Why Does Pop Culture Asexualize and Hypersexualize Gay Asian Men?

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I was sitting on the bed in my college apartment three years ago when I received a message on Grindr. It was from an older man in his mid-40s, with a stocky figure, grayish facial hair, and a wrinkled T-shirt. He was white. “What kind of Asian are you?” he asked. “Vietnamese,” I said. “I love pho,” he replied. He went on to ask about my height, weight, and whether or not I was a bottom. I didn’t respond. I didn’t need to. I knew exactly what he was getting at.

During the year and a half I spent on dating apps, I came across seemingly endless profiles with the same exclusionary conditions: No fats. No femmes. No Asians. It wasn’t exactly surprising. Even before coming out as gay in high school, I was aware that Asian men were emasculated and asexualized in popular culture. What I didn’t fully grasp, until encountering it myself, was how gay Asian men in particular are also hypersexualized and objectified, both on-screen and in reality.

Even before coming out, I was aware that Asian men were emasculated and asexualized in popular culture.

The emasculating stereotype can be seen in characters like the sexless, broken-English-speaking Korean restaurant owner in the CBS comedy “Two Broke Girls,” the bumbling foreign exchange student who groans “no more yanky my wanky” in the 1984 coming-of-age classic “Sixteen Candles,” and the countless small-penis jokes told on television and in film. (“Is it a worm or is it a mushroom?” Bradley Cooper’s character asks Ken Jeong’s Chow when he sees his penis in “The Hangover Part II.”) In the 2009 romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That into You,” an Asian man is one of three gay best friends of a woman struggling with relationships. Compared with the other two non-Asian friends, the Asian man is hyperfeminized, batting his eyelashes and flailing his wrists for comedic effect.

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On the flip side, the hypersexualization and submissive stereotyping of gay Asian men on-screen is especially striking in comparison to their white counterparts. Take, for example, a 2006 episode of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” titled “We Are the Boys,” in which a gay Asian man is seen as the spouse of a larger, more masculine-appearing white soldier: In one scene, the white soldier is fishing with a group of straight men, while the Asian man is sitting in the corner reading a book; in another scene, the Asian man is knocked out after he’s nudged by two men roughhousing and stumbles onto a rock. The ABC series “How to Get Away with Murder” deserves praise for featuring a gay Asian character in its main cast—but still depicts him as reticent and soft-spoken compared to his aggressive bad-boy white boyfriend (and, in most sex scenes, he’s shown as the passive bottom).

More often than not, gay porn focuses on the curves of an Asian man’s body, instead of his penis.

But perhaps where the emasculation of gay Asian men most commonly occurs is in the porn industry, where they’re rarely seen as tops and frequently seen as submissive bottoms to larger, more masculine white men—a stereotype similar to the exoticism and fetishization that Asian women also face in porn and pop culture alike (see roles from “Madama Butterfly” to “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”). More often than not, gay porn focuses on the curves of an Asian man’s body, instead of his penis, in contrast to how the camera treats white men. Gilbert Caluya, PhD, a gender and cultural studies professor at the University of Melbourne, terms this “symbolic castration.” In a study titled The (Gay) Scene of Racism, Caluya writes: “Even when Asian men are represented in gay culture, the penis is usually cut off, so to speak, from the reader’s or viewer’s perspective.”

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For years, these images were normalized and among the few representations of Asian and Asian-American men on-screen, so it makes sense that they would bleed into our real-life dating and sex lives. For a while, when I was asked about my height and weight by dating prospects, I took it as another example of the gay community’s sizeism and glorification of thinner, fitter men (a subject for another day). It wasn’t until someone told me point-blank that he only dates “Asian twinks” under 125 pounds that I realized there’s a community of gay suitors who favor and sometimes exclusively date Asian men.

I still find stereotypes of gay Asian men permeating my everyday life.

Yet research shows that Asian men are the least desired racial group among heterosexual daters, according to Anthony C. Ocampo, PhD, a sociology professor at Cal Poly Pomona—a finding that hints at why so many gay Asian men are also asexualized. However, that’s not the case for all gay Asian men.“In my younger days, there were more than a few times when my Asian-American friends and I would go out and encounter an older white gay man who would then offer to pay us—he flashed a wad of cash—to go to his house,” says Ocampo. “The idea that he would feel entitled to ‘purchase’ us spoke volumes.” The sexual dominance over gay Asian men exhibited by many gay white men (or “Rice Queens,” as they’re sometimes referred to) is a result of the societal superiority conferred upon white men by our culture, explains Ocampo.

Of course, none of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with being passive, asexual, or effeminate—or that these types of Asian men don’t exist in the gay community. Like every community, this one includes a wide variety of personalities and sexual preferences. As woke and immune to media influence as we may claim (and try) to be, what we see onscreen holds a lot of weight. It’s been years since I’ve opened a dating app, but I still find stereotypes of gay Asian men permeating my everyday life. Whenever I bottom for my white boyfriend or slip on a pair of underwear to cover my penis, while my boyfriend freely walks around our apartment naked, I can’t help but wonder if I’m a byproduct of stereotypes.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m a byproduct of stereotypes.

But like many things in Hollywood, times are changing. In recent years, Asian men have seen not only an increase in onscreen representation, but a shift in the way we’re represented. No longer are we relegated to sexless, submissive archetypes—we’re now cast as football players (Reggie in “Riverdale”; Zach in “13 Reasons Why”), California bros (Josh in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), and hunky, six-pack-baring billionaires (Nick in “Crazy Rich Asians”). Sure, all those characters are straight—and some contain their own traces of different stereotypes—but their existence bodes well for the hope that fair representation for gay Asian men is on the horizon, too.