By: Tif Shen
After a recent breakup, I’ve found my way back to dating apps. I’ve learned that a new genre of profiles has popped up in the year I’ve been out of dating: white women who specifically target East Asian men.
It’s hard for me to quantify whether this is just a thing in my college town or if it might be a much broader phenomenon. That said, these profiles surfaced experiences in my life that don’t get discussed as frequently as our desexualization: sexual fetishism for Asian men.
In the current American consciousness, Asian men are typically viewed as “unfuckable” while Asian women are heavily sexually fetishized. These stereotypes are rooted in our history, including how in the late 19th and early 20th century, Asian American men were limited (because of racism) to traditionally feminine labor like cooking or laundering. These limitations led to the perception that we are unmasculine or effeminate.
When I was a teenager, white girls would tell me things like, “I’m not racist, but I’m just not into Asians.” They would tell me they believed people should date within their race. Yet, other white girls would pressure me to share intimate details about my body. Some touched me in ways that made me feel uncomfortable, and, in a few instances, violated my privacy grotesquely. Whether I’m being desexualized or fetishized, I can’t help but see it all as mutually reinforcing sides of the same coin: either way, my body is being subjugated, dehumanized, and colonized by the white sexual gaze.
Just as I experienced at a personal level as a teenager, sexual stereotypes that Asian American men (and women) endure are contradictory and dynamic, and can slip easily from hypermasculine to emasculated extremes depending upon political convenience. While we’re currently viewed as unmasculine, racist hypersexualized stereotypes of Asian men used to be rampant – a fabricated threat to the purity of white women used to justify xenophobic laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Meanwhile, Asian women were (and still are) simultaneously portrayed as either submissive “lotus blossoms” or sexually aggressive “dragon ladies” – both extreme stereotypes that cater to white male sexuality. These days, while Asian American men encounter “No Asians” in people’s profiles on dating apps, Asian American women are overwhelmed by men sliding in their DMs looking to “cure their yellow fever” – but those stereotypes can shift with any new headwind that sweeps the current political or racial landscape.
When white women fetishize Asian men, they simultaneously reinforce white entitlement of Asian sexuality while they upend the gendered connotation of white male sexual exploitation. Nonetheless, racial fetishism is racial fetishism, regardless of whether it targets Asian men or Asian women. In both cases, we are coveted as forbidden, exotic, counter-cultural, and niche. Our bodies become underexplored locales ready to be discovered by intrepid white explorers – never mind that this tourist destination is actually a human being.
We are currently experiencing another major shift in how Asian masculinity is constructed and portrayed in American media. Even over the last decade, our representation has come a long way from The Hangover’s caricatured Mr. Chow. In November 2021, People’s magazine included Wi Ha-jun, John Cho, and Hasan Minhaj among its “25 of the Sexiest Men You Can Watch on TV Now” list. Simu Liu — famous for his role as Shang-Chi – is widely acknowledged for his sexiness, even while he’s moved beyond his days as a stock image model. The pendulum has swung back around.
Many Asian American men (rightfully) see sexual racism as the most palatable manifestation of anti-Asian hate. The problem arises, however, when some men assert that the best way to end anti-Asian hate is by recasting ourselves as fetish objects for the white gaze, including in such films as Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick and Jimmy O. Yang’s Love Hard. In January, North Star Boys — an Asian American TikTok influencer group otherwise known for their self-fetishizing content — posted thirst trap pictures in front of a “Stop Asian Hate” mural.
While patently ridiculous, the North Star Boys’ pictures are also revealing. As Hollywood has shifted its portrayal of Asian American men from sexless to sexy, that elusive status of “fuckable” finally feels within reach. But to what end?
In my twenties, I mostly dated or pursued white women. Perhaps, like many Asian American men, I was seeking retribution for sexual racism. Even so, in many of these relationships I couldn’t help but wonder if my partner was with me for who I was? What if I was nothing more than an exotic escape fantasy made flesh?
There is no end to sexual racism (or racism in general) without first unshackling ourselves from the white gaze that we, too, are guilty of empowering. We have value beyond how whiteness sees us as valuable. Even as I write this, I understand this statement to be both true, and perhaps deeply unsatisfying. Nonetheless, instead of worrying about how ”fuckable” I am to white people, these days I am holding myself up as an interesting and lovable human being in my own right.
As for those dating apps – I’m not interested in being anyone’s brief foray into racial fetishism. For now, I’m logging off.
Originally from China, Tif grew up in Quebec, Canada, and has been living in the US for a decade. A former academic, he is now working in the labor movement. He likes to think about food, photography, and how to empower marginalized people. You can find him on Twitter at @UnionAutomata.