Influences of Culture on Asian Americans' Sexuality

By Okazaki, Sumie | The Journal of Sex Research, February 2002 | Go to article overview
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Influences of Culture on Asian Americans' Sexuality


Okazaki, Sumie, The Journal of Sex Research


While sharing their Asian ancestry and vestiges of Asian cultural heritage to varying degrees, Asian Americans comprise an ethnic minority group that defies simple characterizations. Consisting of approximately 4% of the total U.S. population, Asian Americans trace their roots to one or more of 28 Asian countries of origin or ethnic groups. The largest proportions of Asian Americans in 1990 were Chinese (24%) and Filipino (20%), followed by Japanese, Korean, and Asian Indian at approximately 11% to 12% each and Vietnamese at 9% (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). However, the continuing influx of new immigrants from Southeast Asia and South Asia as well as from China and Korea provide a backdrop for diversity among Americans of Asian ancestry on important dimensions such as national origin, language, nativity, generational status, religion, acculturation to the mainstream American values and customs, and so on. The majority (66%) of Asian Americans in 1990 were born in foreign countries (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

The present review concerning the impact of Asian and Asian American cultures on sexuality will first examine aspects of various Asian cultural traditions and values that influence sexual attitudes and behavior among Asian Americans, then examine the available scientific literature in several major areas (but excluding materials related to HIV, other STDs, and safe sex practices). Some topics, namely sexual dysfunction and treatment, are not covered because no data exist. Most studies that are reviewed here do not specifically test the link between aspects of Asian or Asian American culture and sexual variables but instead use Asian American ethnicity as a proxy for culture.

CULTURAL ROOTS

Sexuality is linked to procreation in most Asian cultures. Gupta (1994) argues that sexuality was not a taboo subject in ancient Hindu culture granted that it was discussed within the context of marriage. Rather, sexuality was openly discussed in religious and fictional texts (e.g., the Kama Sutra) and depicted in paintings and sculptures, some with explicit erotic details. Japanese and Chinese erotica also date back to ancient times. On the other hand, sex is a taboo subject in contemporary Chinese culture, where sex education in schools is minimal and parents as well as health professionals are reluctant to discuss sexuality and sexual information (Chan, 1986). Traditional Cambodian society believed that a lack of knowledge regarding sexuality would prevent premarital sexual activity that would tarnish the family honor; consequently, discussions of information regarding sexual intercourse and sexuality were kept to a minimum (Kulig, 1994). Filipino culture, with the strong influence of Catholicism, tends to have a strong moral undercurrent that scorns premarital sex, use of contraceptives, and abortion (Tiongson, 1997).

Regardless of each Asian culture's degree of openness surrounding sexual discourse, expressions of sexuality outside of marriage are considered highly inappropriate in most Asian cultures. Most Asian cultures are highly collectivistic and patriarchical; thus, sexuality that is allowed open expression (particularly among women) would repr sent a threat to the highly interdependent social order as well as to the integrity of the family. Many Asian cultural traditions place emphasis on propriety and the observance of strict moral and social conduct, thus modesty and restrained sexuality are valued (Abraham, 1999). The sexually conservative beliefs and behavior that many Americans of Asian ancestry may exhibit may, in turn, be misinterpreted by the larger American society as asexual (Tsui, 1985).

SEXUAL KNOWLEDGE, ATTITUDES, AND NORMS

Available data regarding the sexual knowledge, attitudes, and norms among Asian Americans reflect relative conservatism. In a 1993 study in British Columbia comparing 346 Asian Canadian and 356 non-Asian Canadian (1) university students enrolled in introductory psychology courses, Meston, Trapnell, and Gorzalka (1998) found that Asian Canadians held more conservative sexual attitudes and demonstrated less sexual knowledge than non-Asian Canadians.

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