My Indian-American Upbringing Gave Me An Insufficient Sex Education

Sex – I can count on one hand the number of times it was said or referenced in my home growing up. Raised in a semi-traditional South Indian-American home, it was a mysterious topic that felt taboo.

Your cultural upbringing can impact how you view sex and what you learn as a teenager. Depending on the culture, your family and where you grew up can also add nuance. For me, a South Indian-American born and raised in the “Bible Belt,” my knowledge was limited and narrow-minded.

These layers, combined with an ambiguous sex education from both my family and school’s health education class, fostered feelings of frustration, guilt, and anxiety. And those emotions created a sense of shame due to the lack of experience and understanding of my own body when I was young, which I carried into my adult life.  

sex education as a first generation immigrant

From curiosity to confusion

I remember first hearing the word sex in elementary school. Kids talked about it in that confident tone, making it easy to believe that what they’re saying is true. Call me gullible, but they had me convinced Santa Claus was real for a short while. So, it was possible that they knew something about sex, right? The word stuck with me, but as an 8–9 year old, I couldn’t ask my parents about it. 

Around this time, AOL chat rooms were popular, and that’s where I started to find out more. Obviously, that’s one of the worst places to learn about sex, but I was a curious kid and I had to get information somewhere. I discovered tidbits about what anatomy was involved, but that was as much as I could wrap my head around. I certainly didn’t know what other words to search for in these chatrooms and search engines. I’d learn more once I got into middle school and high school, I figured. It seemed like an important topic. Surely, my education would cover this mysterious topic in case my parents weren’t going to explain it all.  

Well, I did get some semblance of a sex talk. In 6th grade I got my period, and my mom sat me down to talk about it. She tried to explain sex, but I remember it being awkward and uncomfortable. The conversation ended up consisting of the reasons I shouldn’t be sexually active: “You’ll get an STD. You could get pregnant.” And the most “helpful” one – “it’s bad. Don’t do it.” 

I also remember her saying that “It’s better to wait until you’re older when you’re in a serious relationship or married.” That stuck with me as a slight contrast to her other reasons I should avoid sex. She was acknowledging that I was going to do what I want because I grew up in the US, not India, so I had a different outlook on life – which was both perceptive and accurate. 

Even as an 11-year-old, I had a problem with these reasons though. Something deep within me believed that these reasons for avoiding sex were wrong and led to misconceptions about sex. Plus, it didn’t even open the door to other topics like sexual health and wellness, how to practice safe sex, what to do if I got pregnant, consent, and so many other valuable lessons I needed to understand at some point in my teenager life. There was so much more to sex than simply doing it. But this wasn’t something I could say out loud, and I didn’t know how to express these thoughts. Even if I had been able to comfortably ask more questions, I don’t think my mom could have provided me guidance on these topics. 

A DIY approach to sex education

Like many teenagers, once my parents glossed over a topic, I was determined to find out more. I searched about sex online and whenever I’d go shopping with my parents. I’d stroll over to the magazine aisle and scope out the ones with the word “sex” on their covers, usually Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire, and absorb what I could before it was time to leave. 

Unfortunately, the articles I read still gave me a one-sided view on sex. It always seemed to be about giving pleasure to your man (which I now recognize as limited, because you can’t assume someone’s sexuality). Even then, I wondered, why is it always about the partner? What about my own desires? What about sexual health? Why aren’t there any females that look like me on these covers talking about these things? I had so many questions. 

As expected, middle school didn’t provide me many satisfying answers around sex and sexual health. But, I had pieced together enough through reading to have some sense of it. I understood how it worked, had a sense of what birth control was, and understood safe sex practices outside of abstinence. Abstinence was the one that was preached the most where I grew up. I didn’t agree with this, but per usual I couldn’t say that. 

By the time I was in high school, I remember being naively optimistic about my required health education class. I actually believed I’d learn much more and feel empowered with all this newfound knowledge. Sex education would be covered because it’s an important topic and teenagers are sexually active. I know many of my classmates were.

Unsurprisingly, my health education was disappointing and useless. The one thing that I remember them covering was STDs. Nothing else stuck with me. I remember feeling extremely frustrated because it was like we were being sheltered.  

Reproductive care and health weren’t topics I could easily talk with my parents about either. Aside from period health, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my mom questions. I remember hearing hallway conversations and PE locker room chats about birth control and thinking “my mom won’t even let me get on birth control” and “how were [my peers] able to convince their parents to let them take the pill?” It was a weird feeling being envious of my white female classmates. 

Indian American parents need to normalize the sex talk and acknowledge that there’s more to it than simply doing it. 

I wish my family felt comfortable having these conversations with me when I was a teenager.  But I know it’s also a generational and cultural difference between my parents and me (in fact, it’s one of many generational traumas I’ve also had to unlearn in my 20s and 30s). 

While I’m mostly at peace with it, do I still experience moments where I feel upset at the lack of education? Absolutely. But I’m glad I had the Internet to figure out some things (and thankfully my parents didn’t monitor my internet activities). And it’s good to see there are more resources out there and more people talking about these topics. Now, there’s diversity and nuance to these conversations. 

South Asian and Indian families need to be open with their kids (regardless of their gender or how they identify) about sex. There should also be candid conversations around sexual wellness, reproductive health, protection, birth control, self-pleasure, consent, and sexual abuse – just to name some. 

I understand why some of these topics can be uncomfortable for parents. I can also see parents not having enough knowledge to talk with their kids about them. So, it’s important they point their kids to reliable sources, so they’re more aware and can make informed choices. Ignoring or refusing to acknowledge these topics also contributes to shame, confusion, guilt, and trauma that we end up having to process and unlearn as adults. Call me dramatic, but it’s dangerous to keep your kids in the dark about sex and everything tied to it. 

Speaking as a female, we should also be taught to celebrate our bodies, sexuality, and feminine energy. No one should ever feel shame for wanting to explore what sex is to them. It’s also important to acknowledge that sex may or may not be a focus during some periods of our lives. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, and that should also be normalized. 

If I ever change my mind about having a child, I’ll take a different approach than my parents. I’d teach them to embrace sex, be aware of their sexual and reproductive health, and anything they’d be curious to know – because I don’t want them to ever feel ashamed about it. Curiosity is such a wonderful quality to have. I’d want them to feel empowered so that they can have control over their bodies and health. I’d hope they would explore their own desires, confidently pursue relationships, embrace being single, recognize the signs of toxic relationships, and so much more.

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