Nonprofit Groups Battle Sexual Health Stigma in South Asian Community

Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, May 18, 2017 

Growing up, Tania Chatterjee never talked about the “birds and the bees” with her South Asian parents. Neither did many of her South Asian friends, who she said shared similar frustrations about the generational gap that existed.

“There was no sit down or anything…it’s just kind of a common theme, that there’s an appropriate time for sex, and that’s only after marriage,” the 27-year-old from Washington, D.C., told NBC News.

The stigma around discussing sex within Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities prompted Chatterjee and her brother, Trinish Chatterjee, as well as friends Sree Sinha and Sriya Sarkar, to launch the South Asian Sexual Health Alliance, a safe space and online forum targeting South Asian youth and young adults to discuss sexual health, sexuality, mental health, and LGBTQ issues.

“These three main issues are very stigmatized in the South Asian community and very taboo, and most of us can’t go up to a family or community elders and talk about it,” Tania Chatterjee said. “So we were thinking of providing this space and hopefully find like-minded people or find people going through the same issues. It helps to know you are not alone.”

The alliance has also taken its mission to college campuses: In April, it conducted three workshops at the University of Maryland examining existing stigmas in the South Asian community and how Bollywood influences the community’s views on sex and sexuality.

“Bengali Birds and Bees workshop” at NABC 2016 in New York City SASHA founders Sree, Sriya, Tania and Trinish with workshop attendees. Shalini Ray / Courtesy of SASHA

They have also hosted other workshops that touch on substance abuse and mental health in AAPI communities.

“As someone who works in the field, it’s important to make sure there are resources out there in the community,” Chatterjee, who received a master’s degree in reproductive and cancer biology from Johns Hopkins, said.

Sadia Arshad, a member of the Young Women of Color Leadership Council, echoes some of Chatterjee’s concerns, noting that growing up as a South Asian Muslim woman, she felt there was a certain level of unease when talking to her mother about sexual and mental health.

“When I did talk to my mom about sexual health, I was very nervous because I wasn’t sure she would understand, and I was also concerned about the shame and stigma,” said Arshad, who noted that while her mom has always been supportive of her decisions, there is often a generational divide.

“A lot of our mothers and grandmothers were not given space to discuss these topics safely with adequate education,” she added.

The lack of conversations surrounding sexual health is not uncommon in AAPI communities, according to Dr. Hyeouk Hahm, chair and associate professor of social research at the Boston University School of Social Work.

Data from Hahm’s latest study on young Asian-American women, titled “Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment,” found that the discussion on sexuality in the household was “severely lacking.”

Courtesy of Dr. Hyeouk Hahm

In the 2015 sample, 173 Asian-American women 18 to 35 years of age were evaluated. Of that group, 128 reported having sexual intercourse in the past three months. The majority of women (85 percent) reported having received HIV/AIDS education information from school, 41 percent from a doctor or therapist, and only 2 percent received sexual health information from their home, Hahm said.

“This finding suggests a need to develop culturally relevant strategies to break down myths, stigma, and cultural barriers that limit discussions about sex and HIV among API women and their family members,” Hahm told NBC News by email.

Karishma Trivedi, a junior at Georgetown University, said that along with talking about sexual health in the physical contact and contraceptive sense, there is also a “very real need” to focus on talking about the intimacy of relationships, sexual violence, and domestic abuse. “These are the dominant problems facing our community and they are rarely discussed,” Trivedi told NBC News.

Parteek Singh, a senior at the University of California, Davis, said a majority of students on campus are sexually active and should have access to sexual health resources.

After hearing about a friend who had difficulty accessing emergency contraception at an off-campus pharmacy, Singh researched ways to help make these resources accessible to students on campus after hours, when the school’s pharmacy is closed. He spent nearly two years advocating for a vending machine that would sell emergency contraception as well as to increase the number of free HIV testing days on campus.

The vending machine was green-lit and installed on campus last month and is open seven days a week. Singh says so far the vending machine has received positive feedback for its accessibility. “Students appreciate the anonymity factor the machine has, they don’t have to interact or deal with people,” Singh told NBC News.

Parteek Singh, a senior at UC Davis, helped spearhead an initiative for a vending machine on campus that would sell emergency contraception, along with other resources. Courtesy of Parteek Singh

The vending machine was green-lit and installed on campus last month and is open seven days a week. Singh says so far the vending machine has received positive feedback for its accessibility. “Students appreciate the anonymity factor the machine has, they don’t have to interact or deal with people,” Singh told NBC News.

Along with emergency contraception, the “Wellness to Go” machine also sells Advil, tampons, allergy medication, condoms, and pregnancy tests. “When you’re on a college campus, you need these resources. There needs to be more accessibility,” Singh said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of HIV diagnoses among AAPIs has increased in recent years. One in 5 AAPIs currently live with HIV without knowing their diagnosis, according to CDC data.

Likewise, data collected by the CDC also shows that sexually transmitted diseases rates are increasing in the AAPI community. Rates of reported Chlamydia cases increased 7.8 percent among Asians and 8.9 percent among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders between 2011 and 2015. Rates for Gonorrhea and Syphilis also increased during that time frame.

Sapna Mysoor, director of capacity building assistance and training at the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center (API Wellness), said stigma is an issue across communities of color when talking about or accessing sexual health services.

“We have a lot of cultural norms that are related to not speaking about problems, whether it’s a lot of norms around the whole idea of saving face…you don’t want people to know you’re sick or have cancer or HIV,” Mysoor told NBC News.

In 2005, API Wellness helped establish National Asian Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which falls on May 19, along with a social marketing campaign called the Banyan Tree Project, which incorporates the slogan, “Saving Face Can’t Make You Safe,” to help end the stigma of HIV in the AAPI community.

“We recognized at the time that in order to build awareness, we need to put out messages to API communities around the acceptance of people living with HIV, and the reduction of stigma that was related to HIV,” said Mysoor, adding that the stigma around HIV is very much still present in the AAPI community.

According to a study from Rutgers University that surveyed 665 South Asians, 129 (19 percent) had been tested for HIV, compared to 44 percent of the general population.

Ahead of May 19, API Wellness hopes to put together a toolkit on existing HIV treatment and updated fact sheets to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

“HIV is particularly stigmatized because it’s related to sex and what could be viewed as mainstream API community as deviant sex,” she said, noting that there’s a community level stigma that results in people being isolated and possibly being disowned by families.

“It results in those affected or at risk for HIV to have their own internalized stigma,” Mysoor added. “They themselves feel very ashamed of who they are and how they are behaving which then leads to people not getting tested for HIV because they don’t even want to know.”

Ahead of National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, nonprofit health group APAIT will continue to conduct outreach through its “Status is Sexy” campaign which features brand ambassadors like actor Jake Choi, according to program analyst Abigail Radaza.

The social media campaign, which launched in 2014, aims to promote HIV testing and eradicate the fear of HIV.

“The aim of campaign is to destigmatize and normalize the fact that you can go and find out your HIV status in terms of education and not have to feel as if there would be any judgment,” Radaza told NBC News, adding that misconceptions may include the idea of not feeling the need to be tested.

While the cultural stigma surrounding HIV and sexual health still exists, there’s also a linguistic barrier for those with limited English proficiency who are in need of services, Radaza added.

“If somebody is in need of linguistically competent services and can’t find it in your area, it also becomes difficult to get an HIV test and not have that fear that you’d be discriminated against because maybe you couldn’t understand the words being told to you, or the fear of finding out your status and what happens next,” she said.

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Colleges Are Doing a Shitty Job of Teaching Consent

Monica Luhar for VICE Tonic, May 1, 2017

They’re spending more—but the message isn’t evolving.

For many, freshman year is a two-semester long haze of cheap beer, squeaky dorm bunkbed sex, and fidgeting in class due to social overstimulation. Along with mastering the art of all-nighters and getting Chipotle to take your meal card, are freshmen also gaining sexual health skills before they graduate? Do they know about condom vending machines and affirmative consent? Or do these much-needed conversations surrounding “no means no” dissipate once fall semester begins?

Colleges have increased spending (an average of five new staffers in the past few years) to combat sexual assault on campus, the Washington Post reports, in response to new findings that 20 percent of female undergrads were victims of sexual misconduct. This stat doesn’t even account for the incidents gone unreported. With news of a college lecturer raping a graduate student to the lingering disgust of Brock Turner’s light sentence for rape, many students wonder whether there’s enough consent education incorporated during freshman year, an incubator year where they’re still trying to navigate their new faux grown-up life.

Anais Perez, a sophomore at Cal State University Long Beach, finds that the topic is treated with over-the-top fragility, as if people her age have never heard of a vagina before. Her freshman orientation class spent roughly 15 minutes on the sexual health and consent component. “They ushered us into a room with a projector and warned of a touchy topic and that if any of us were uncomfortable with the topic [could] step out at any time.” She says students were required to watch two videos, one about bystander intervention and sexual assault, and the other was a consent video using the janky analogy of tea.

There was a discussion session after the first video, but Perez felt as though it was awkward and brief because there wasn’t much participation from students or the presenter. “Once the videos were done, we left with not a word of it again….The videos were okay, but it felt like we rushed discussion so as to keep people from feeling too uncomfortable.” Much of the orientation seemed to focus more on academic success rather than personal life, consent, or birth control options, Perez explains.

Other students at CSULB say that while the university provides enough violence prevention—they haven’t “seen any sort of altercations occur on or off campus”—it may have been more effective if there was an emphasis on the severity of issues like sexual assault through real-life testimonies and scenarios from the student body.

Sometimes a more engaging medium is necessary to get students to listen. Brady Root, prevention education coordinator for the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers, helped coordinate the SCREAM Theater Program, which uses improv theater to educate students about issues relating to sexual violence, bystander intervention, violence prevention, and consent. “We believe the programming and messaging must remain consistent after orientation,” Root says.

At Indiana University, Mark Rich, a sophomore and former orientation leader says his university incorporates consent education and sexual assault scenarios through a student-led musical, “Welcome to College: A Musical.” After the musical, orientation leaders facilitate a discussion, debrief and break into small groups to talk about some of the scenes from the musical. “After every session, I felt that all students walked away with complete knowledge and understanding of sexual health on our campus and as a whole.”

Ryan Sanchez, a student and freshman orientation advisor at CSULB, says in the past few years since he’s been involved with the program, it has evolved to incorporate more talks surrounding consent education in part from student feedback and conversations among other advisors on how to enhance the curriculum. “We hit consent a little harder over the last two years as opposed to when I first started. When I first started, it was briefly mentioned and the following year, we included it a little more and more intentionally.”

Across the country at Penn State, Paul Apicella, director at the office of sexual misconduct prevention and response says consent education is delivered on different platforms, through a tiered approach. All first-year and new transfer students are required to take online modules that discuss alcohol consumption and healthy behavior, and sexual violence and assault. In 2015, the university held a task force and climate survey that looked into the issue of sexual misconduct on campus and made recommendations for improvement.

Alexis Campos (who prefers to use an alias), a senior at University of La Verne in California, says she’s witnessed a heightened level of sexual health and consent awareness on campus. “In response to current events and things happening like Brock Turner, and sexual misconduct happening on other campuses, our [administrators] responded and said, ‘let’s talk about it,’ says Campos, who adds there seems to be more events this year that are geared toward talking about consent education.

Though Campos appreciates the campus’ efforts to promote sexual health awareness, she says she still received much of her sexual health education through conversations with her sorority sisters, as well as her personal experiences. “I established what consent means, and what I was comfortable with, through social interactions rather than university programs and resources and orientation.”

Conversations about safe sex, bystander intervention, sexual assault prevention, and affirmative consent are discussed during orientation and throughout the school year through various campus workshops and programs, says Loretta Rahmani, the dean of student affairs at the University of La Verne. The campus student health center also provides information about safe sex and STD testing, Rahmani says.

Every administrator contacted for this piece stressed that they have a robust sex ed plan for freshmen. But while learning about how to put a condom on is great, the more pressing issue might be a more extensive conversation about knowing when to back off a sexual situation that isn’t clearly consensual, regardless of how intoxication can blur boundaries. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are approximately 327 active sexual assault investigations on campuses across the US.

Daren Rikio Mooko, associate dean and Title IX coordinator, helped lead a portion of orientation for all new and incoming students at Pomona College last August. Mooko had a more pronounced concern for teaching consent: “I think the discussion on sexual violence on campus is the very first thing we do during orientation, aside from move-in day,” he says. Before students arrive to school, they are also required to complete the online Title IX training otherwise, they can’t register for classes.

During the orientation, Mooko helped go over the definition of affirmative consent along with university policy and campus resources. “The lack of a ‘no’ or the lack of physical resistance does not equate consent. Consent is ‘yes,'” he says.

South Asian American-Led Dramedy Wants to Explore ‘Unfair & Ugly’ Side of Life

Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, May 11, 2017 Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, May 11, 2017 

Trailer Still_Haaris and Sana Vent.png

Growing up in Orange County, California, Nida Chowdhry and Yumna Khan didn’t see themselves or their communities reflected on television. That feeling extended to their everyday lives, prompting them to create content that they said accurately reflected their experiences.

“We really wanted to feel like we belonged,” Khan told NBC News. “Growing up, we felt like the ‘other,’ we felt people didn’t understand our background.”

The two friends’ latest project hopes to fix that issue by telling their own stories: Chowdhry and Khan — both of whom have worked in TV production, they said — have created an original dramedy series called “Unfair & Ugly,” which tells the story of a South Asian-American Muslim family in Southern California, “trying to keep it together.”

The series trailer follows the story of Sana and her “slacker brother” Haaris, who both deal with the pressures of their immigrant parents’ expectations and figuring out how to navigate millennial life.

Chowdhry and Khan’s production company, Stranger Magic Productions, released the concept trailer for the series last month in conjunction with a crowdfunding campaign that ends May 12.

“I have always wanted to see a show where I could remotely see my experience on TV, and so I think it was important to Yumna and I to really dig into real problems and real experiences of people like ourselves and those around us, and put a mirror to that,” Chowdhry told NBC News.

“Unfair & Ugly” features a diverse cast and crew, including five people of color as leads, three of whom are women, Chowdhry noted.

Khan, who is first-generation Indian American, and Chowdhry, who is first-generation Pakistani American, drew on their experiences growing up Orange County to write the show. The pair connected a year ago through a nonprofit for Muslim-American female entrepreneurs that Chowdhry co-founded, and bonded over their mutual frustrations about the hierarchy, racism, and sexism they experienced in the entertainment industry.

They eventually left their day jobs and committed full-time to their production company, they said.

“We felt like we need to make our own show,” Chowdhry said. “Our crew is 80 percent people of color, and all the people working in crew are supportive of elevating these stories. And that’s stressed by two women getting together and deciding to make their own stories, that way we can make that change in front and behind camera.”

Stranger Magic Production co-founders and co-producers and creators of “Unfair & Ugly,” Yumna Khan and Nida Chowdhry Saagar Shaikh

The title of their series is a play of “Fair & Lovely,” a skin whitening product popular in India. Chowdhry and Khan intended it to challenge the notion that you have to be “fair-skinned to be lovely.”

“This is meant to take a jab on how we have to hide who we are just to be ourselves,” Khan said. “We all live this world with flaws because we are humans. ‘Unfair & Ugly’ shows you how we deal with it and try to keep it together.”

Khan noted that in high school, she came to the realization that she was the only girl whose complexion was different than many of her classmates. There was also a moment when she was once singled out in class and called a “beautiful dark-skinned girl.”

“Even though he told me I was beautiful I felt like I wasn’t beautiful because he had to single me out,” said Khan. “…it really affected me because it made me want to distance myself from my culture … Because my skin color is different, I had to try to blend in harder with my peers, that affected me growing up.”

The show also explores the “unfair and ugly parts of life” and how many people feel pressure to present themselves in a certain way, Chowdhry noted.

The concept trailer features a scene where the family’s TV is tuned to CNN with a banner that discusses the travel ban. There’s also a scene where Sana tries to tell her mom she’s depressed, but the mom doesn’t seem to understand, stating, “desi people don’t get depressed.”

“We thought a TV show is a step removed, so you can actually show problems on it, and it creates a form of catharsis for our audience…for the audience to see themselves experiencing things they might not be comfortable talking about in real life,” Chowdhry said.

Ultimately, Chowdhry and Khan want the project to insert South Asian Americans into mainstream discussions as actual people instead of being in the background while decisions about them are being made.

“We’re just this ‘other’ that is being discussed and in a dehumanizing way, like we don’t have something to add to the conversation,” Chowdhry said, reflecting on a recent visit to the hospital, where she wore a headscarf and noticed the television was tuned in to a report about Muslim Americans.

“It was talking about us like we’re not here in America right now listening,” she added. “So that’s something we wanted to capture in the show — that feeling that like you’re a human being, but constantly being called out as not a human.”

For 45 Years, Southern California’s ‘Donut Man’ Has Drawn Crowds on Route 66

Monica Luhar for NBC Asian America, May 9, 2017 

Nearly every morning since 1972, Jim Nakano has started his day at his Southern California doughnut shop with a cup of coffee and a fresh buttermilk doughnut.

The two in hand, he greets new and longtime customers as they wait in line picking between the nearly two dozen types of doughnuts The Donut Man sells. He then heads to the back of the shop to taste-test some of his stock, making sure everything is handled with care and fried to perfection.

“I don’t eat all the donuts,” Nakano told NBC News. “I eat part of it, look at it, and taste it. I look at the consistency.”

“Every time I eat a hot doughnut, I realize my wife was right: There’s nothing better than a hot doughnut with coffee,” he added.

The Donut Man is located on Route 66 in Glendora, California, and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for major holidays. Nakano calls it a “hole in the wall.”

“It’s more than that to us naturally,” he said. “But people spot it right away now so when they drive by they recognize it. The architecture is part of The Donut Man.”

The shop is particularly busy during the spring, Nakano said, when locals are willing to wait in half hour-long lines to taste the shop’s signature seasonal strawberry doughnut.

Over the past 45 years, Nakano’s shop has become a doughnut destination for those hoping to satisfy their late-night sugar cravings.

“We didn’t ever think we’d be big. At least I never thought it would grow very much, but I knew we could make a good living,” he said. “It was on Route 66, and we just liked the community and school area, so this is where we wanted to live and do business here.”

The Donut Man sells more than 20 different varieties of doughnuts, including tiger tails, cream cheese doughnuts, apple fritters, bear claws, pumpkin cream, old fashioned doughnuts, French cruller cream puffs, apple spice, red velvet, and other seasonal varieties.

One of the shop’s best sellers is the seasonal strawberry doughnut, made with fresh strawberries the shop gets nightly when the fruit is in season.

“Our berries come from San Diego to Salinas, Watsonville area, depending on where they are picking,” Nakano said. “So we are lucky we get the very fresh thanks to my wholesale produce crop person.”

While the basic process of making a doughnut doesn’t change from store to store, Nakano said what sets his apart is how he and his staff handle the dough.

“Once you start, you only have so much time, and it depends on weather, humidity,” he said. “The other thing is to use the best oil and watch your temperature. … You have to have pride in your work. If you don’t have that, it shows.”

Before opening The Donut Man, Nakano and his wife had considered hamburger and sandwich shops but were eventually drawn to doughnuts.

“We were just looking for a change in our life, to go on our own and try for the American Dream,” Nakano said. “She said, ‘I like hot donuts,’ and we looked at each other and said ‘OK, I’ll do the research on that’ and did that quite a bit.”

Nakano tried to learn as much as he could about the business and science behind the pastries before opening his shop. He visited French and Jewish bakeries and learned how to properly handle the dough and find the right consistency.

The name of his doughnut shop came about after visiting a restaurant with some friends. “A little girl came to our table and said, ‘Hi Mr. Donut Man.’ And right away everyone looked at each other and said, that’s it, that’s the name,” Nakano said.

But the famous strawberry doughnut didn’t happen right away. Nakano said that one year the surrounding area was filled with an abundance of strawberry crops.

“One of the grower friends came over to me and said, ‘Jim, you gotta start a strawberry donut,'” Nakano said. “So we looked into it and said we can do it, and we developed our own glaze and it just took off.”

And after strawberry donuts, came the popular peach donut.

“People love those strawberry donuts, and I said well if we do strawberries, we might as well do peach,” Nakano said.

Nakano was born in Boyle Heights in 1940 and was two years old when he and his family were sent to an incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona. Nakano’s neighbors offered to take the family in for a couple of weeks after they returned to California, Nakano said.

After his father completed his military commitment in Germany, the family moved to San Pedro, California, before settling in East Los Angeles and later, San Dimas and Glendora.

Nakano studied marketing at California State University, Los Angeles, and served in the U.S. Navy after graduating. He decided to open a doughnut shop in 1972 after working as a manager at JC Penney.

The doughnuts have garnered attention from locals and food critics and has even earned a mention on the TV game show “Jeopardy!,” where his Glendora shop was featured as part of a question.

One of Nakano’s most memorable moments running The Donut Man was when he received a call from the late Huell Howser, the host of “California’s Gold,” a popular travel TV series. Howser wanted to feature him on his show.

Shortly after the episode, the Donut Man had a line of cars all the way down the block, according to Nakano. “We were out of doughnuts the whole month,” he said. ” That’s how effective Huell Howser was in any restaurant.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold has also interviewed Nakano. “He featured us in his ’99 things to do before you die,'” Nakano said. “We can never thank him enough and lot of other food critics and writers.”

Nakano has always had a sweet spot for doughnuts. His first memory of them was as a young boy racing a cocker spaniel named Denny to a bakery truck. The dog would always win, and Nakano would buy it a doughnut before he got one himself. Now, Nakano said he’s thankful people are willing to wait in line for his doughnuts.

“My wife says you should be glad that you make people happy and share donuts,” he said. “I can never thank enough the kids, adults that come here. I meet so many people, and that’s why I’m still here.”