“I think the impression in many gay men’s minds is that, at the end of the night, [all Asian men] will lie back, throw their legs in the air, and beg to be fucked,” author and video artist Hoang Tan Nguyen tells Queerty in an exclusive interview.
His book, A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation, challenges this stereotype by offering an in-depth critique of male effeminacy and its racialization in pop culture.
Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam. His family moved to the United States when he was about 10 years old. Today, he is an Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College. We had an opportunity to interview him about his book, his work and his thoughts on society’s views of gay Asian men.
Check out what he had to say…
In your book A View from the Bottom you examine some of the stereotypes surrounding gay Asian men. What is the most common stereotype you’ve observed?
The popular stereotype is that gay Asian men are effeminate, passive bottoms. This even applies to the young, muscular guys in bars or online. They are not perceived as “hunks” the way that white guys might be. I think the impression in many gay men’s minds is that though they appear butch, at the end of the night, these Asian studs will lie back, throw their legs in the air, and beg to be fucked. One of the key arguments of my book is that while gay Asian men are associated with the bottom position, there is nothing wrong with being bottom per se. What is troubling is the idea that Asian men’s sexual desire is restricted to that one position.
How is an Asian man who bottoms viewed differently from, say, a white man who bottoms?
The view of Asian men, gay and straight, as effeminate, lacking in the proper quotient of masculinity, and therefore, sexual undesirability, can be attributed to a Western colonial mindset that deems “the Orient” as a mysterious, feminine space to be seduced, conquered, and penetrated. So gay Asian men’s bottoming is considered to be a “natural” expression of their racial nature. But white men’s bottoming doesn’t say anything about their racial essence. It’s just a sexual role that gets them off. While being on the receiving end of anal sex usually brands the bottom as passive and feminized, race complicates matters. Getting fucked doesn’t necessarily impugn white men’s claims to masculine prerogatives in the way that it does to Asian men’s.
You’ve argued that this is ultimately a way of reinforcing the white men’s sexuality in society.
Racialized sexuality has been constructed to reinforce white men as the norm. Asian men’s asexuality is counter-balanced by black and Latino men’s hypersexuality; Asians possess too little, blacks and Latinos possess too much. The two poles serve to confirm white masculinity as just right, safely in the middle. Put another way, whiteness is attached to the category of the human and accorded the status of the universal, which in this case, we can link to the white men’s sexual versatility.
What do you think about guys who write things like “No Asians” on their dating profiles?
Sexual racism is nothing new by any means. A job advertisement listing “no Asians” would obviously be considered prejudiced and discriminatory. So why is a hookup ad different? Why is it that a hot chest pic suddenly becomes blockable when an Asian face is revealed?
A lot of people would argue it’s their “personal preference.”
I’m more than happy to support people’s personal preferences, sexual and otherwise. However, it’s clear that one doesn’t wake up one day and find oneself exclusively preferring white twinks, bi muscle bears, vegetarian otters, and so on. Much of what we call “preferences” are actually shaped by cultural norms and social institutions. Racism is not a preference, it’s a social institution that confers benefits and privileges to some while excluding others.
What do you think are the steps to overcoming the stereotypes and stigmas these guys on dating apps seem to feel towards Asian men?
Well, the first step is to go out and fuck an Asian man, or get fucked by one. That advice applies to Asian and non-Asian men (and women) alike. Don’t knock it till you try it, as the saying goes.
When challenging the stigmatization of gay Asian men, we must be careful not to reinscribe the standards of normative masculinity. For instance, the knee-jerk response by Asian American critics and activists has been to assert that Asian men are just as masculine and potent as men of other races. This is obviously true. But, such a defensive claim ends up reinforcing femmephobia. What’s wrong with being effeminate? That’s an intersectional issue. Fat, femme, Asian, whatever, we shouldn’t throw each other under the bus.
I’m not interested in combating the truth or falsehood of Asian men as weak, submissive bottoms. Rather, I’m more interested in expanding how we think about Asianness and masculinity and femininity. I want us to consider the erotic and desirable in terms of an ethics of pleasure and agency without policing what is or is not legitimate.
You tackle this very idea in your video Forever Bottom!
Yes. My video Forever Bottom! critiques the assumption that all Asian men are bottoms but does not try to recuperate Asian masculinity. The video is a four-minute montage of an Asian man getting fucked in a variety of locations (the bedroom, in the shower, against the stove, on the lawn, in the car, at the beach); the video shows an insatiable bottom unrepentantly taking up private and public space. I don’t try to counter the stereotype by portraying or saying that Asians can in fact be butch tops. I don’t position being top as better than being bottom. Bottomhood is powerful!
How can bottomhood be powerful?
As any connoisseur of anal eroticism can tell you, the category of bottom encompasses many different kinds: bossy bottom, insatiable bottom, lazy bottom, submissive bottom, big-dicked bottom, power bottom. The numerous adjectives modifying bottom suggest that bottoming doesn’t mean just one thing, specifically, in the assertion of needs, wants, demands, desires. My phrase “bottomhood is powerful” riffs off of second wave feminism’s slogan “sisterhood is powerful.” On one level, it challenges the assumption of bottomhood as wholly powerless, humiliating, and shameful; getting fucked doesn’t mean one is fucked over. On another level, the phrase is a bit cheeky because my thinking about bottomhood privileges the pleasure and agency in the very surrender of power. Passivity, submission, and masochism can be chosen and pleasurable.
Alternatively, we can focus on the positive aspects of bottomhood and embrace vulnerability, receptivity, and openness. Adopting the bottom position allows us to think about and make coalitions with those who are similarly situated at the bottom of social hierarchies. As members of a group deemed to be racially and sexually abject, gay Asian men are in an ideal place to offer a strong critique of the racial-sexual status quo. Instead of fighting among ourselves for the scraps thrown our way by those on top, it would be more productive to bond with others located on the bottom—queers, people of color, women, the differently abled—in order to undo the top-bottom hierarchy. In that sense, bottomhood can be very powerful indeed.