Is it okay for men to cry? Should women feel obligated to wear makeup and keep their hair long? Are they inviting harassment by wearing revealing clothes? Do they compromise their reputation by dating too much?
Such were the questions posed to a group of Asian-American teenagers recently at a retreat sponsored by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. The purpose? To get them to talk about gender roles, sexuality, and what it means to be Asian American — in between berry-picking excursions and backcountry hikes.
It's part of a campaign to help teenagers learn about sexuality in a constructive way. Since early July, 48 teenagers have met twice a week to attend workshops that demonstrate "how sex education is not just about contraception," according to Amanda Wake, youth organizing manager for Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. The project is divided by gender — this is the inaugural year for the boys' program, while the girls' program is in its sixth year. It's also about "the difference between genderqueer and the gender binary," Wake said, as exhibited in one workshop featuring a panel of community members speaking to perspectives across the gender spectrum. The campaign has also pursued such lines of inquiry as how racism shapes body image formation, and how capitalism affects romantic relationships.
Don't mistake this for some graduate sociology seminar, however. The participants haven't been theorizing or pontificating; to digest the material, Wake said, they've been performing skits, shooting videos, and creating art projects. This approach allows them to come to grips with some complex forces that they may encounter every day, but might not clearly see.
Living mostly in Oakland's San Antonio District and points further east, the teenagers come from predominantly low-income, new immigrant families of Cambodian, Chinese, Mien, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino ethnicity. Their circumstances can further complicate attempts to navigate the awkward and agonizing world of adolescent love. For instance, their parents might want to restrict their dating habits due to cultural norms. Or their self-esteem might suffer under pervasive media images unflattering to Asians. And, as anyone familiar with International Boulevard knows, their environment doesn't always showcase the best examples of healthy — or legal — sexual practices.
Nonetheless, these young people don't appear outwardly burdened. At least, within the space provided them by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, they seem positively effervescent. Of course, sparking a teenager's interest in sex isn't the problem; the challenge lies in channeling their interest away from harmful attitudes and behaviors.
Back at the retreat, one young woman said she gets harassed no matter what she wears. Another shared that her dad once threatened to kick her out of the house if she became pregnant, yet her brother never suffered that consequence for having fathered two children without yet earning his high school degree. Maybe a quarter of the room owned up to going out on dates without telling their parents.
In another exercise, the group turned its attention to racial preconceptions. General consensus saw the nerdy Asian stereotype as a double-edged sword, allowing the teens to escape the scrutiny of teachers and other authority figures, but also opening them up to persecution from peers and saddling them with an extra burden in the realm of romance.
On the heels of this discussion, Wake asked the young men for suggestions on how their female counterparts could lend them support in this mutual struggle. One participant beseeched the young women not to underestimate their influence, insinuating it was responsible for his having recently quit drinking. During the young women's turn, they offered such tidbits as, "Take action when you see a woman objectified," "You don't have to be manly," and "Never, ever, ever call a girl fat."
Despite the weightiness — both literal and figurative — of the topics, the retreat atmosphere remained light. They were high schoolers on vacation, after all.
With the program for young men in its inaugural year, coordinator Jack DeJesus noted, "We don't have the expectation that there's going to be this huge change overnight or over the summer." His aspirations strike a balance of radical and realistic: "We wanted to introduce the language and an approach and new ideologies to them that they can hopefully bring with them to wherever they end up."
As a kind of send-off on their future journeys, the campaign will give the 48 participants a chance to present what they've learned this Thursday night at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Chinatown. Dubbed "Bringing Sexy Back," the event will double as a fund-raiser for Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, complete with a raffle and prizes.
"We're all doing different performances," said a young participant named Ratema. "We've brainstormed things like poetry, a fashion show, a game show, and lots of art pieces and dances." Daelan, another participant, responded that divulging a minimum of detail might fuel people's curiosity, ensuring "they'd come stop by and see what's going on."
Wake anticipates an inspired celebration. "We don't hear from Asian young people talking about gender, bodies, sex, and sexuality," she said. But "working with these young people for the past summer, I know how many brilliant things they have to say."