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.
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.”
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.