Sure, the bit may be tone-deaf, particularly for a woman who’s made a career out of highlighting everyday sexism, but there’s a reason Schumer felt comfortable making such a reductive, blanket statement: Asian women are constantly sexualized and objectified by society.
As a sex worker, this is something I’ve managed to profit from. For the past few years, I’ve worked on and off as a dominatrix, and my Asian heritage has been a very lucrative selling point. When I worked at an all-Asian dungeon, there was never a single day that we didn’t have an influx of clients coming to see us, preferring a dominant Asian woman to any other type of dominatrix. But as much as I enjoy commanding a premium rate, I’ve struggled to come to terms with allowing myself to be fetishized so blatantly. It may seem simple — why can’t you just enjoy your money? — but I’ve felt the oppressive weight of Asian stereotypes my entire life, and profiting from them brings up a lot of conflicting emotions.
Growing up, I was constantly reduced to my ethnicity. People always assumed, among other things, that I was great at math, and that I was shy and submissive. But it wasn’t until my twenties that I felt just how much society sexualizes Asian women. Men didn’t seem to want me for me — they wanted what I represented: some sort of oriental mystique. I was "exotic" and could’ve been swapped out for any other Asian girl — I just happened to be the one that was available. My individuality was completely dismissed. (To be clear, Asian women don’t all look alike, nor do we all behave alike.)
It didn’t help that, unlike other races who have platforms for voicing their narratives, Asians rarely do. (Take, for example, this year’s Oscars controversy: Asians were almost completely omitted from the discussion even while we were the butt of host Chris Rock’s insensitive joke.) In many Asian cultures, individuals are raised to be docile because it’s a prized attribute in a collectivist culture. When that quality is displayed in a vocal American culture, however, it can hold us back immensely. I can’t even speak for Asian men, as they also share a distinct set of disadvantages that are exploited in mainstream American media. While Asian women are objectified, Asian men are stripped of their sexuality and masculinity.
I wound up at an all-Asian dungeon, and I found that there was something comforting about working alongside women who not only shared my experiences in the vanilla world, but in the BDSM one, too. They were the only ones who could relate to the troublesome reasoning behind the higher price tag for our work: People tend to think that Asians come from households that raise them to succeed, or at least put them on track for careers in medicine, law, or business. Because of this, there’s a huge perceived taboo of Asian women entering sex work (which, in my experience, tends to hold true), so Asian women in any part of the sex industry have a premium minority status. If you can tolerate the risk, the marginalization pays off majorly.
After a few months of domming, I began to realize that there were two sides to the fetishization of our race. There was our exoticized appearance — recent studies have suggested that Asian women are often considered more attractive on average, and we get more responses than women of any other race on dating websites. Beyond that, Asians are generally considered more submissive (a stereotype that’s perpetuated by the media) — which makes us even more desirable as dominatrixes, since apparently, there’s something particularly hot about being dominated by an already-sexualized woman acting out of character. At least, that’s how I made sense of it. (Not to mention, when the media does portray Asian women as sex workers, these characters often occupy the "victimized prostitute" role, which is inherently submissive.)
I also came to find that, as an Asian woman, I was a particularly safe outlet for men whose desires were repressed in the vanilla world. It would typically play out like this: A straight man would want activities that could be construed by mainstream culture as "gay," such as pegging or forced bi (when a man is forced by a dominatrix to perform homosexual acts with another man). Instead of seeking those out in the "real" world, he’d come to a dominatrix so that she could "force" him to do them. Because these activities were proxied, he would retain his heterosexual identity, protect his ego, and adhere to constructs of masculinity. And since Asian women are associated with high levels of femininity, we therefore strengthened the shield even more.
Men would grab my butt and say, 'You have a great ass for an Asian girl,' as if they were giving me a compliment.
But in the dungeon, I found that many of the women did not realize what these remarks implied. They were used to this behavior and did not find it disrespectful.
And why should they? The culture we worked in normalized our otherness just as much, if not more, than vanilla society. Each of our bios indicated our ethnicities exactly, since we found that, even within the fetish of Asian women, some men fetishized us for being Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. When I asked why this might be, I found that some men had an attachment to one ethnicity more because of the media they favored. For instance, the ones that loved Japanese women often pointed to stories and images of Geishas, while men who loved Chinese women would talk about a fondness for martial arts, or wu-xia films (the more romantic ones) in particular. Other times, it came down to our skin tones or generalizations about what ethnicity is "most attractive." I was often told I looked Korean by many of my clients who thought they were complimenting me by rejecting my particular ethnicity, which does not have a powerful association with being beautiful.
When I investigated other areas of sex work, I found out that it wasn't just domination that had a shortage of Asian women. Escorts and porn performers alike very rarely tend to be Asian (just look how short Wikipedia’s list of Asian porn performers is). But on the off chance they are, you can bet that they announce that prominently in their ads — being Asian becomes their selling point. Many dominatrixes and escorts made mentions in their bios that played into the tropes of Asian women. They mention how they are "like a geisha" and display iconography like dragons or blossoms. Many have photos in traditional Asian clothing, like cheongsams and qi-pao, either sexualized or not. Even porn performer Asa Akira has talked about how she was cast in only "Asian" roles at the beginning of her career and how her heritage is something that "guarantees" her work.
While I have no doubt that the weird dynamic I experienced in the domming world caused at least some psychological harm, I did manage to grow from stepping into shoes not usually worn by women of my race, both literally and metaphorically. For once in my life, I was afforded the opportunity to explore extremes of my identity and discover where on the spectrum I really fit. Although I no longer offer submissive sessions, when I was at the dungeon, I would trade off being dominant and submissive (a.k.a. “switching”), and discovered the nuances of my own desires.
Psychological studies suggest that we conform to unconscious and conscious expectations, whether we like it or not. So when I seized my own power and confidence through domination, I became a stronger person who was more accepting of myself and others. I felt more comfortable in a dominant role and no longer felt I needed to suppress that side of my identity.
For once, I was proud to be Asian, and I felt like I could set better boundaries and be more assertive in my dating life. Instead of feeling pressured to protect men’s egos, I told men I wasn’t interested in them — I didn’t feel the need to use uncertain terms or lie about having a boyfriend. In professional settings, I became more vocal and consciously fought how I had been socialized to be: quiet and meek. I left the dungeon and became an independent dominatrix, and started speaking up when I felt disrespected. With friends, I was more comfortable initiating plans, instead of following along with what others want to do. Even the way I wrote emails changed: My writing became more direct, and I used stronger words, instead of polite, soft language expected of Asian women (and frankly, all women). I now carry myself more confidently, and I walk with purpose. I’m no longer the girl who feels like she has to apologize for her existence, who crosses her legs as if she were undeserving of space.
As a domme, I gained independence and a sense of value, albeit superficial, in a society that has tried to force me into a docile, hyper-sexualized box.
Working as a domme and operating outside the normal confines of society gave me an opportunity to find myself. I now know that I don’t have to exist on a binary. Being dominant doesn’t mean that I have to be the tiger mom, and allowing someone else to take the lead now and then doesn’t mean I’m suddenly the trope of the fawning Asian woman. I’ve learned to be more vocal about my needs; I no longer have to be nice at the expense of myself. I’m finally empowered to make my own choices, even if they deviate greatly from what’s expected of me.
Now that I’ve left the dungeon and have more control over my work, I’ve moved away from any mentions of my ethnicity that may be tokenizing — but I’m completely aware that my race still carries a lot of weight. Although I actively strive to make my clients see me, and all other women, as individuals, I can’t dismantle mass stereotypes single-handedly. For now, at the very least, I’ve taken control over the way I see myself as a woman and as a domme. And money aside, finding room to stretch my legs and be my true self is more than I could’ve asked for, really.
*The writer's name has been changed to protect her identity.