How can I begin to decolonize my desires? For context: I’m a 34-year-old Southeast Asian gay man. My family moved to Canada when I was about four years old, and I was one of those kids who always knew they were “gay.” Yet for as long as I can remember, my desires have been shaped around whiteness: my earliest crushes were only white, blond boys with blue eyes. My first adolescent fantasies were about dating white guys, and even my taste in porn feels very fraught as I tend to mostly get off to stuff featuring white performers. In all that time growing up, I never even considered how strange or weird this was, it just felt like the “natural” way of things. But I always knew I wasn’t white like the guys I wanted to be with, and though I didn’t make the connection as clearly at the time, I was always kind of ashamed of my own body.
My racial “awakening” actually came a few years ago through one of those corporate diversity and equity training sessions that people like to make fun of, where the trainer made a few offhand comments about white standards of beauty as part of a larger conversation. I suddenly started thinking about how I’ve been surrounded by images of white male beauty my whole life, especially when I entered the queer scene, and how so many of my Asian gay male friends also seem to aspire to be with white people. This was a huge unravelling for me.
But the awful truth is, even though I am now finally starting reclaim my agency as a proud racialized queer man, I still struggle to see myself and other BIPOC guys as sexually desirable. My mind is there, but my body just doesn’t respond. I’ve tried meeting with and dating other BIPOC guys, and some of them have been truly great, but I don’t feel that physical attraction to them, and I’ve had to cut things off because I don’t want to lead anybody on or turn them into some kind of shitty “experiment” for myself. This is so painful and shameful to admit. I don’t know what to do about it. Is it too late for me? Do I just have to live with the colonization of my sexuality for the rest of my life?
Brown Asian Boy Yearning
There is so much pain, longing and hope in your letter! My whole spirit cries out in answer. All over the world, for centuries now, racialized people have been subjected to painful standards of white, colonial norms of beauty: We have been made to feel ugly and unworthy. We are told that our skin tones, hair textures and body shapes are substandard. We are bombarded by a media and fashion culture that seems furiously devoted to worshipping a pale, thin, young ideal at the exclusion of everyone else. Of course our experiences of sexuality and desire are going to be affected by that reality. Of course we are going to feel frustrated, ashamed and unworthy. Yet I do believe that healing from the impact of racist beauty norms is possible, and it begins with practising both awareness and self-compassion.
In popular culture, stereotypes about beauty, sexuality and desire are often discussed as a relatively simple and shallow phenomenon: some people are considered pretty and sexually attractive while others are considered ugly and sexually repulsive, and this is regarded as either good or bad depending on whom you are talking to. However, the issue goes much deeper than a simple “pretty or not” binary, and to really understand it, we need a basic understanding of sexual oppression.
Sexual oppression is a complex system of cultural attitudes and practices that is rooted in specific and historic colonial goals: namely, the perpetuation of eugenics, the exploitation of bodies assigned female at birth and the suppression of racialized, queer and disabled bodies. That is, the whole area of human sexuality—who has sex with whom, and who reproduces with whom—is one of the primary places where social oppression and exploitation take place. Oppressive cultures such as the European-descended colonial culture we currently live in have long sought to control human sexuality, because doing so has been seen as a key method for controlling entire populations.
For example, in North America, bans on interracial marriage were historically used to maintain the power of the white ruling class. White supremacist stereotypes about Black men, Indigenous men and men of colour as being sexual threats to white women’s “virtue” were (and in many ways continue to be) used to justify lynching and murdering and incarcerating racialized men as a tool of terror that helped keep racialized groups afraid and segregated. Similarly, the notion that queer and trans people are “groomers” who seek to prey on children that emerged in the 20th century has historically been, and still remains, a justification for the attempted suppression and eradication of queerness as a illness. On a global scale, the mass sexual exploitation of East and Southeast Asian women as so-called “comfort women” was used as a weapon of war to prop up Japanese imperialism during the Second World War—and the sexual fetishization of East Asian women as “exotic” and “nymphomaniacs” still lingers in popular culture world wide.
All this to say, BABY, the legacy of sexual oppression is descended from deep and terrible collective wounding. It makes sense that individuals like you, me and pretty much everyone we know would be affected by it in profound and complicated ways. Current-day sexual attitudes and beauty standards remain inextricably linked to serious atrocities from the past, and many of us still carry the weight of that legacy within our queer and racialized bones. Unfortunately, that isn’t something that we can change by attending a workshop or two.
The decolonization of desire is a complex process that is shrouded in complexity: even in the world of “sexual healing,” there is very little to be found on how people of colour can reclaim our experience of desire—and as soon as one talks about the issue in queer communities, backlash and shaming are an almost inevitable part of the conversation. Yet another complication is the fact that the idea of “changing one’s desires” is itself very traumatic for many queer people, given the history of conversion therapies and other abusive processes that have been used to try and make queer people straight.
For me, BABY, as both an Asian queer individual and a practitioner of Somatic Sex Education, the first step is de-shaming desire. There can be no decolonization without de-shaming. A common trap that people of colour run into is that from childhood, we have been taught to be ashamed of our own bodies and to desire white people. Later on, in adolescence or adulthood, we learn that this is a result of internalized racism—and so we become ashamed of our shame, which is a painful spiral that only adds more suffering to the whole experience.
Let’s begin with compassion instead: instead of telling our bodies that they are wrong for desiring white folks and trying to force them to desire people of colour, what if we started by celebrating that our bodies still feel desire and pleasure in whatever capacity they can? What if we offered gratitude to our incredible and resilient erotic selves for staying alive in the midst of a world that works so hard to destroy our pleasure? The realm of the erotic is vast and mysterious. But one thing I know is that shame, anxiety and self-recrimination are antithetical to sexual healing and growth. To be able expand our erotic worlds and decolonize our desires, I think we need to leave a shame-centred paradigm. We can’t bully our bodies into feeling differently. We can only transform through loving ourselves.
Something I have noticed in many years of working with human sexuality in a variety of roles is that sexuality seems to be immutable in some ways while fluid in others. We know we cannot change queer people into straight people just because the dominant culture wants to, but we do know that many individuals experiment with various forms of sexuality throughout their lives, often experiencing new or unexpected forms of desire and eroticism. Context may be a factor here: what are we exposed to, and how does the exposure take place? I know that for myself, as a trans woman primarily attracted to men, my connection with BIPOC men felt diminished when I moved and spent years living in an environment where white, masculine bodies were constantly being upheld as the norm—and that connection was restored when I made a conscious effort to surround myself with people of colour, as well as images of people of colour being celebrated in their beauty.
I would encourage you to spend time building erotic community with other BIPOC queer men, BABY—without putting pressure on yourself to feel or perform desire in any particular way. You might spend time with BIPOC men in situations where the erotic is acknowledged and celebrated, but sex isn’t the be-all-end-all goal. Somatic Sex Education clients of mine who are hoping to decolonize their desires have done all kinds of things—they’ve attended (and even started) queer BIPOC dances, naked BIPOC yoga classes, retreats, parties and bathhouse nights. They’ve held photo shoots and written erotic poetry celebrating the diverse sexiness of BIPOC bodies. Art, ritual and play are wonderful ways to tap into pleasure and the erotic while also taking the pressure off needing to have any specific outcome.
Trust the process. Trust yourself. You are capable of so much more than you believe. As racialized individuals living in a white-dominant society, loving our erotic selves and each other is a practice—it can be a slow growth over time, the way nature slowly regenerates itself in the wake of a forest fire.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.