Doctor’s Note: today’s question deals with issues of race, white supremacy and sexuality. Needless to say: racist and homophobic comments are not welcome and the mods and I will be paying attention.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’m a young gay man in his 20’s, and although I’ve had a sometimes rocky start to life (like many other folks around me), I’ve been able to get through it largely intact, and now have a pretty good path ahead of me.
I think I’ve already dealt with a good chunk of negative thoughts and fears that used to hang heavily over me – I used to fear I was unlovable as an awkward, overweight, nerdy Asian guy – but with successes in therapy, hobbies, friends, hookups, and my career, I’ve been able to begin to see myself in a new light. Although of course, I’m still dealing with remnants of it (your typical duo of depression and anxiety, maybe some self-hatred still in there).
There’s one big thing that jumps out at me, and it’s becoming more and more of a “hot topic” now, and I haven’t been able to figure it out productively. I… haven’t seen a single East Asian man in real life that I’ve been attracted to.
Now let me get this clear; I’m East Asian. My parents are East Asian. I have East Asian best friends, I went to school with many East Asians, whatever. I… may not be a purely aracial being, but certainly I’ve done a lot to try to stamp out racism and racist thoughts from my life. The websites that talk about this suggest that sexual racism means “you think Asians are effeminate” or “you think Asians are obedient and submissive” or something else; I don’t really think any of that.
To me, most East Asian guys I see around me or in media (here or overseas) are just… about as sexually attractive as I find women (I.e. not at all, and sometimes sexually repulsive). I’ve tried!! But after a few times, you kinda get the feeling it doesn’t work for you, and you don’t want to waste the other guy’s time either.
Even when I was younger (discovered porn around 10-12), although I have (though rarely) looked at Asian guys in porn, it was never really what I focused on.
I assume it has something to do with the media exposure I had – where white or Middle Eastern or Latino folks were ‘normal’, Black folks were often there just for the cock, and…. I’m not even sure what the western porn industry has used Asian MEN for, as a category.
But beyond that, I had my fair share dealing with negative experience with East Asian adults and peers as a kid too, especially since that sometimes formed a bulk of by upbringing. Young looking guys are still off-putting to me in general cuz of the whole bitter taste school left in me, lol.
But how do I even begin to fix this? Websites that talk about sexual racism never talk about fixing it. They just say guys that are racist are trash and you should stay away from them. Unfortunately for those folks, my depression did not win, and I continue to exist… And while “exposure therapy” might work, well, it’s hard to date someone you’re not physically attracted to when you know they’re physically attracted to you, and it’s even harder to… have sex with them (if I definitely want to say no, but force myself to say yes…). Beyond that, I don’t think it’s right of me to subject someone else to dating someone who’s just trying to “fix their racist preferences” through exposure. Otherwise, I still get plenty of exposure to Asian men through work, current (non-sexual!!!) friendships (that are meaningful and important to me), and life in general.
Got any tips, or perhaps words of wisdom? I do definitely wish I could expand my dating pool by broadening what I’m able to find attractive… but I also do wish I could address this nagging (and increasingly strong) guilt about having racial preferences / being racist in dating, especially in these times.
Want To Expand My Interests
So this is a layered and somewhat complicated question because of just how much it ties into anti-Asian sentiment and racism. On the day that I’m responding to this, there’s been a horrific shooting spree in Atlanta, where a young man murdered eight people, including six Asian-American women. This can seem like a bit of an odd digression for your question, but the recent spate of racist violence against Asian-Americans is part and parcel of how western culture and America in particular has treated Asian people through history… and that history ties directly into your question.
Now, keep in mind: I’m a straight white guy, so I’m emphatically not going to have the same perspective as someone who’s East Asian and experiences this every day. I’ve linked to some really excellent articles, essays and academic papers by various folks who do have experience in this area, so I recommend checking them out.
A line from your letter leapt out at me: “I used to fear I was unlovable as an awkward, overweight, nerdy Asian guy” which I think may well go straight to the heart of your question. The fact that you had this list of things that you feel make you unloveable stands out, and I have to wonder if part of the issue is having absorbed and internalized a lot of negative messaging around your identity. After all, when you hear that “X are unlovable, they’re awful and nobody wants them” constantly, that’s gonna fuck with your head. And considering the history of how America and western culture has treated Asians in general and Asian men in particular, it really stands out.
One of the hard truths about our society is that for centuries, Asian men have been devalued, desexed and emasculated. Asian men — gay, bi/pan and straight — often have the hardest time on dating apps; it’s not uncommon to see profiles on Grindr that specifically say “No Asians”. The idea of an Asian man being a sexual being is often met with resistance, even laughter from folks. In 2017, Steve Harvey devoted a segment of his show to making jokes about the idea that Asian men were attractive. In 2019, actor Simu Liu shared a post on his Instagram about an experience he had on the talk show The Social. His talking about sex and sexual stereotypes and how harmful they were prompted laughter from the audience. The idea that he had anything to share about being a sexual person was seen by the audience as being humorous, and you can see just how much that reaction upset him.
Those tropes and believes are incredibly pervasive, and they can affect people who you would think would never buy into them in a thousand years. You’re not the only person who’s struggled with questions of attraction to folks of your own ethnicity. In her essay For Years, I Was Vehemently Against Dating Asian Guys—Even Though I’m Chinese, Madelyn Chung talks about her experiences with having internalized problematic messaging about Asian men and how that affected her dating life. Chung writes very candidly about how social messaging, exposure and messages about identity directly affected who she considered attractive and who she was willing to date and how she worked to break out of that mindset. It’s a piece that I think would be well worth your time to check out.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention that you think that it has to do with media exposure. Asian men have long been desexualized by the media. When an Asian man — regardless of whether he’s South Asian, East Asian or Southeast Asian — is on screen, the odds are that he’s going to be bound up in specific tropes: nerdy, intellectually or technically proficient, unaggressive or even submissive, less socially adept and frequently asexual. When they are sexual, it’s often portrayed for laughs, with equal parts being oversexed and laughably clueless in how to actually find a partner; Taj in Van Wilder and Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles are classic examples of this trope. On the other side of the coin, the other dominant stereotype of Asian men was The Yellow Peril — the foreign, exotic Other who was a danger to the virtue of innocent white women.
These tropes didn’t come out of nowhere. They were quite literally hundreds of years in the making.
It’s not exactly a secret to say that America’s history of treating people of color is abominable; you barely have to crack a text-book to see that. But a lot of issues surrounding the history Asian immigrants in America often gets glossed over, especially with an eye towards how that history continues to influence the way that Asian men and women are percieved here. In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants were imported to the US in order to provide cheap labor to build the transcontinental railroads, often being tasked with the harshest and most dangerous duties like laying demolition charges, in the worst and most treacherous parts of the country. But when the railroads had been completed, many of the immigrants remained, forming communities trying to build lives for themselves. Because immigrant labor was cheaper, Chinese workers were in high demand… which left many other laborers out of work. Xenophobia and the anger about competition for jobs lead to a number of laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — which forbade further immigration from Chinese nationals.
This was, in no small part, the beginning of the (deliberate) emasculation of Asian men. As Dr. Chiung Chen points out in her paper Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S. Mass Media: An Analysis of The Ballad of Little Jo, the cultural contrasts between American and Chinese men played a part; the differences in fashion, builds and even jobs all created the idea of this cultural oddity — men who dressed and behaved in ways that seemed distinctly feminine to Westerners.
The Chinese Exclusion Act — and its precursor, the Page Act of 1875 — had a number of knock-on effects that contributed to the cultural emasculation of Asian men. Because the 14th Amendment introduced birthright citizenship, people were terrified that Chinese immigrants who settled down in America would have children and establish toeholds as natural-born citizens. To prevent this — and to keep the laborers who were already here from sending for their families — the laws made it next to impossible for Chinese women to immigrate to the United States under the best of circumstances. It was also incredibly easy to deport Chinese women who were already here; anyone who was seen as being involved in any form of sex work, regardless of circumstances, was subject to immediate deportation. Meanwhile anti-miscegenation laws meant that Chinese and other East Asian men were forbidden from dating or marrying women of other races. As a result, Chinese and Chinese-American men were quite deliberately locked out of relationships or building families.
But that didn’t stop the fear that Asian men were a sexual threat; this belief would continue to cause pain and misery for many, many others. Filipino men in California, for example, were seen as “dangerous”, because of the perception that they were better dancers and lovers than white men. In the Taxi dance halls — where white female employees would dance with male partners for a fee — Filipino men were prized customers because of their skill as dancers and because they didn’t treat the dancers as lesser. This reputation lead to the Watsonville Riots of 1930, as well as laws like the Tydings-McDuffie Act — a repeat of the Chinese Exclusion Act, except directed at Filipinos.
The constant propaganda against Asians, and Asian men in particular, played to all the usual hits: the Exotic Predator With a Taste For White Women but also portraying Asian men as weak, foolish and effeminate. Even the “model minority” myth — which was used in part to fracture support between Asian-American and African-American communities — played down the sexuality of Asian men even as it played up traits like intelligence, hard work and the pursuit of educational excellence. It was a very deliberate attempt to neutralize an imagined threat, with a false “menace” that was both an ever-present danger but also too laughable to see as anything other than a nuisance.
This backdrop of hundreds of years of propaganda, racism and xenophobia directly controlled how Asians — and Asian men, in particular — were portrayed in culture. Until the 1960s and 70s, the few Asian heartthrobs like Sessue Hayukawa were restricted to heavily stereotyped Exotic Forbidden Lover roles, if that. Bruce Lee was allowed to be a bad-ass (eventually), but not portrayed as a sexual being. Jet Li’s meteoric rise in American movies was counterbalanced by the fact that he almost never has a love-interest. Hell, the fact that The Walking Dead’s Glen — played by Steven Yeun — is not just a valued ass-kicking survivor of the Zombie Apocalypse but has a long, happy and sexual relationship with Maggie that’s taken as normal is remarkable… and that was in a show that debuted in 2010.
Now I bring all of this up because, honestly, nobody is immune to propaganda or marketing. When you’re exposed to a message over and over again, it’s very, very hard not to take that messaging and internalize it, even when you may recognize intellectually that it isn’t true. I mean, you kinda reference that here, with regards to porn tropes : “where white or Middle Eastern or Latino folks were ‘normal’, Black folks were often there just for the cock”
But when you internalize these messages, especially ones involving your own identity, it can lead to tragedy. In the incel community, South Asian and East Asian men are referred to by various slurs and the idea that women are attracted to them is considered to be the highest insult… even among incels who are themselves of South Asian and East Asian descent. Part of what motivated Elliot Rodger to violence wasn’t just his being an incel, it was self-loathing. Rodger was half Chinese on his mother’s side and saw his Asian heritage as a hideous flaw that kept him from ever finding the love and sex he supposedly deserved.
And to bring it back around to your question: this history is why I highly suspect that the continuous message of “Asian men aren’t sexually desirable” has been an influence on who you date and who you find attractive. The good news is that this is starting to change. Shows like Warrior have had no problem showing stars like Andrew Koji, Joe Taslim and Hoon Lee as very sexy motherfuckers. Crazy Rich Asians, likewise, has helped people reconsider attractiveness of Asian leading men by challenging and disrupting stereotypes. Even K-Pop sensations like BTS have proven just how desirable Asian men can be. In fact, Adinda Saraswati Mustafa Putri and Adriana Rahajeng Mintarsih have a fascinating paper about the way that BTS challenges not just the idea that Asian men are sexy, but toxic and restrictive ideas about masculinity in general.
The not-as-good news is that, on the personal level, trying to change a lifetime of messaging adopting problematic ideas around Asian male sexuality can be goddamn hard. Sexuality and sexual attraction isn’t just a light-switch with an on or off state, separate from everything else; it’s part of our holistic selves, intertwined with everything about us. Trying to understand who we’re attracted to and why can often result in trying to untangle a knot of values, identity, even self-worth. Part of Madelyn Chung’s essay, for example, talks about how much her own comfort with her Chinese-American identity affected her attraction to other Asian men. Picking apart this knot for you may mean looking at your own sense of value or desirability. It could well be that your sense of your own desirability gets caught up and externalized as a lack of interest in other Asian men. Or it could be that dearth of movies, television shows, books and games that let Asian men be as hot and as sexualized as everyone else.
One of the things I would suggest is to spend time in spaces and with media that don’t just acknowledge but celebrates how attractive Asian men can be. Photographer Andrew Kung, for example, has a two part photo book called The All-American; it focuses not just on Asian-American identity but the beauty and intimacy of Asian-American men. These portraits and explorations of beauty aren’t just “hubba hubba look at those abs” but bring a nuanced and personal view, portraying the full spectrum of attractiveness, including the sorts of intimacy and connection we associate with love and connection.
It may also help to spend more time with folks in Asian LGBTQ spaces and focus less on the dating or sexual aspects and more on being just meeting people as individuals. One of the ways people have overcome the dominant messaging about others — whether it be folks of other races or sexualities or gender expression — has been through exposure and getting to know people on the individual level. One of the more interesting aspects of the human psyche is that familiarity builds attraction. The more we get to know somebody, the more their uniqueness becomes attractive to us. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not telling you to hang around folks until you start to get the hots for them and hey, you’ll be changed. It’s not about forcing yourself to try to be attracted to somebody. It’s more that, by getting to know people on an individual level — people who you haven’t been generally attracted to — you may well find that they, specifically do it for you. That, in turn, may well help shift your perception and that mental compartmentalization that says “ok, this group of people: not attractive to me”. And even if it doesn’t cause a huge transformation, it may give you insight into why you don’t find them as appealing as others. Even that little bit of awareness may help make a difference for you.
And it may also help to unpack any messages and beliefs about yourself, your sexuality or your ethnicity that you’ve absorbed. Recognizing just how and why this messaging is so pervasive may help you recognize the patterns in your own thinking and experiences. In addition to the work of Dr. Chen, Dr. Amy Sueyoshi as a series of books and essays that may be of interest to you.
Needless to say: it’s all complicated as fuck, and it can be hard to pick apart and sometimes it still ends up coming down to “these are the people you’re attracted to”. The fact that you’re paying attention to this and being mindful of it is a good thing. Awareness is part of how you bring change.
Hopefully some of this can help. And if my readers, especially my readers who sleep with men, have some experiences with overcoming media messaging or expanding who they’re attracted to — or resources or observations I missed — then I would love to see your stories in the comments.