Let’s talk about sex

Or not—for some cultures, it’s taboo

Illustration by Tina Flynn

During his middle- and high-school years, Billy Her, a junior health-science major at Chico State University, learned about puberty, sex and reproduction in classes, not from his parents.

“In the Hmong culture, a lot of parents and kids don’t communicate about sex,” Her explained.

Some do, but many aren’t comfortable talking about it because they’re not Americanized enough, Her said.

The Hmong population in the United States is between 200,000 and 250,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There is a large population of Hmong living in Butte County, most of them in Oroville.

Although his parents never created an atmosphere of being approachable about the topic, Her was always comfortable talking about sex at school and in public.

“I’m comfortable talking about it because it’s a very important topic,” he said, smiling. “It’s America—everyone talks about sex.”

Not so at home with his parents, however. “They don’t understand,” he said. “They have different beliefs.”

Cindy Cha, a junior health-science major at Chico State, was brought up in a similar household. Unlike Her, however, she is reserved when it comes to talking about sex.

Although her mother did lecture her about not engaging in sexual activities before marriage, Cha said she did most of her learning about sex in high school and college courses. She is still not comfortable talking about the subject.

“It’s shameful to talk about it in our culture,” Cha said. “I would feel very awkward talking about it personally.”

Talking about sex usually brings embarrassment and shame to the family, especially in a traditional Christian Hmong family like hers, Cha said. When sex is mentioned, it can be considered a bad word or a sin, she added.

“We see it as something like it’s dirty,” Cha said.

Although Her and Cha find it hard to approach their parents about sex, Leanne De Bella, a junior English major at Chico State, can laugh about it with her parents.

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In the past, De Bella’s parents never talked to her about sex. It didn’t have anything to do with the culture, said De Bella, who is half Filipina and half Italian and grew up in a Catholic home.

These days, as a college student, De Bella and her parents make fun and laugh about the subject whenever it comes up in conversation.

“My parents know I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” De Bella said.

This generation of college students has varying comfort levels when talking about sex. But what explains this barrier between parents and children when it comes to having “the talk”?

As a mother of two daughters and a son, Belva Sarten, a health aide in Oroville, says that teaching her children about sex is an important part of growing up with them.

“‘Anything you need to know, come to Mama,’” Sarten would say to her daughters.

Her husband talked to their son and she focused on her daughters, and Sarten thinks that it has helped her children stay safe about sex.

Although Sarten thinks teaching sex education is important for children growing up, her mother never had the same conversation with her, instead telling her lies about boys to scare her.

As a mother herself, Sarten made it a priority to teach her children about sex.

“It’s life,” Sarten said. “It’s like teaching them manners, to read and write and to be good people.”

For Hmong parents like Yia Hawj, however, talking to her children about sex is uncomfortable.

“How we live our lives, sex comes naturally,” said Hawj, a sixth-grade teacher and mother of five. “They will know about it already.”

Hawj believes her children know their responsibilities when it comes to sex education. She doesn’t have any kids who are “promiscuous,” she said, and she’s not worried about their behavior.

“We trust that they are responsible,” Hawj said, adding that “sex” is a very private word. To the Hmong ear it means the action of two people making love. It’s shameful because it has a negative connotation. On the other hand, “sex” to Americans can be defined in so many different ways.

“In our little family, it’s not really our business to know,” Hawj said. “Talking about sex should be reserved,” Hawj said.