Wilson Cruz
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How Tumblr Porn Let Gay Asian Men Be More Than a Fetish

How Tumblr Porn Let Gay Asian Men Be More Than a Fetish

One time, at a party in college, someone asked me if I was dating my roommate, a close friend who happened to be, like me, Asian. I laughed. “God no. What would we do, bump pussies?”

It was a stupid throwaway line — self-hatred masquerading as gay party banter. But ten years later it’s something I think about. This line came with a horrifying cliff of subtext — the reducing of queer female desire, the presumption that my roommate was a bottom (he’s not), the conflation of sexual roles and the function of relationships. But my intended point was a conviction I casually perpetuated as an irrefutable fact: that all gay Asian men are bottoms.

At the time, it didn’t matter that I lacked any of the sexual experiences necessary to determine whether or not I even liked getting fucked. Society had decided that for me. The person I was talking to was white, by the way, and looking back I suspect I was also looking for his approval, positioning myself as someone who, with a self-incriminating wink, was in on the joke.

The joke being me. I didn’t learn the joke so much as absorb it like osmosis through the pores of my skin. A fact as American as apple pie: I was neutered both sexually and socially. Of course this was coded in nearly every form of popular culture, that East Asian men, even the straight ones, are failed men. Which meant I had failed twice. My intrinsic bottomhood, though, was most evident in the only depictions of gay Asian men available to me at the time: the dizzying, electrifying, and often dismal galaxy of online porn.

Tumblr’s ban on adult content, effective today, feels particularly devastating—it was one of the few spaces where Asian men could see themselves depicted with any sort of sexual agency, even doing the unimaginable: topping. I was a teenager in the early 2000s, a bygone era of pornography. (We had dial up then.) But the images of the early aughts have largely endured: gay Asian men exoticized as objects of servitude for the pleasure of mostly white tops. Gay Asian displays of sexual dominance are so rarified that last year the podcast Nancy dedicated nearly an entire episode to Brandon Lee, porn’s “first Asian top,” who is viewed as a kind of sexual unicorn.

The first time Joel Kim Booster remembers seeing gay Asian men in porn was in college, when an internet search roped him into the esoteric realm of Japanese imports. “No shade to my friends who may be into this, but it was so weird,” says the Korean-American comedian and writer. “Everyone was wearing gas masks and all the dicks were pixelated. I didn't specifically seek out Asian porn for a while after that.”

Joel grew up in an adopted white family, in a predominately white suburb just outside of Chicago. “I think my tastes were definitely shaped by Baywatch and gay porn in tandem,” he says. Online, the first porn he consumed after “famously dabbling in Pokémon erotica” was from a site called Straight College Men, which mostly featured toned white Adonis types. He was 13 or 14 then, but to this day, the 29-year-old remembers one model named Chip. “It's not exactly a revelation to say that for a while, white with an athletic build and forgettable faces became sort of the baseline for what I was into as my sexual desires began to form,” he says.

When he got to college, stumbling onto videos featuring black and Latino men under tabs like “BDSM,” “Military,” and “Tattoo” helped expand his desire. “That kind of casual diversity really did affect how my real world tastes began to shape,” he says. “I think for me, it's about not only the racial diversity, but the genre diversity. I wish some kid going through the ‘Bear’ tab could just happen to see an Asian guy in that mix. How would that change how he thought? Sometimes I want to see two fucking jacked Asian men wrestle in singlets. I know if I search ‘wrestling’ in Pornhub, I won't just happen to see that.”

Instead, Joel turned to Tumblr, one of the few platforms he found that hosted relatable depictions of gay Asian men. “The heroes who ran some of those Gay Asian porn blogs would find stuff outside of the normal channels,” says Joel. “It took me years to realize that it wasn't that I wasn't attracted to Asian men, it was that I wasn't attracted to a pixelated dick in a gas mask.”

Other sites he looks to include PeterFever, a porn studio run by the actor Peter Le, with the stated mission of producing “gay Asian porn fantasies” predominantly featuring Asian men and other men of color. “I think PeterFever is doing the Lord's work,” says Joel.

Though he hesitates to draw a definitive line between porn and how he’s perceived sexually—  “Attraction is a complicated thing to dissect,” he says, “and I'm not a social scientist, clearly”— Joel does notice that prospective partners often make assumptions. “I don't want anyone to think it's wrong to want to bottom, I love to bottom,” he says. “But I love to fuck too, and I'd like to see that. The number of strangers who assume I'm a bottom—I do think some of that is racialized assumptions. I've literally had men say ‘You're so hot, but I'm a bottom’ and it's like... ‘Well great, what's the issue?’”

The LA-based Canadian-born pornstar Damian Dragon, who’s part Northern Indian, Japanese, and South Pacific Islander, has experienced similar assumptions. Growing up in the ’90s, he identified exclusively as a bottom, spurred in part by mostly white partners who expected him to be “more into the servitude of them, rather than being pleasured myself,” he says. “I just sort of fell into those roles, until I realized that I wasn't comfortable in those roles and then kind of evolved into topping more. It's a lot of fun to see life from both sides and be able to flip back and forth and have that fluidity.”

On screen, with his shaved head and tattoo-adorned body, the 48-year-old cuts a domineering figure. On PeterFever, he’s often cast as a top. The studio’s mission was a big reason he returned to the industry last year, after taking a nearly decade-long hiatus. In 2009, he says “it was hard for me to connect as an Asian man with people who were filming porn at that time. I didn’t feel like I found my place. It was a little bit disparaging.”

The way he sees it, there’s a long way to go, but he’s noticed a perceptible shift in the industry within the last few years towards diversifying mainstream depictions of gay Asian roles. And audiences are responding.

“I didn't really realize how much of an affect I had on other Asian men until I started working with PeterFever,” he says. “They have a very large Asian base of viewers and I started getting notes via various social media from all over the world just thanking me for not portraying the stereotypical Asian man in the gay porn industry. It really meant something to me, that I am doing something in my own small way to help them see something within themselves.”

Despite his apprehensions, he re-entered the industry with a renewed intention. “I knew I wanted to portray Asian men who are gay in a really positive, strong sexual light,” he says, “especially when not a lot of Asian men feel that way.”

Topping, of course, is not the only means to sexual empowerment. Seen through the lens of heterosexuality, there is a false binary of “masculine” tops and “feminine” bottoms, with too much onus on the penis. But bottoming, without racialization, can be a position of sexual agency. Submission, too, can be a thrilling stance of power.

Tumblr was once a repository that expanded these narrow parameters of gay Asian desires. But that’s gone now, and we need more diversity. Divorcing the subtext of bottomhood from broader cultural attitudes feels nearly impossible to me, bottoming being as much a sexual position as a social one. Within the cultural imagination, Asian American men, gay or straight, are bottoms. This mirrors other myths, like that of the model minority, which casts us as submissive sidekicks, happy to mold our identities around the needs and phalluses of white men, and by extension, America at large.

Like Joel and like Damian, I wanted to feel like I could decide to be top or bottom, a privilege only afforded to white cis men. I didn’t want to feel like I’m buckling to expectations by bottoming, or defying them by topping. My response at that college party years ago conceded both a sexual bottomhood and a political one—it was the latter that hurt most. In eight quick words I had limited not just myself but my community. I had bottomed out.  

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