Hoping to learn about the experiences of Asian American men in sexuality education, I reached out to of my two friends for interviews. Peter*, a junior, and Walter*, a senior, are both East Asian males at Northwestern University. In addition to their experiences with sex education in middle and high school, Peter and Walter also teach sexuality education. Walter, Peter and I all work with the organization Peer Health Exchange to lead ninth graders in workshops on sexual health, consent, substance use, and mental health. Peter also helps run Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS), the male-only group on campus that works to combat “toxic masculinity” and rape culture.
Half-way through my conversation with Peter, he mentions the invisibility of Asian American perpetrators, just one of many ideas I had never considered before this talk. As someone who constantly talks about the issue of sexual assault in our country, I have often discussed topics such as white frat boys and the compared experiences and prosecutions of African American and Latino perpetrators. But never Asian American assailants.
What accounts for the invisibility of Asian American perpetrators? First, as Peter theorized in our interview, Asian Americans are largely excluded from both popular and news media. This includes coverage and cinematic depictions of sexual assault incidents involving Asian Americans both as the perpetrators and as the victims. Peter explains,
A lot of Asians are more skeptical of the issue, I think because Asians are kind of ignored in the media coverage of sexual violence in general. They think it’s a non-issue, just like everyone else does. Because a lot of white people are involved, a lot of incidents of sexual assault in the media involve white people. So white people think about it more, even though they didn’t think about before, they will start to think about it a little bit. They start to recognize that it’s a thing. But to a lot of Asians, it’s not an issue and it’s something that other people have to worry about.
Second, the perceived failure of Asian American males to fit within traditional hegemonic masculine norms does not fall in line with the common understandings of sexual assault. The ‘racially castrated,’ hyposexual Asian man should have no motivations to commit sexual assault in the first place. Beyond motivations, the lack of physical markers of masculinity and its associated strength, such as body hair and height, renders Asian men incapable of the violent surprise attacks that sexual assault is often (and falsely) painted as. Furthermore, sexual assault should be largely understood not only as physical domination of another, but also a demonstration of symbolic power. Therefore East Asian men, depicted to have little power even within their own households, fall even further from the popular images of rapists (Chou, 2012:118).
I guess it was a little bit different because puberty is just different in different races just as it is different among people of each race. I remember that I never grew body hair, never got any facial hair or anything, and I would be teased a little bit by my friends. They would be like, “oh do you shave? You’re not growing any hair.” It wasn’t anything tragic, it wasn’t anything weird, but it was definitely something that I was aware of. Granted my voice was cracking and I got acne and all the other stuff, but it was such a large marker for puberty, and growing up, and becoming a man. I wasn’t getting that and it kind of was something I was definitely aware of. (Walter)
Lastly, parallels can be seen between the ways in which white boys are pardoned for both sexual violence and gun-related violence through the understanding of their acts as retaliation for “the scandal of ex-privilege” (Brandzel & Desai, 2008: 75). Meanwhile, considerations of the hyposexual Asian boys as perpetrators remain unmentioned, let alone analyzed. In other words, the men of the racially castrated model minority have no reason to commit sexual assault and therefore it must not be a problem.
However, it is important to note that Asian men in this country have not always been excluded from this dialogue. In fact, before the rise of the ‘model minority’ myth lived the ‘yellow peril’ myth in which Asian American men, much like most other men of color in country today, were painted as hypersexual, predatory threats to white women (Espiritu, 2008: 100).
The issue we are left with here is two-fold. First, how does one begin to increase the visibility of the issue amongst Asian American males, particularly without pushing the narrative back towards a modern day equivalent of the ‘yellow peril’ myth? While I don’t believe that increasing the visibility of this issue will result in a narrative similar to the ‘yellow peril’ myth given the current racial ‘castration’ of Asian American males, it remains likely that such an issue would be racialized in some way or another. We would more likely see such acts as an example of ‘Orientalism,’ as women and men of color remain trapped in their “static, misogynistic, and inherently patriarchal cultures” (Bandzel & Desai, 2008: 76)
Second, how does one design programs or dialogues that adequately address these issues in a way that acknowledges the identities and experiences of individuals who are pushed outside of the norm set by straight, cis, white, middle-class males? This cannot be achieved without increased involvement from Asian Americans, particularly Asian American men, in this movement. This continues to be an issue even at Northwestern, a school where Asian are the second largest racial group on campus. For now, Peter remains the only active Asian American member of MARS and the only person of color currently serving on their executive board.