Since my first year in college, I’ve been interested in sexuality studies. Since the first sociology class I took on sexuality and biomedicine in the context of HIV/AIDS, I’ve taken many classes which revolve around gender and sexuality, culture and society, public health and biomedicine. As an undergraduate research fellow, I’ve been doing research with the Feinberg Department of Medical Social Sciences for almost two years. My research questions with that department have focused on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and health; this past summer, I did a quantitative social network research project on interracial sex partners met on Grindr, a popular dating mobile application for men. What I found was not personally surprising: Grindr users tended to prefer white men as sex partners no matter their race or ethnicity, while Asian and Black men were dispreferred. As an Asian man who had used Grindr before meeting my boyfriend, these findings matched well with my own experiences. That research project was one of my primary motivations for taking this class on Asian-American sexualities. While I’d done a lot of research in a sociological, quantitative context on race and sexual partnering, I did not know much about the qualitative, historical, and humanistic scholarship on it. While I believe quantitative research is valuable (and as one of my majors is in Mathematical Methods, I’m supposed to say this), historical and humanistic research is better able to capture the nuances and articulate the subjective. Moreover, I believe that qualitative research often provides the theoretical frameworks which inform the explanation of quantitative data.
In the four blog posts I wrote during the course of this class, I’ve covered a wide array of topics. One central theme which emerges is a focus on the ways in which sexual capital—how actors are awarded privileges based on desirability—is unevenly distributed amongst Asian-Americans, and furthermore the ways in which that uneven distribution arises from and perpetuates systems of white supremacist heteropatriarchy. This theme aligns well with research questions I’ve already been asking, as preferences for partners mirrors politics of desirability. But this class has given me many new tools and frameworks to explore these questions, not only in the Asian-American case but also in exploring wider inquiries in the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
The framework of historicizing sexual capital is something that I’d never given much thought prior to taking this class. I knew, albeit superficially, that contemporary constructions of racialized gender and sexuality are shaped by historical events, such as waves of immigration. However, learning more exact details of how these constructions came to be for Asian-Americans—how they are shaped by histories of immigrant labor policies and structures of ethnic communities—has given me much more insight and analytical power. I would not have been able to look at Watter’s World or Marilyn Chin’s work in the same way without this knowledge. I would not be able to articulate how the illustrations of uneven sexual capital in these works invoke this specific Asian-American history. Moreover, this historical framework allows for the analysis of sexual capital as a dynamic site of construction that is shaped by events that come before and after. I have learned in my work that it is not enough to simply state how Asian-Americans are attributed less sexual capital, but that I must keep in mind how that distribution has come to be, how it is uneven across ethnicities, genders, and sexualities, and how that distribution shifts through time and space. Extending these concepts to inquiries that encompass other racial groups, I can also begin to look at how complex colonial relationships and shared histories can result in a hierarchy of sexual capital. For example, as both Black men and Asian men in the United States are ascribed deviant sexualities (constructed as hypersexual and hyposexual, respectively) with respect to white men, this may explain in part why these two groups of men are dispreferred in dating networks such as Grindr.
Moreover, I’ve learned so much about how this history has resulted in a common set of social markers—performances which social actors reenact and reproduce, often without deliberate thought or with coercion. These performances often reify hierarchies of social and sexual capital and are often illustrated well through the primary texts we looked at in class. As a sociologist who rarely works with primary texts, this method of textual analysis and close reading was challenging. However, I know that many cultural nuances, such as performances, are best captured and analyzed through this framework. The primary texts (or analyses of primary texts) that we looked at in class have all depicted the sometimes painful, sometimes liberating ways in which Asian-American actors follow and break from the social scripts that we’re given. In terms of my research interests, this framework of textual analysis has inspired me to look at my questions from different angles, which have generated even more possible inquiries. For example, if I were to revisit my project from the summer, I could do a textual analysis on some aspect of experience on Grindr—whether that be through looking at how people describe themselves on their profiles, or through a virtual ethnography of close reading Grindr chat transcripts. Despite being a virtual space, there are ways in which actors still perform their gender, sexuality, and race online. This qualitative approach would also answer my questions on differing sexual capital, but through the framework of performativity.
But this class has also given me so much perspective for my own personal life. As one half of an interracial queer couple, I related often to the texts that we read and often searched for ways that they applied to my own life—what histories are invoked through my experiences, what hegemonic relations are reproduced or challenged? Ultimately, this class has given me more insight into my own lived-experiences and the people that I hope to continue researching. Scholarship with this in mind can truly bring about change. When Asian-American subjects are treated with the nuanced care and investigation that they deserve, the knowledge produced can truly bring about change.