A Safe Space for Difficult Conversations

How does representation in sexually explicit materials affect the well-being of people who identify as cisgender male, Asian American, and non-heterosexual? It’s a question Steven Chen, C’24, is on a quest to answer.

Steven Chen, C’24, wants to improve conversations around sexual health for queer youth.

It’s something he’s been working on for the past four years, starting almost from day one at Penn when, as an intern for the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, he developed a sexual health education program for queer youth in Philadelphia. It is now a core component of OurSpace, a collaboration between the Netter Center and Penn’s LGBT Center that still exists today.

“That was like a launching pad to many different projects,” Chen says.

Steven Chen, who graduated from Penn in 2024.

Steven Chen, C’24, has been working to improve conversations around sexual health for queer youth since his first year at Penn. (Image: Courtesy Steven Chen)

As a research assistant with Penn’s Eidos LGBTQ+ Health Initiative, which aims to improve the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community through social enterprise, community engagement, education, and research, Chen worked on projects like a social network–driven app aimed at reducing stigmas and improving accessibility in HIV prevention and care. Then, for his Health and Societies capstone—a project that began during an undergraduate fellowship with the Asian American Studies Program (ASAM) the summer before his senior year—Chen turned to an area he hadn’t yet explored: representation in sexually explicit materials and how consuming these might affect the well-being of people who identify as cisgender male, Asian American, and non-heterosexual.

Though the research is ongoing, Chen does have some initial findings. For several of the 20 participants, this was the first time they’d had any sort of open discussion about sexual health, a topic generally too taboo to talk about within their family or community. Broadly, participants also said they found the stereotypical portrayals of Asian American men harmful, yet when the depictions moved past such stereotypes, felt empowered seeing bodies like theirs in the sexually explicit materials they viewed.

“There have been almost zero investigations on this topic among Asian American, non-heterosexual men, which makes Steven’s study novel and groundbreaking,” says Dalmacio Dennis Flores, an assistant professor in Penn’s School of Nursing and one of Chen’s advisors, along with ASAM co-director Fariha Khan and ASAM senior lecturer Rupa Pillai. “It provides initial data for scientists and mental health advocates to begin thinking about potential intervention points.”

That very notion—to seek real solutions rather than just state that a problem exists—motivated Chen from the start. In the course Asian American Gender and Sexualities taught by Pillai, Chen had read a piece by artist and writer Richard Fung. “He talked about how the Asian body within pornography is really exoticized, fetishized, that there are a lot of harmful dominant stereotypes portrayed within media,” Chen recalls. “That really got me thinking about how this might affect sexual health.”

Yet when Chen paged through previous literature on the subject, the research almost always fell short, stopping at what scholars observed about the sexually explicit materials, nothing more. “No one asked about the effect of consuming these materials on the people portrayed in them,” he says. “I wanted to ask those questions.” With support from Flores, whose research predominantly focuses on the mental health of adolescents who identify as LGBTQ+, Chen shaped the project that would become his capstone.

Identifying with the community made everything easier. Because I am comfortable discussing this topic and sexual health in general, that definitely helped, too. Many participants told us it felt like a healing experience and thanked us for doing this work.

They started by homing in on the big-picture question they wanted to answer: When non-heterosexual Asian American cisgender men view sexually explicit materials that include Asian American people, what do they feel and how does it affect their mental, physical, and sexual well-being? The research team then recruited participants from across the U.S., all of whom identified as Asian American, non-heterosexual cisgender men, ages 18 to 24, and who had, at some point, viewed sexually explicit material featuring non-heterosexual Asian American performers.

Chen conducted all the interviews over Zoom. He asked questions about how the Asian American body was depicted in the material; whether viewing it had any effect mentally, physically, or sexually; whether participants ever discussed these subjects in the broader communities in which they lived; whether what they were seeing on the screen ever manifested in their lived experiences; and what participants actually wanted from materials of this kind.

Rather than treating each interaction as a research interview, though, Chen says he tried to have authentic conversations. “Identifying with the community made everything easier,” adds Chen, who is a first-generation Chinese American who identifies as queer. “Because I am comfortable discussing this topic and sexual health in general, that definitely helped, too. Many participants told us it felt like a healing experience and thanked us for doing this work.”

In much the same way that OurSpace has become a safe and inclusive place for young people in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community, the conversations for this research became safe havens, despite—or perhaps because of—their difficult subject matter. “I’m doing this project for the community,” Chen says. “We’re in collaboration doing this work and sharing our stories.”

So far, what he and Flores have found has reinforced just how essential representation is, in almost any context. “Representation matters for all, but especially for young people who are often marginalized on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Flores says. “Add on the reality that school-based sex education does not typically include the questions and concerns of this group of young men, and we can see why it’s important that the online content they consume includes people who look like them and have the same attractions and behaviors.”

In August, Chen leaves for Taiwan to teach English as a Fulbright Scholar. But he’ll continue thinking about and working on this project; he and Flores hope to recruit at least a few more participants to the study, and eventually to publish their findings. “Asking these questions that are important to me and my community and having a safe space to ask them,” Chen says, “has been really influential for me and hopefully to the participants as well.”