As an Asian American woman who exists on the asexual spectrum, I navigate a tricky space when it comes to sexuality. On one hand, I experience hypersexualization and fetishization based on Orientalist assumptions about Asian women. On the other, I come from a culture of sexual conservatism, where families don’t speak about sex but the expectation of abstinence is always implied. My coming of age was a long, drawn out clash between these two cultural forces, resulting in much confusion and frustration about who I was, how I felt, and how I was perceived by others.
Let me address the obvious first: asexuality is still widely misunderstood, no matter where you are or what culture you grew up in. To make matters even more difficult, much of the asexual community is dominated by white voices. Articles and resources centering asexual people of color are few and far between, leaving little room for dialogue about how race, ethnicity, and culture can affect the way a person experiences asexuality.
I can’t speak for all Asian Americans or even Southeast Asians with regard to cultural attitudes toward sex. The entire continent of Asia is far too vast and diverse for me to generalize, and there are enough stereotypes about Asian culture as it is. What I can do is speak to my own experiences growing up transnationally between my home country, Thailand, and the largely Asian American community I later moved to in the U.S..
I remember joking with some Asian American friends in high school about how none of us ever got “the talk” from our parents. My family gave me zero sex education. In fact, the topic was never brought up in our household, and even as a child I could sense that it was taboo. Every time my mom complained about a couple engaging in public displays of affection, I knew that the implicit message to me was, “Don’t ever do that.” Every time she told me to be careful which parts of “American culture” I was adopting, I knew that hidden in there was a critique of the U.S.’s relative sexual openness. Without ever actually saying the words, my mom made it clear to me that sex and physical intimacy were forbidden.
Back in the homeland, I grew up on Thai dramas that—in a heteronormative context—portrayed sex as something that men “took” and women “gave up,” always with shameful consequences for women. This type of language, portraying women as passive non-actors in sexual encounters, is everywhere. I remember attending school in Thailand when I was twelve and hearing a teacher criticize girls for hugging boys in the hallway, saying they had no self-respect. In the same vein, one of my Thai textbooks discouraged girls and boys from being alone together because such behavior could lead to “mistakes.”
In stark contrast to the sex-negative messages I was receiving at home, mainstream media in the U.S. made it look like every teenager was out there having sex. I grew up in the era of teen shows like The OC and One Tree Hill, where high school kids were seemingly sexually experienced beyond their years. Because of this, in my younger years it was my understanding that sex—despite what your parents say—is something teenagers are supposed to want and eventually have.
Between the sex-shaming I was raised with and the “sex is everywhere” nature of media, there was little space for me to discover that other outlooks on sex and sexuality were possible.
True to society’s heteronormative conditioning, I assumed I was attracted to men until I was about nineteen years old. Still, I had a hard time relating to my friends on the subject of boys. I didn’t understand celebrity crushes, and I didn’t understand how attraction worked. The concept of meeting someone and wanting to ask for their phone number was (and remains to this day) foreign to me. At first I dismissed it as a cultural difference. After all, I didn’t know if Thai people had the same dating customs as Americans, and my family wasn’t about to give me a how-to lesson on that. But later on I realized that’s not the case at all.
I never understood dating—how you could meet someone somewhere and know that you wanted to get to know them—because I didn’t know that attraction could happen like that, because it has never happened to me before.
It took me a long time to discover that I belonged on the asexual spectrum. I think part of the reason why it took so long is because I grew up in an environment where sex was never discussed but understood to be frowned upon. I chalked my disinterest up to cultural and parental influence. Yes, many of my Asian American friends actively participated in dating and sexual relationships regardless of what their parents said. But I thought that maybe—because I spent the majority of my youth shuffling between Thailand and the U.S.—I had retained more of my native culture’s hesitance toward physical intimacy than my peers. I imagine that if I had been raised with a more open perspective on sex and dating, I would have realized much sooner that even without all the norms and judgments, I just wasn’t interested in it anyway.
And instead of seeing myself as an uptight straight woman or an overly picky straight woman, I would have realized sooner that maybe I just wasn’t attracted to men or women or anyone else.
I haven’t told anyone in my family that I’m on the asexual spectrum. They know I’ve never dated and that I’m not interested in dating, but they dismiss it as a result of my age and my desire to focus on my career more than anything else. In a way, it’s easier for me to let my family believe that because I wouldn’t know how to explain asexuality to them. The language barrier between us is too wide, and I don’t even know if there’s a word for asexuality in my language. And even if I did, chances are they’ll say that I can’t possibly know I’m not attracted to anyone, that things will change when I “meet the right person.” Still, every so often I’ll get the inevitable questions: “Are you dating anyone yet?” and, when I say no, “Don’t you want to?” Despite the overall negativity towards sex, my family still assumes that at some undefined age later in life, I will settle down with someone.
Growing up in the U.S. as a Thai woman added on another layer of contradiction to my understanding of sexuality. In spite of the sexual conservatism that was everywhere throughout my experiences with family and with Thailand, I couldn’t escape the demeaning jokes and insults about the prevalence of sex tourism in my country and the perceived sexual promiscuity of women of my ethnicity.
Yes, there’s the blanket hypersexualization of Asian women I grapple with on a regular basis. But to have grown up with other kids calling you a sex worker as the punchline of a joke—to know that that’s how people think of you and where you come from—is offensive beyond belief. It’s offensive to me as a woman of color, it’s offensive to sex workers, and it’s offensive to the history of U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia that made Thailand a sex tourism destination to begin with.
And as someone who’s on the asexual spectrum, this hypersexualization feels like a form of erasure.
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When I was nineteen years old, I was browsing in a bookstore when a middle-aged white man approached me and said, “Let me guess your origin: Thai or Filipino, right?” Not even a hello or a “What’s your name?” to start. He went straight to making assumptions about my ethnic background. I resent that women of my race are exotified and fetishized to the point that to many people, our race—and the underlying assumptions of submissiveness and docility with it—is the first thing they notice, the criterion they seek. Even more, I resent that this fetishization is so widespread that there is now a part of my country’s economy that is dependent on women of my ethnicity being viewed as sexual commodities, particularly by white men.
Although wildly different in many respects, the patriarchal sexual conservatism of my childhood and the broader hypersexualization of Asian women rely on a common, disturbing premise: that my body is an object for male consumption.
Whether I abstain from sex as I was raised to or not, and whether I live up to the stereotypes of Asian women or not, I can’t seem to escape the sexualized nature of my existence. When you’re told over and over again that you’re a sex object, how do you find your sexual agency? Where’s the room for you to determine your own relationship with sexuality?
No one navigates their asexuality in the same way, and I long for an asexual community that is diverse and inclusive enough to reflect that reality. I want more conversations about what it means to live in a marginalized body and have your sexuality predetermined by society, when you’re barely figuring it out for yourself. Whether it’s through the hypersexualization of women of color or the assumption of asexuality for people with disabilities, our many identities inform—and sometimes obscure—the path to discovering our place on the asexual spectrum, and it’s important that we acknowledge that and make space for this dialogue.[Feature Image: An Asian person with light skin and a short bob haircut sits outdoors on some steps. They are wearing jeans, a dark jacket, and sneakers. A building is visible in the background. Source: Pexels.com]