• Angelica Silva

“Brown girls don’t have sex”: The sex ed fails I experienced as a South Asian woman

It was morning tea time on a typical day at my all-girls, Catholic high school. I was sitting in our usual spot on the terrace with a few friends, when one member of my group, Cassie*, strolled up to us, school bag in-hand. It was 10:30am and she had only just arrived.

Tossing her school bag aside, Cassie sat down in the middle of our benches, with a sly smile across her face. She was smirking as she motioned us to look at something on her.

Crumpled up midway on the nun-like, ankle-length school skirts we were made to wear, was a stain - a semen stain.

“Josh* and I just had sex. He couldn’t wait until tonight, so we did it before school. That’s why I’m late,” she told everyone.

Cassie was 14 years old when this happened. We all were. As I sat there, no longer wanting to finish the apple I was eating, it dawned upon me that this was the first time I had actually seen semen, or what was left of it.

At this age, and even before, my friends were far beyond 'losing their virginity'. They were having sex left and right, in cars, hotel rooms, parks - you name it. I, on the other hand, was the only girl in our group who was still a virgin.

Born in Australia to Singaporean-Indian parents, I had no formal education about sex from my parents or the school I went to.

Sex was never spoken about in my household. And strangely, I was never even told by my parents to not have sex. I never had to awkwardly sit down with them and listen to them tell me 'sex is wrong' or that I need to 'remain pure'. They didn’t even bring up the subject. From that point on, abstinence was assumed on my end.

Historically, sexual education and dating have been alien concepts, especially in traditional village life in rural areas of India. The first wave of South Asian immigrants into Australia during the 50s and 60s were still having arranged marriages. So, it’s most likely they had zero experience of dating and the sexual actions that accompany it.

Although these views have changed over time, with more parents of second and third generation Australian South Asians encouraging their children to find their own partners for marriage, views on sex outside of marriage have gone unchallenged thanks to the deeply-rooted stereotype that South Asian women are oppressed and without autonomy.

Second generation Londoner and ⅓ host of the BBC podcast, Brown Girls Do It Too, Poppy Jay said, “Brown women are often seen as victims. It’s an extension of the Asian stereotype that these are timid women who obey their husbands or uncles.”

In a 2019 study exploring differences in sexual behaviour and attitudes about sex between White, Black, Latinx, South Asian, and East Asian students, South Asians were found to be the most conservative, believing that premarital sex was wrong. They also made up the highest proportions of virgins, with 66% of women and 50% of men having never had intercourse.

You don’t need me to tell you that the role of women over the decades has remained rooted in being compliant, passive and modest. But a South Asian woman? They inherit negative cultural dogmas, beliefs and stigmas about sex from the moment they’re born into this world.

Which is why situations like this one with Cassie were all too common for me. The second that sex became the topic of conversation with anyone, I mentally curled up into a ball and retreated into my shell. As my white Australian friends so freely and amusedly discussed fetishes and compared penis sizes, I found myself in an internal battle. I had convinced myself that something was wrong with me because I hadn’t had sex with a guy yet.

A few years later, I was 18 and getting ready to graduate high school. During this time, I became close friends with a Sri Lankan girl in my grade. I remember the moment she told me she lost her virginity over the weekend. As she spilled the details of how they booked a hotel room for a night without her parents knowing, I remember feeling like my brain had hit a block. Almost like a “cannot find” error popping up on a Windows computer.

She continued talking but all I could think to myself was, “Wait.. brown girls don’t do that? Brown girls don’t have sex.”

It was a worrying thought, to literally believe that a woman would never have sex because of the colour of her skin. But I genuinely thought this was true. Before I became friends with this girl, I had never heard about or met any other South Asian woman who was having sex. It was as if I had subconsciously erased my own ethnicity from the topic of sex altogether, treating South Asians as if they were an anomaly.

After I started university, I met a guy through this same Sri Lankan friend and we started dating not long after.

Given my parents’ inability to educate me on safe, consensual sex, one would think that I educated myself on the topic since I was in a relationship. Well, it’s safe to assume that I was a “late bloomer”. I had never even watched a porn video before. And I couldn’t really count a steamy Chris Brown music video.

At 19, I had sex for the first time with this guy. And while he was incredibly kind and patient, and made me feel safe the entire time, I felt like I couldn’t really count it as “having sex”. I had no understanding of the mechanics of sex. It felt like I was trying to drive a car without knowing the first thing about gears or brakes. It was very painful, to the point where I couldn’t take it and we ended up stopping.

The whole experience was a reminder of how much I wasn’t in touch with my body, and how I still had no idea about what turned me on and what made me come.

Fast forward a few years later and this same guy is now my boyfriend of five years. Throughout our relationship, my connection to my body changed significantly. I realised I was holding back this entire part of my femininity, a part of myself that I didn’t even know existed.

In our culture, women have been made to feel ashamed about their bodies, their wants and their desires. This sense of shame goes back through generations, from our mothers to grandmothers. And even if you’re not a part of this culture, it’s not hard to see how this deep sense of shame and pressure to be a “good girl” damages us as South Asian women.

Thankfully, sex is something I not only enjoy now, but it’s also something I feel more comfortable talking about with other women. Over the years, I’ve noticed myself having more open, honest conversations about female sexuality, discussing things from kinks to discharge - all things that are completely normal to a woman’s body. I finally began to accept that my desires as a woman could coexist with my cultural upbringing.

It’s been a difficult journey releasing myself from my culture’s taboos and unlearning the toxic internalised beliefs about my body. Even to this day I think to myself, how could something that makes me feel so empowered be something that I was ashamed of?

I’m incredibly thankful to my boyfriend for helping me realise I don’t have to be one or the other. I can be empowered sexually and create new cultural narratives - and they can exist, together. But in order for more South Asian women to feel this way, we need to talk about sex, write about sex, and listen to others talk about sex. It’s 2022 - it’s time for us to normalise sex.