Taking on taboos: Reporting on sex in California’s Asian-American communities

Published on
April 20, 2016

Even in an era where sexual themes saturate our media and are readily available on television and online, basic education about puberty, sexual health and safe sex is still inaccessible for some Americans.

In a recent study of 600 young people aged 12 to 15, nearly a third said they had never talked to their parents about sex.

In Asian American families, where the subject of sex is particularly taboo and parents may lack sex education themselves, discussions about sex are even less likely to happen.

I explored the consequences of this disconnect in my two-part fellowship project.

In the first story, I explore the unique challenges LGBTQ Vietnamese Americans face in being openly out in a culture that not only hesitates to discuss sexuality, but also lacks the vocabulary to mediate the conversation.

In a second story, I use my own family as an example of how the lack of conversation about sex in Asian American families can foster misunderstandings and a lack of trust. More broadly, these issues may contribute to higher rates of unprotected sex and unreported sexual abuse among Asian Americans.

Because of the sensitive and taboo nature of the subject, one of the main challenges in reporting this story was finding people willing to talk to me about sex. Half my family declined to participate in my article. Among friends and strangers, many were willing to offer their experiences, but not their names or voices.

For such a sensitive topic, using online surveys or posts on social media to find interviewees was ineffective. It was more fruitful to identify individuals for whom this was already a salient topic.

Advocates, mental health professionals and therapists were useful in connecting me to sources and interviewees. Two of the LGBT individuals I profiled in my first story were licensed clinical social workers -- a coincidence, but it also gave them valuable perspectives from the personal and clinical viewpoints.

As my story points out, there aren't many sexual education resources available in non-English speaking communities, especially in Asian languages.

Although I was only able to locate two Vietnamese-American sex therapists and mental health professionals in my area, you may be able to find groups that promote mental health resources for immigrant communities, such as Viet CARE in Orange County.

New immigrant communities or ones with fewer resources than the Vietnamese community in Orange County may not have as many mental health professionals — in which case, you may need to look outside your area for sources and experts. Research parts of the country where there may be other, similar immigrant communities you can look to for examples.

For example, outside of Orange County, there are sizable Vietnamese communities in San Diego, San Jose, Houston and Philadelphia. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles also are home to large Asian-American communities with public and nonprofit resource networks more developed than Orange County.

Nonprofit groups and community clinics that cater to immigrants often offer multiple services (immigration assistance, English classes, social activities, health and mental health care), often serve as hubs for community resources and cultural groups, and can help connect you to doctors, advocates, patients and members of the community. They can also guide you to where their clients aren't being adequately served by the health system. Mental health professionals employed by public agencies are also helpful because they often serve safety-net populations and those with limited access to care.


Immigrant parents often face additional challenges in raising children in a context so unlike their own, in a different language and a different society.

One vein of mental health research that informed my stories looks at "acculturative stress" and the impact on immigrant youth when they struggle with their cultural or ethnic identity. The basic idea is that strong connectedness with the family, school or another social network is good for a person's mental health.

A number of studies on the subject have found that the less acculturated an adult immigrant is, the better mental health profile they have, while more acculturated immigrants tended to have worse mental health profiles. First-generation immigrants were also found to have lower levels of mental health problems compared to the second generation.

A good primer on this is an informative keynote on acculturative stress from a Jan. 2014 workshop, "Covering Immigrants and Refugees," by New Jersey-based psychiatrist Dr. Andres Pumariega, a “1.5” generation Cuban-American. Video of the workshop, hosted by the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism, is available online and includes other panels with journalists and immigrant advocates.

I found this to be a useful context for understanding immigrant families and how children and parents can struggle to relate to each other. As my stories showed, when parents and children come from completely different worlds, getting on the same page about relationships, sex, or personal health can mean bridging a gulf of cultural and generational differences. As I discuss in my second story, it wasn't until her children were in their twenties that my mother was able to articulate her views on sex and contraception. While we were growing up, it was hard for her to understand both the unique threats posed by modern American life and the kinds of opportunities available to her daughters.

Finally, it's important to consider the different immigration context for the community you are covering. "Asian" is different from "Asian-American." In this case, talking to Vietnamese Americans in the United States is often very different from talking to those recently from Vietnam. People who immigrate at different times often come from different social, economic and political backgrounds.

For example, Dr. Clayton Chau, a psychiatrist and sex therapist who I interviewed for my stories, remarked that the Vietnamese American parents who he counsels tend to be more conservative when it comes to homosexuality than others who had immigrated more recently or lived most of their lives in Vietnam, in part because of the political climate of the Orange County refugee community.

Read Thy Vo’s two-part fellowship project here.

Illustration by Rose Feduk (rosefeduk.com), courtesy Voice of OC.