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VOLUME 2 / ARTICLE 09 ︎






Bottoms up

Submissiveness, Subversion and Stereotypes
Surrounding Queer Asian Sexuality




Written by Philip Mak
Illustrations by Grace Rondon
January 2021






People have sexual preferences. From foreplay to fisting, it is facile to say there is an entire spectrum of behaviours and tastes — often within each of us, plastic and evolving over the course of our lifetimes. While this may seem obvious when laid out, where then does the common assumption that queer Asian men are exclusively bottoms come from?

To get to the bottom of this, I spoke to Richard Fung: a legendary Toronto-based artist, activist and academic in the queer Asian Canadian milieu. Beyond that, I also revisited my own experiences. As a biracial queer Canadian man, this is a stereotype that I have encountered in innumerable subjective experiences — and there is objective research to support them.

One study [1] has shown that American Men who Sleep with Men (MSM) perceived their Asian gay and bisexual peers as being sexually submissive —bottoms— with below-average penis sizes and subpar sexual negotiation, meaning they are less able to assert their needs in intimate situations. The same research found this to not be true in reality however, and that these men were actually often versatile in their relationships.
“Let it be clear that a preference for being submissive or a bottom is not being criticized; rather, I celebrate it. However, within the North American patriarchal and heteronormative framework surrounding anal sex, getting fucked is often seen as the lower position and associated with weakness, humiliation, and surrendering one’s power.”
Let it be clear that a preference for being submissive or a bottom is not being criticized; rather, I celebrate it. However, within the North American patriarchal and heteronormative framework surrounding anal sex, getting fucked is often seen as the lower position and associated with weakness, humiliation, and surrendering one’s power. While a top is active, a bottom is passive — and it seems Asians are always on the receiving end.

I recently saw the Asian bottom stereotype reinforced in Vietnamese-American poet and author Ocean Vuong’s stunning autofiction On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. The Asian protagonist, Little Dog, has his first queer romance with all-American white boy Trevor, who is deeply ashamed of his sexuality.

It is not long until Little Dog slides into being the bottom. On one occasion they attempt to swap sexual roles though Trevor cannot follow through with it. He explains, “I dunno. I don’t wanna feel like a girl. Like a bitch.” 

Why must we always be the bitch? While there is much sexual currency to be had for Asian MSMs who are small, thin, and hairless, this is not the reality for all members of our community, nor should everyone be expected to conform to stereotypes of svelteness or submissiveness. Another study [2] found that North American Asians viewed themselves as submissive, passive, and feminine, while others believe the stereotype to be a product of others’ views of them. Much of this stems from a more subtle sort of racism.
“While I rejected my Chinese heritage in my teens and realigned with it in my 20s, it requires constant and daily work to weed out the problematic beliefs that have been projected onto my body — and taken residence in my mind.”
For many queer Asian Canadian MSM, internalized racism runs deep; with external attitudes and beliefs incorporated consciously or unconsciously into their perceptions of themselves, others, and society. While I rejected my Chinese heritage in my teens and realigned with it in my 20s, it requires constant and daily work to weed out the problematic beliefs that have been projected onto my body — and taken residence in my mind. For instance, feeling a need to conform to stereotypes of slim hairlessness, I have spent countless hours and dollars sweating, waxing, and lasering my way to so-called perfection.

This should come as no surprise; anti-Asian racism has a deep history above the 49th Parallel. Long before the current aggressions surrounding COVID-19, Chinese immigrants were being legislated against entering the country with bills like the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 and the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, while Canadians of Japanese origin were forced into internment camps during WWII [3].

Historical racism is part of the foundation that stereotyping queer Asian Canadian MSMs is built on. As Nguyen Tan Hoang notes in his 2014 book A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation, Asian American masculinity has been marked by feminization and emasculation — so much so, and for so long, that it has seemingly become a cultural schema. He writes, “…ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender are always overlaid by common-sense understanding of race and ethnicity.”

Looking For My Penis [4], a 1991 paper by Richard Fung, helped inform and inspire Tan Hoang’s book. Fung co-founded Gay Asians Toronto in 1980 and has produced many seminal pieces documenting the experiences of queer Asian Canadians including his landmark film Orientations (1984), its follow-up Re:Orientations (2016) and Chinese Characters (1986), among others. If there is anyone who has the intergenerational wisdom and perspective on what our community has gone through, it is him.

In Looking For My Penis, Fung explores how the stereotype of Asian MSMs being submissive is often limited to people of Eastern and Southeastern Asian origins. Paradoxically, he points out that while these groups are prejudiced as undersexed in the current era, Asian men in 1912 Saskatchewan were viewed as a threat to white women — so much so that the latter group was not allowed to be employed in Chinese businesses. In less than a century, our sexual appetites have gone from feared to flaccid.

A North American narrative that Asian men are deficient in masculinity was reinforced by 20th Century Hollywood cinema that positioned us as either the “egghead/wimp” or “the kung fu master/ninja/samurai” according to Fung. He notes that while Black men are typically reduced to simply being a penis in media, “the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there. And if Asian men have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality?”
“In erotic films, we are objects of desire and accessory to men valued for their whiteness, muscularity, and hung cocks, writes Tan Hoang. Pornography privileges the experiences of these men; it privileges the experiences of the top.”
Unsurprisingly, this sort of representation bled into pornography — with the few Asian men in North American erotic films depicted generally as submissive, and even subservient. This is expressed as the one-sided racialized fantasy of the geisha; the house boy; the mail-order husband; the economically imperialist Westerner using their financial dominance for power and desire in an impoverished Asian country. Our roles in pornography are thus exclusively accessory to the enjoyment of the oft-white dom tops, Tan Hoang notes.

In erotic films, we are objects of desire and accessory to men valued for their whiteness, muscularity, and hung cocks, writes Tan Hoang. Pornography privileges the experiences of these men; it privileges the experiences of the top.

Vietnamese-American porn star Sum Yung Mahn was consistently depicted as taking the role of bottom not for pleasure, but as an act of submission in 1980s films like Below the Belt. As Fung points out in Looking For My Penis, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be fucked as a personal preference. Rather, it was the fact that there are nearly no instances from that time period of Asian actors topping their white counterparts from that era.

Fung writes, “As with the vast majority of North American tapes featuring Asians, the problem is not the representation of anal pleasure per se, but rather that the narratives privilege the penis while always assigning the Asian the role of bottom; Asian and anus are conflated.”

This extends into real life as well, though some Asian Canadian men try to subvert the stereotype. In Fung’s film Orientations, Toronto gay man Paul Cheung said, “People tend to think that Chinese gay men are passive and it’s always white men who are approaching them. So I figure, when I cruise, I’m not interested in men who approach me because if they’re so aggressive that they’ll approach me rather than the other way around, then I think they assume that I’m passive — which I’m not. So, I’m very aggressive in my cruising. I feel it’s easier.”

Interestingly, in the follow-up Re:Orientations film, Cheung admits he may have said the above because he felt he had to — that it was the “woke” thing to say, in Fung’s estimation. Cheung said, “I think I felt some pressure to not live up to a stereotype of Asians.”

As Fung depicts in Chinese Characters, porn has the power to show what is desirable and hot — and Asian Canadian men had to learn to act white in order to trade in the economies of sex and love. Fortunately, things in pornography are changing.

When Fung originally wrote Looking For My Penis, he posited that Asian representation in the erotic film industry paralleled Hollywood — that our community was too peripheral and not economically viable. And while there are doubtlessly adult versions of Crazy Rich Asians out there, there are simply more of us in porn because we are making it ourselves.

Fung tells me, “Porn representation today is different in many ways. [During the 80s and 90s], to get gay porn you would have to go to a video store — usually a gay video store or bookstore that would have videos and you would rent it out and take it home and then bring it back, or people would pass videotapes from one person to another. Today, it's much more private and people access sexual imagery online. There is much more the possibility of artisanal porn or homemade images, so the range. Yet as Nguyen Tan Hoang has written, the idea of the Asian submissive is still very widespread in commercial porn — who fucks who?”

The user-generated nature of the internet and social media has helped push diversity to the fore, whether it is created by amateurs or studios attempting to keep up with ever widening tastes. Additionally, the digital industry has made it easier than ever to import adult gay content from the East — where both the top and the bottom are Asian.

“I think part of what has happened is globalization — that people who are interested in Asian images can go to sites from Taiwan or the Philippines or Taiwan or Thailand or Korea or wherever,” says Fung. So why are there not more homegrown Asian Canadian queer porn stars?

Fung cannot give a definitive answer, though he theorizes that to put oneself out there on North American platforms opens oneself up to sexual racism, hostility, and trauma. Additionally, within the framework of the model minority, there are pressures from certain Asian families and backgrounds to pursue more traditional professional pathways to stability and notions of success.

These may be in direct conflict with the more creative and less conventional career path of adult content. In turn, for many Asian Canadians, biological family is often important not only as community and connection to heritage and language, but also as a means of support and survival. Additionally, conversations around sex often are more taboo; less explicit, more implicit. This was certainly true in my Chinese family, many of whom are still blissfully (and willfully) ignorant of my sexuality.
“As Tan Hoang writes, being a bottom should not be seen as a victimhood; rather, it should be valorized.”
A rising generation of queer Asian Canadians are pushing back against harmful stereotypes and prejudices. While anti-Asian racism is still present in the dating scene, things are slowly improving. Grindr —the ancestral homeland of No fats, no femmes, no Asians— has since banned racist statements in profiles as well as the Kindr campaign to combat racial discrimination, transphobia, and HIV stigma.




Furthermore, as Tan Hoang writes, being a bottom should not be seen as a victimhood; rather, it should be valorized. In his view, Asian bottomhood has the potential to destabilize sexual, gender, and racial norms — disrupting relationships organized around dominance and mastery, and replacing them with those centred on the exhilarating risks of vulnerability and shame.

Speaking on Tan Hoang’s argument, Fung tells me, “He talks about how Asian gay men might want to embrace being on the bottom, which is actually to be with a lot of similarly oppressed subject positions. So there's a way in which resisting a binary and embracing the bottom could be kind of a subversive way of thinking."

A queer friend, who would rather remain anonymous, relates, “For the inexperienced mind, the thought of bottoming is often viewed as masochistic, painful, and maybe even repulsive. Yet the bottom is necessary to complement the top in making up a whole — that is to say, the euphoric experience created when two consenting bodies merge in an act of indulgence. The top depends on the bottom to climax, a power dynamic is negotiated and so the bottom takes on a new meaning, one of responsibility.”

“When I choose receptivity, I understand that I am containing the couple’s sexual energy, which is threatening and thrilling at the same time because it has the potential of transforming shame into empowerment; I am remastering a fantasy in which I am equally in control. When one comes to embrace this role, with the right mix of training and trust, it has the potential of being one of the most blissful experiences — a private reward that remains largely inaccessible to the top, but shared nonetheless. For me, it has become an art form that epitomizes the skilled act of balancing control with letting go," he explains.

Ultimately, submissiveness is a personal preference — queer, Asian, or otherwise. Whether it is for sexual pleasure, subversion or solidarity, your bussy-ness is nobody’s business. And that’s the bottom line.



  1. Challenging Race-Based Stereotypes about Gay and Bisexual Men’s Sexual Behavior and Perceived Penis Size and Size Satisfaction: https://static1.squarespace.com/
  2. Race-Based Sexual Stereotyping and Sexual Partnering Among Men Who Use the Internet to Identify Other Men for Bareback Sex: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

  3. Looking for My Penis (1991): http://www.richardfung.ca

  4. Events in Asian Canadian history: https://www.canada.ca






ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philip Mak is a Canada-raised, London-based copywriter and journalist who enjoys fashion, travel, and searching for the world’s best har gau in his spare time.


ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Grace Rondon is a Montreal-based illustration student at Dawson College.







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