Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Emasculation And Asian Male Sexuality.

Are We Afraid Of Free Choice For Asian Men?

In the wake of the recent tragic shooting in Isla Vista, in which Elliot Rodger murdered his two room-mates and their friend as well as three random people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a spate of blog posts and news articles were published that sought to make sense of the tragedy. What I found interesting is the way that writers with different agendas focused on their own specific aspect of the tragedy; feminists focused on Rodger's misogyny, black folks focused on his anti-black racism, gun-control advocates focused on his guns, and gun-control opponents focused on his mental illness.

One interesting perspective came from Jenn over at the Reappropriate blog, who coined a new word - misogylinity - to describe what she views as an unhealthy adoption by a segment of Asian-American men of hyper-sexuality as a means to define their masculinity as a response to America's cultural emasculation of Asian men. In short, Jenn suggests that this creates an environment of "woman-hate" - the kind that Elliot Rodger latched onto to justify his misogyny - that leads this particular group of Asian men to disrespect and demean women. Whilst acknowledging the need for a positive response to the emasculation of Asian men, Jenn question whether we should be more nuanced about the kind masculine ideals we should (politically) push for. Her suggestion is to somehow "de-link" sexuality from masculinity such that sexual conquest does not come to define what it means to be a man.....
But let’s be clear: this sex-based masculinity is not actual masculinity. It is something else: let’s call it “misogylinity”..........................Too often, we narrowly (and sometimes uncritically) promote pop culture images of Asian American men in sexual or romantic roles (where the character’s explicit heterosexuality alone defines the character as empowering and masculine). Too often, we revere characters like JT Tran, who sells an Asian American-specific version of pick-up artistry workshops, and David Choe, who hosted a popular Asian American-focused podcast that intended to subvert Asian American emasculation through real or manufactured tales of sexual conquest (where he also allegedly confessed to rape).
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that the first half of that paragraph above is somewhat at odds with my own experience. I don't ever remember any Asian-American - male or female, and certainly no-one of any significant influence whatsoever - actually promoting any Asian male media character based solely on their heterosexuality alone. On the contrary, almost all commentators on the subject seek to promote Asian male (and female) characters in the media who are well rounded and human. People seem to want to promote Asian male characters who are physically strong, emotionally complex, and yes, not devoid of sexuality. But it is certainly a stretch to claim that Asian masculinity is being promoted by way of sexuality alone.

At the same time, does it really need saying why there is (and should be) a focus on Asian male heterosexuality? How about this; it is specifically Asian male heterosexuality that is being maligned and demeaned by American culture? I am not aware of any habit or practice within mainstream culture of demeaning gay Asian men based on their homosexuality. So, suggesting that there might be other ways of addressing sexual dehumanization of Asian men is somewhat absurd - akin to holding you hands over your groin protectively to defend against punches to your face. What other Asian male sexuality is or has been under attack? That aside, the main thrust of the piece is that Asian men who adopt a hyper-sexualized identity as the basis for their masculinity are, basically, to be marginalized by the community at large.

In the latter half of the paragraph, two men in particular are offered up as examples of the kind of Asian man and Asian man behaviour we should eschew. Pick-up artist, JT Tran, and Korean-American artist, and sex fantasist, David Choe, are presented as the kind of slimy characters we would all do well to avoid. The argument is that we should not be giving time to, or supporting, those Asian men - like Tran and Choe - who promote the idea of sex and sexual conquest as some kind of remedy to the emasculation of Asian men. The reason is that they are - it is asserted - misogynists (both) or possible-rapists (Choe) whose hyper-sexualized personas are implicitly "oppressing" other identities....
Do we sometimes let the fight to reclaim Asian American masculinity rationalize the recreation of systems of oppression against other Asian American identities?
I am not going to defend Asian PUA or Choe (still not sure what his sin was), but what I do find disturbing is the puritanical and un-nuanced judgment that hyper-sexualized Asian men or simply the pursuit of a hyper-sexualized lifestyle as an expression of masculinity is somehow morally reprehensible and something we should marginalize out of the community. The piece never gets around to explaining why a masculinity that is heavily informed by hyper-sexuality is implicitly bad. The closest it comes to an explanation is to suggest that hyper-sexual Asian men are somehow implicitly misogynistic, but a broad-brush assertion is a weak argument for a proposal that seems to seek to interfere in individuals' lives on the grounds of our own presumed ethical superiority.

The first problem here is that we live in 21st Century America, and there exists a rather vibrant culture of casual sex and casual pick-up in which both men and women are happy and eager to participate and both sexes use eachother. Bars and clubs (not to mention the college campus bars and notorious spring breaks) all over the US are packed every weekend with single people whose goal is to hook-up - and it is entirely consensual. This means that there is an environment where people like Tran who choose (or merely possess) a highly sexualized identity are welcomed - so in order to imply a moral transgression by Tran, one would have to make sweeping moral judgements on the lifestyle itself. Good luck with that, and if you succeed, then welcome to Taliban USA. Sadly, it is difficult (and unethical) to to impose our own set of ethical values on the actions of willing consensual adults, but even worse, this idea that hyper-sexualized Asian men are a threat seems to merely echo white -supremacists ideas of the sexually rapacious Asian man who presents a threat to white womanhood.

The point here is that that lifestyle is a choice - and insinuating some kind of moral judgement on people who make different choices to ourselves is simply a repression of diverse individualities and nothing more. But worst of all, the idea that an identity that is based largely on sexuality is implicitly something to eschew is never argued effectively for in the post. The only way to answer this is with a question; why? Why is pursuing many sexual partners something we should pour moral scorn upon, and why is it wrong to have an identity that is based on high sexualization? The answer is that it is not - you just can't get passed that consenting adult issue.

Jenn's post calls on the community to redefine what we mean by, and how we present, Asian masculinity whilst inserting the caveat that sexuality based masculinity is to be avoided which, ironically, is an example of oppression of other Asian identities. Who made the judgement that says that masculine identity based on sexuality is wrong, inappropriate or, even, not empowering? Should we make highly sexualized Asian men into some kind of pariah caste because they have made a choice that - for whatever reason - has made some of us uncomfortable? Or, is it better to mind our own business and not try to control and judge other people's choices? How on earth can anyone claim to know that what individuals claim gives them a sense of empowerment is not actually giving them a sense of empowerment?

It is especially confounding that we are even talking about this since - as I pointed out in this comment - Asian feminists have for years presented an aggressive and independent sexuality as a means of empowerment - they (rightfully) choose their own sexuality and they can attach whatever importance to it that they choose; if Asian feminists choose to frame their sexuality as socially and culturally empowering, then so be it, and who are we to argue? Likewise, if there exist Asian men who feel their sexual conquests assuages America's dehumanization of them, who are we to tell them it does not? Jenn seems comfortable leaving room for the possibility that Asian female sexuality and the expression thereof can be politicized and empowering, yet erects (no pun) a moral barrier at the thought of Asian men finding empowerment through the exploration of their sexuality.

Here is where the problem with painting with a broad brush comes back to haunt you. Sexuality, for many people, is hugely integral to their character. People who have been in long-term relationships may still view their identity as highly sexualized and even base their sense of masculinity (or femininity) on their sexual endeavours with their partner. In fact, that sense of "conquest" of your partner does not necessarily go away for people in long-term relationships, and I would guess contributes greatly to the sense of femininity for women and masculinity for men. Are these people to be stigmatized too? Is getting many fucks out of a single partner equally as morally reprehensible as getting single fucks out of many partners? I need more convincing.

Of course, the argument that PUA offers a snake-oil remedy for Asian men who struggle to get dates that ultimately backfires is a legitimate one, and Jenn's piece makes much of the fact that Elliot Rodger felt even more desperate after apparently failing with PUA techniques - although it is not entirely clear that Rodger actually took any PUA classes. Regardless, the focus on that point (although valid - false advertising is false advertising, after all), for the purpose of supporting a vague moral argument to marginalize Asian men with high sex-drives also, sadly, deflects attention away from the fact that the field of psychotherapy also failed to reach Rodger. Yet, no-one has suggested that the failure of psychotherapy to create a meaningful psychological shift in Elliot Rodger reflects any failure on the part of the profession itself.

In the context of Asian and Asian-American mental health, the psychotherapeutic process is complicated by racial and cultural factors which have been documented to impede therapeutic success. Now, as a community, we sound off about Asian-American mental health, yet, in one of the clearest examples of an Asian-American whose mental state made him unreachable, we somehow conspire to miss the opportunity to highlight the unique challenges facing Asian-Americans with mental health issues. From what I understand, Rodger had been in therapy since childhood, and even though I cannot possibly know the specifics of his therapeutic plan, it is worth considering the possibility that the unique experience of cultural marginalization, normalized cultural dehumanization and emasculating stereotypes that promote demeaning behaviours and attitudes, might perhaps have been outside of the realm of experience for his therapists to address, even if they were Asian themselves.

All of this highlights some disturbing facts about emasculation and how we conceive of its character and effects on Asian men. Because Rodger focused his ravings on sexual conquest it is natural to consider his feelings of sexual disempowerment as the fundamental cause of his sense of emasculation. But this is merely narrow thinking. Rodger was - throughout his entire life, possibly before sexuality even became a factor for him - emasculated, even in childhood. This came about through bullying and marginalization. The emasculation of Elliot Rodger quite possibly had as much to do with an inability to assert himself in his social environment, or his inability to find an empowered voice that could enable him to assert control over his own experiences, as much as any inability to get laid. Are we really choosing to believe that Rodger killed mostly because he could not get laid, based on his arguably mad rantings?

If we do choose to follow this narrow understanding then we miss the opportunity to realize that emasculation is a form of dehumanization that attacks and demeans every aspect of a man. This includes their sexuality, but also other equally important aspects of their identity such as their sense of confidence, ability to provide for their family, or their opportunities for participation in the cultural life of their society. For example, men have rampaged when they have lost their job because being economically fruitful is implicit in a masculine identity. Emasculation is not just about sex if it was, then  how can we explain that fact that black men are hyper-sexualized, but there are still voices in that community who argue that this society emasculates black men by capping job opportunities, or stigmatizing their educational abilities.

The point here is that emasculation of minority men occurs in a number of ways, and as I pointed out above, there any number of qualities that we positively associate with masculinity that when compromised can lead to violent or misogynistic behaviour, so focusing on ideas of Asian male hyper-sexuality as being a dangerous echo of Elliot Rodger's type misogyny simply does not add up, and to think of it that way might serve an agenda, but does little to improve our understanding of the nuanced nature of racially inflected emasculation.

We should not lose sight of the fact that emasculation is about control, or more specifically about the power to control a man's life, social identity, and opportunities, being in the hands of people other than the man himself. It is emasculating for black men that their opportunities in employment and education are often unfairly limited by factors outside of their control. It is emasculating for Asian men that some nameless and faceless media types are able to define what it means to be an Asian man in an apparently arbitrary and defamatory way, that they have no control over.

This is a point that requires more consideration - the root of Asian male emasculation is the appropriation of our capacity to define ourselves within the context of our culture and society - everything else is secondary to that. For example, I view jokes about Asian men's dicks as emasculating because they represent the capacity and power of others to arbitrarily define and describe our bodies - the joke itself is meaningless. It, and every other derogatory stereotypes are merely symptoms of the problem, and not the problem itself. Just like rape is considered less about sex and more about asserting power, emasculation is fundamentally the capacity to assert arbitrary power over other men.

This is why personal choice is all important in the struggle against emasculation. It is, therefore, ironic that a blog post that seeks to promote "healthier" conceptions of male masculinity, seeks to do so by controlling and limiting some self-definitions and choices simply because we don't like it. Even worse, is the irrational fear that such hyper-sexual masculinity when skewed could lead to more Elliot Rodgers, when the fact is that any masculine quality (any human quality, in fact) can lead to tragic events when we abuse them.


  1. Ben,

    Interesting point of view on her article. I have been following it closely since it was linked on Reddit.

    My interpretation is that she doesn't really espouse anything new from an Asian feminist agenda: a) deride hypersexualized practices of males as a caveat of rape culture -- a neo yellow peril targeting all women; b)suggest an anecdotal relationship between the celebrity of Choe/Tran with violent acts from (sexually frustrated) young (APIA) men; c)bring light to shaming tactics employed by some (APIA) men in criticizing interracial dating and exogamy practices of some APIA females.

    I would agree that American masculinity should be decoupled from a scoreboard of conquests as an indicator of manliness, but I do not agree that our APIA female allies should play no role in bolstering our sexual identities. For example, when a non Asian person asks an AF why she is dating an AM, she could simply reply because they are $%#!ing sexy , and leave it at that.

    Having said that, we as APIA men need to focus on tactics and practices that would foster healthy individual growth and experience, whether that may be weight lifting, healthier eating habits, dating coach services, public speaking skills, grooming and fashion changes.

    Hopefully, we can use this tragedy as inspiration for personal growth. Perhaps even a little motivation to mentor young men in our community?


    1. Anonymous

      I give Jenn plenty of kudos for engaging - I don't always agree with her, but it should be acknowledged that she is the only Asian-American female blogger offering a space for dialogue between genders.

      No doubt - as I have written here and in previous posts - the gender dialogue is held back by tired and unfruitful language that makes people put up their guard as often as it makes them open up to new ways of thinking about the issues.

      As for the role of Asian women in the Asian male process I will be honest and say that I am not entirely sure if there is a space for that, or what it could look like.

      The danger is that some Asian men seem to get stuck on the idea of Asian female support and cannot move forward because they feel that they won't get it and they need it in order to do so. I'm not so sure if that is the case.

  2. Her issue it seems is that she doesn't like AMs defining masculinity in the certain ways, whether through pickup or rape culture. She doesn't seem to make any complaint about whites, blacks, and hispanics, adopting these cultures, nor acknowledge the fact that AMs are not responsible for creating it in the first place. What she needs to do is to take attack the 'masculinity' that she seems to find offensive, not the (probably) minority of AMs who embrace it. Her point seems to be that the same pop culture that creates the masculinity that she hates is also the same that emasculates AM. I can see the validity in that, however who is she and what right does she have to tell any AM how to define their masculinity? The problem with feminism is that it attacks a white male dominated power structure that does not include AMs, however AMs are included and attacked by virtue of their gender, not the reality of their powerlessness. Feminism takes the stance that there is a power imbalance only between the gendered parties. It does not take race into account in which case it becomes far more complicated. But the problem with identity politics it seems is that logic, rigour, and honesty take second place to rhetoric and emotion.

    1. Hi Apollyon

      I think that nuance often gets lost when people talk about Asian-American inter-gender issues, but even worse there is a tendency to demonize the "other" side. I don't think Asian-Americans can afford to play the demonization game because we all lose that one.

      I think she tried to do too much in a single post and had no choice but to over-generalize because of it. And yes, rhetoric and emotion is the order of the day in identity politics.

      Also, sorry for the late reply - I am on vacation!