controversial decision, reproductive healthcare has been on all of our minds. There’s been a slew of debate from both sides of the spectrum, but one thing is clear: our abortion rights are in severe and immediate danger.


Photo Credit: Washingtonian


At the core of the issue, though, is a lot more than just a ban on abortions. Rather, the conversation illuminates a lack of education and openness about reproductive bodies and capabilities. Proper education is rare due to the amount of stigma surrounding sexuality and feminine bodies. Moving into a future where the existence of a safe, reliable abortion may not be an option, it’s important to dig further into the root causes of the abortion issue. The South Asian diaspora, specifically, struggles with an overwhelming amount of stigma regarding these topics. Therefore, it’s difficult to find access to proper sex-ed and reproductive healthcare within our communities.


An awkward denial seems to be the environment around sex and reproductive health in many South Asian households, both across the diaspora and in the homelands. In a survey of about 35 high school students who identify as South Asian in the San Francisco Bay Area, [one of the most progressive and open areas in the US] this was indeed the nearly unanimous answer when asked to describe the environment around such topics in their households. One student aptly put it—“we literally do not talk about it.” Though there was, as always, some slight variance between responses, those whose parents were immigrants and thus identified as 1st generation tended to describe a very closed, lackluster sexual education at home—if existent at all. Many cited bare-bones curricula regarding puberty and menstruation or nothing at all, leaving it up solely to schools and media to educate.

This type of educational pattern—where many Desi parents rely on the school to teach children rather than breaking through the stigma of sex- can be extremely harmful. Unless the parents are really doing good research into what the schools teach, there’s a very high likelihood that school sex-ed isn’t cutting it. Many schools are lacking in education that covers contraceptives and LGBTQ+ inclusivity or simply any type of education other than abstinence, and the survey suggests this is true. Out of 8 components [puberty, menstruation, contraceptives, consent, in-depth explanation of sex, LGBTQ+ inclusivity, fertility, proper sexual health resources] of proper sex-ed listed on the survey, the average participant checked off only 4 for what they received at school.


Photo Credit: SIECUS


Even then, the demographic being surveyed belongs to a very liberal area and receives fairly progressive sexual education through the California school system. In many parochial schools, which oftentimes appeal to Desi parents in particular due to their rigorous curricula, abstinence is the only education. This is an approach across the US in more conservative areas, and one of the biggest reasons that teen pregnancy rates are so high in certain regions. Beyond just the holes this method leaves in education, it just reinforces that reproduction and sexuality are negative things, where many families draw a line.


However, when reforming our sex-ed mindsets, we must go beyond simply becoming more comfortable with contraceptives. Educators need to break past yet another internalized stigma—the heteronormativity and gender binary in which we are all so deeply steeped. Around the time many adolescents receive sex-ed, they’re also unraveling their own sexualities. This is exactly why LGBTQ+ inclusive sex-ed is so pivotal. During a time of extensive self-exploration, people need to be equipped with the resources to understand experimenting with queerness, gender dysphoria, and other aspects of non-cis/het identity.


Mainstream sex-ed teaches only at the surface level and therefore neglects all the different aspects of sex-ed that pertain to non-heterosexual couples as well. It’ll teach about dealing with periods as a cisgender woman, but not how to grapple with them if you’re feeling dysphoric. There are gaping holes, and the South Asian community is particularly lackluster within this area.


One response from the survey conveyed the unwelcoming environment for a young, queer man of mixed descent. He talked about having a confusing experience around queerness, where it’s vaguely accepted, but heteronormativity still rules the house. “There's a lot of uncertainty with queerness in my household, and it's easier to hide that side of myself than risk confrontation. It's still difficult, though.” This level of progressivism, which many modern South Asian households have achieved, bodes well for fostering just the sort of lopsided sex-ed previously described. This person, and many others throughout our communities, experienced a lack of queer inclusivity within his sex-ed, but it’s not just that. Rather, LGBTQ+ exclusion pervades every part of South Asian society, and the solution to this problem begins with breaking that down.


Photo Credit: DW.com


To understand the troubling pattern of closed-offedness, we must look back to our roots- namely our homelands. In South Asia itself, rates of teen pregnancy, sexual violence, and STIs are very high and continue to increase rapidly. The World Health Organization recently recognized that less than 50% of abortions in South and Central Asia were considered safe, which contributes to the high death rates of mothers in those countries. Unsurprisingly, all of these negative statistics correlate to an extremely stark sex education atmosphere.


Traditionally, heavy focuses on marital intimacy within the dominant religions of the region mean that premarital sex is often portrayed as dirty in South Asia. On top of that, the heavily patriarchal societal dynamics lead to unhealthy power imbalances between many genders. For young female-identifying people especially, this means many have sex in unsafe environments, without protection, with skewed views on consent and respect. Thus, all of the possible negative outcomes of these factors need to be covered up, meaning proper reproductive care is not an option.


This stigma around female sexuality extends to queerness as well, as rampant homophobia in South Asia translates into our values in the Western world. Thus, we see patterns like those that the young man from the survey experienced. There are so few resources available to LGBTQ+ South Asian people and when there are, our loved ones don’t extend them to us. Our culture heavily emphasizes outside judgment, making even our private lives a community matter.


When someone comes out as queer in a homophobic society, it’s not just them being targeted—it’s their whole family. Thus, the cycle of homophobia continues. One respondent pointed out how toxic this environment can be: “In South Asian culture, it [sex] is viewed as a very private thing, except when your parents scorn you. In that case, it's all too public.” Watching someone walk into a sexual health clinic translates into instant negative gossip, which means the stigma never truly dies.


Photo Credit: SFGATE


Stigmatizing pivotal topics which need to be discussed in a loving and friendly environment can cause incalculable damage to young people coming to terms with sexuality and exploring the world around them. One of the many ways our society seeks to break us down is by offering so little support in terms of contraceptives, abortions, and sexual freedom, yet so deeply sexualizing and placing pressure on people. For many young feminine individuals, they feel a need to grab ahold of their youth by giving their bodies away in bits and pieces to those who want them.


We as a society simultaneously stigmatize and fetishize feminine sexuality too much to afford to curb reproductive freedoms in such ways. So much of the harm of the current situation with abortion and sex-ed is how anti-feminist our environment is. In South Asian society, where feminized bodies are so rarely taught about and advocated for, we learn to hide our sense of self. Women find one-night stands, find abstinence, find premarital relationships in judgment, and most importantly in secret no matter what. We do not learn about our resources and slowly, they are being taken away.


Thankfully, many South Asians within the diaspora are not so conservative about their sex-ed, and as we move away from the homeland, many also move away from the stuffy standards about sex that hold such power in the spaces of our collective past. The survey reflected a very clear distinction between those who identified as first generation (immigrants or children of immigrants) and second generation members of the diaspora—the vast majority of those who were 2nd generation (about 73% of them) had much more comprehensive sex-ed at home and a much better space to discuss such matters. The same pattern seemed to come up for those who identified as mixed. However, the goal is not to continue on hoping we can get as far removed as possible from the homeland and the stigma that draws from it. Instead, the goal is to actively change the minds and lives of people around us by breaking barriers about the topics, both in South Asia and here.


Photo Credit: Rolling Stone


So, the first thing to do is acknowledge that Roe v Wade is not one of those barriers we want to break down—if anything, we are simply worsening the situation for ourselves. In South Asia, access to safe abortions is limited and targeted, but here it doesn’t have to be like that. Rather than moving backward, we can protect our reproductive freedoms and march forward into a better future: one where everybody has access and awareness to contraception, where feminine people feel inclined to openly express themselves and not suffer the consequences, and where we can have healthy conversations about the topics that pervade our lives the most.


It will take tireless work, but we must heal our flawed ideologies, break past our comfort zones, and pave the way for reform in order to sustain a truly inclusive, healthy atmosphere for sexual freedom to flourish.