by SUDHA KRISHNAN
Published in the Toronto Star’s Desi Life on Dec 17 2007
Sex ed always left me more disturbed than enlightened. For example, my mother likened a tampon to a great, blooming flower. This reference gave me little practical knowledge. The topic of sex was always cloaked in secrecy. It (in hushed tones) was something (more hushed) between married people (just mouthing the words now). My mother would lean in close, her eyes bulging, “I will tell you next year,” she would say – every year.
The logistics behind sex were finally revealed in one horrifying conversation
with a classmate, on the way back from Grade 8 social science. When I got home,
I eyed my parents warily and looked at my younger brother with pity, for he,
too, would one day bear the weight of this knowledge.
I sought confirmation by devouring an assortment of frilly romance novels
from the library. However, the key sections glossed over the mechanics and
focused on metaphors, writing about lovers climbing a series of mountains, each
one higher than the next, followed by an array of fireworks and explosions. Sex
seemed rather risky, and unexpectedly rugged. (That’s true as it turns out, but
not in the way I thought.)
Like many South Asians growing up in Canada, I knew my days were not going to
end like an episode of Family Ties, sitting at the kitchen table and
sharing feelings. The topical boundaries were drawn swiftly through messages
about other things. There was a time, as a 5-year-old, when I drew in the
missing parts on my naked Barbie with a black marker. Rather than approving nods
and acknowledgement of my artistry, it was received with gasps, “oh-ho!” and the
hasty disposal of Barbie.
Most of us have similar stories. We can remember carefree TV watching being
marred by the characters’ inevitable romantic exchanges, forcing one of us to
clumsily spring out of our chair and change the channel. However, some of the
messages we received were far more direct.
To illustrate my point, I spoke to a number of young South Asians about
sexual openness at home. None of them was willing to go on record with their
real names. The idea that they’d be associated with an article on sex filled
them with dread. Their reluctance proved to me that the subject of sex is
so taboo that female professionals who grew up in this country are
still deeply protective of their privacy and terrified of being judged.
Take Reena, for instance, a 30-year-old Hindu woman who absorbed messages
from the sexual decorum she saw in Bollywood movies and the censorship of her
books, clothes and friends. She was not allowed to date and was questioned at
length about all her male friends. The consequences of her occasional rebellions
stung but were standard: weeks of being grounded, no phone privileges and
disappointed looks. Her parents were physically demonstrative with each other
and her father would often take her mother away on weekend trips. There was no
sense of shame surrounding their own obvious sexual relationship because they
were a “legitimate” couple.
The rules and standards set by her parents made Reena cautious and
conservative in her choices. “Even though there has been guilt in doing anything
sexual, which I do think has negatively affected my relationships, I don’t think
what my parents did was a bad thing,” she says. “I haven’t been promiscuous and
I value intimacy more.”
Not surprisingly, research confirms that South Asian parents lack an openness
with their children regarding sex or related topics (dating, birth control,
STDs, etc.). According to Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist who counsels
both individuals and couples (www.southasianfamilies.com), South Asians
actually are the most tight-lipped on the subject. “In fact, research suggests
that in comparison to all ethnic immigrant groups, including East Asians (such
as the Chinese and Koreans), South Asian children receive the least amount of
any communication regarding sex from their parents and when they do it is more
likely than any other group to be restrictive and prohibitory messages about
sex. All in all, the message about sex is provided with a negative tone.”
So our parents aren’t perfect. Some of them have been bound by language
barriers and cultural differences, making it understandable that they lack an
inclination for heart-to-hearts about something that was never an option for
Many parents believe that candour on the topic equates to a green light for
sexual activity. And others steer clear from being affectionate with even each
other for fear that it will encourage their children’s interest in physical
Eight out of the 10 unmarried but sexually active South Asians I spoke with
admitted to not practising safe sex or using birth control. For many of the
women, taking active measures like having protection handy or obtaining a
prescription for the pill would have meant consciously admitting they had become
everything their family believed to be immoral. Although they knew it was
reckless to not take precautions, they preferred the comfort of denial.
For many, once they are in an acceptable sexual relationship, the inability
to talk about sex carries over from their youth to their adulthood and marriage.
Ahmad reports that South Asian couples “are less likely to seek couples
therapy… and even less likely to seek help for problems in their sexual
Sex does not have to be a marital duty for the purposes of procreation, but
something to be enjoyed by both partners, she says. Not being able to discuss it
can impede the relationship. “Sexual intimacy is a complex phenomenon that
involves physical and psychological factors in the relationship and is a very
critical aspect of marital wellbeing. Therefore, communication regarding sex is
important between partners in order to have a satisfying sexual
For some, the preoccupation with what their parents would think has changed
to what their partners will think. Rumeeza, a Muslim in her 30s who grew up in
Toronto, relied on friends and cousins as a source of sexual information and
took her cues from community members in learning what kinds of behaviours were
appropriate. Her parents were affectionate with each other and she believes they
have a healthy sex life. However, sex was a topic that was always off limits in
the home. She recalls being severely punished after her parents discovered she’d
gone on a date, but she realized dating and pre-marital sex were inevitable for
Although she considers herself free from much of the shame and guilt that
other young South Asians suffer, the effect of her upbringing still lingers. “I
still wonder what my boyfriend is going to think of me when I want to do
Seema, 29, a Sikh, said she cried for a day after she first had sex with her
boyfriend. “I was devastated.” She had waited well into her 20s before having
sex and has had only one partner, whom she believed she was going to marry.
In the end, the relationship did not work. “My next partner will be for
marriage – sex will not be a random act, it’s just wrong… you don’t sleep
around.” She does not feel she betrayed her parents, but she does worry whether
her next partner will judge her for not being a virgin.
The two men I spoke with shared the understanding that sexual activity was
forbidden. But they were not plagued with the same dilemmas as the women. Anil,
a 34-year-old Punjabi, affectionately recalls his mother scrambling to make tea
every time an ad for condoms came on, “as though the arrow from the Shields
commercial was threatening to stab her in the heart.”
For him, though, references to dating or sex were only uncomfortable, rather
than being topics swathed in guilt. “I didn’t think sex was wrong, it was just
embarrassing to talk about… and to be honest, I had every intention of getting
on that train.”
Narendra, 26, a Hindu Tamil, did not possess the same zeal to get “on that
train,” but believed his parents’ ideals were not practical. Like Anil, he
shared feelings of embarrassment over the subject rather than guilt and shame.
Neither of them struggled to reconcile their sexual feelings with their cultural
Reading this will likely not make parents scramble to start talking about
sex. They may have left their homelands behind, but they hold tightly to their
roots. Sexual propriety is central to our culture, regardless of which part of
the subcontinent you are from, and its preservation will be fiercely upheld.
However, it’s a fact that despite the cultural denunciation of it, we have
made, do make and will continue to make choices that go against the norms. And
as a result of the messages ingrained in us, we agonize over the guilt, or
worse, are dissuaded from ensuring that sex is safe.
For some, the cloak of secrecy draped over sex is not easily removed, even in
marriage. As a teenager, my mother, after being kissed by a pervert on a Delhi
bus, was paralyzed by the fear that she was carrying his child. I often giggled
at her foolishness, but only recently considered that she had no source of
knowledge and no one who could alleviate her fears. I often wonder how society,
which made this naïve creature, expected her to handle a marriage and all the
real-world issues that came with it only a few years later.
Sudha Krishnan is a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto with an abiding
interest in journalism.