In contemporary usage, “sexuality” refers to sexual orientation or the direction of an individual’s desire. It is closely entwined with but also separable from biological sex (male, female, intersex) and gender expression (masculinity, femininity, transgender). The categories of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are based on a binary sex/gender system and are defined by an individual’s object choice. Prior to this modern sense of sexuality as denoting erotic preferences and tastes, however, engaging in certain sexual acts did not necessarily entail definite sexual identities. It is not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the work of sexologists, psychoanalysts, and state administrators that sexuality was gradually differentiated from sex and took on the psychological and emotional valences that it currently possesses, drawing into its orbit connotations of desire and attraction, fantasy and pleasure (Canaday 2009; Davidson 2001; Oosterhuis 2000).
Challenging notions of sexuality as a transhistorical, transcultural, immutable category of identity, many cultural studies researchers today consider sexuality to be a highly volatile nexus of power and knowledge whose meanings, uses, and values shift across time and place. Michel Foucault’s account in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, of the ways that institutions like the Church, political economy, medicine, psychiatry, criminology, and education generated “a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex” from the eighteenth century forward has been particularly influential (1990, 18). Work in this vein has elucidated the formal and informal systems of power that constitute sexuality as a domain of human experience subject to surveillance by authorities and that privilege certain sexual practices as normal and productive, while deeming others unnatural, sinful, criminal, and/or pathological in specific historical and social contexts. Queer theory’s critique of fixed sexual identities and social normativities geared toward the social reproduction and advancement of capital, nation, and empire has impacted a range of interdisciplinary fields, including Asian American studies.
Though the convergence of queer theory and Asian American studies took place in the mid-1990s, sexuality has been central to Asian American studies since the field’s emergence in the late 1960s and 1970s. Jennifer Ting (1998) has shown how the Asian American movement’s press frequently invoked issues related to sexuality such as bourgeois marriage and the nuclear family, interracial relationships, and physical desirability and self-esteem. Although the bulk of these writings naturalized and valorized same-race heterosexuality, there were a number of self-identified lesbian and gay activists involved in the social movements of the 1970s. Recording conflicts between their commitments to racial and sexual communities and agendas, these writers and activists called for frameworks capable of analyzing the ways that race, sexuality, and gender intersect to produce interlocking forms of oppression and complex identities (Cornell 1996; Mangaoang 1996; Ordona 2003; Tsang 2000; Tsang 2001; Wat 2002).
The prominence of sexuality in Asian American studies is perhaps due to the fact that it has so often marked racial and ethnic difference as such. From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, sexuality and its entanglements with gender has been one of the primary modalities, to paraphrase Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978), through which Asian racialization in the United States has been lived and represented. Institutions like the law and immigration bureaus, cultural forms like political cartoons, literature, and film, and academic disciplines like sociology and anthropology assigned Asian groups “racial” characteristics relating to their bodies, habits, and dispositions by linking them with “sexual” traits and proclivities (Y. Espiritu 2008; Elaine Kim 1982; Robert Lee 1999; L. Lowe 1996; Marchetti 1994; P. Siu 1987). Foucault’s notion of administrative “biopower,” defined as the “diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations” (1990, 140) provides a means for examining Asian racialization as a sexualized and gendered process. The Page Law of 1875, for instance, cited race, gender, and sexuality in barring “women for the purposes of prostitution” from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country” (L. Kang 2002). The anti-Chinese movement that led to the Exclusion Act of 1882 not only vilified Chinese women as transmitters of venereal diseases and as prostitutes who corrupted white men and boys, but also cast suspicion on Chinese men’s sexual practices and gender embodiment due to their hair and clothing styles and their “feminized” work as laundrymen and domestic help (Eng 2001; Erika Lee 2004). During this period, detainees at Angel Island were stripped and inspected for “Oriental diseases” and women were interrogated about their sexual pasts (Lee and Yung 2010, 77).
The gender imbalance produced by the U.S. immigration system (in tandem with Asian patriarchal conventions discouraging women from working abroad) contributed to the sexualization and differentiation of Asian American males in the early twentieth century. San Francisco’s Chinatown, as Nayan Shah has shown, was perceived as a “bachelor society” brimming with dissolute, sexually perverse, opium-smoking men who cohabitated in “queer domestic arrangements” and posed a health hazard as syphilitics and lepers (2001, 78). Whereas Chinese men were read as either unmanly or coercively threatening, unattached Filipino and South Asian men were seen as hypersexual seducers, especially during moments of economic contraction and labor competition. Images of roving single men eager to court susceptible white women, eugenicist anxieties about the degenerate hybrid progeny spawned from such unions, and surveillance of same-sex interracial liaisons between Sikh men and white adolescents provoked state intervention and vigilante violence—the latter most notoriously against “Hindus” in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907, and against Filipinos in Watsonville, California, in 1930 (Baldoz 2011; Y. Espiritu 2003; Shah 2011). White supremacist beliefs regarding the purity of white women and the white race, coupled with business incentives to ensure a mobile family-free labor force, also led to the passing of antimiscegenation laws from the 1860s to the 1930s (Koshy 2004; Pascoe 2009). The Cable Act of 1922 stripped women of their U.S. citizenship if they married “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” that is, Asian men (Volpp 2005).
The biopolitics of sexuality governing the legality and desirability of marriage, family, and other social relationships takes on added significance when construed in a transnational context shaped by U.S. imperialism, wars in Asia, and the uneven political economies of the global capitalist system. In contrast with attempts to ban Chinese women immigrants, the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908 forbade Japanese laborers from immigrating but allowed Japanese men in the United States to send for their wives and children, leading to the “picture bride” practice of securing wives in Japan. (Following annexation in 1910, Korean men and women also participated in this practice). The War Brides Act of 1945 and its amendments enabled non-Asian and later Asian American G.I.s to bring their Asian wives and children to the United States as non-quota dependents. The family reunification provision inscribed in more recent immigration laws has, under the guise of uniting family members, facilitated the migration of service-oriented laborers necessary for capitalist accumulation while simultaneously shifting responsibility for the welfare of new immigrants from the state to the family, thereby exacerbating queer noncitizens’ vulnerability to homophobic persecution (Reddy 2011). Finally, the explosion of international labor migration since the 1970s has rendered the transnational family, in which one or both parents work abroad and sends remittances home, a site of emotional and material tension within families as well as between workers, their host countries, and their homeland governments (Fajardo 2011; Manalansan 2003; Parreñas 2001; Parreñas 2005; R. Rodriguez 2010).
Postcolonial and diasporic frameworks further illuminate the ways in which sexuality is constitutive of international relations and globally connected communities. As Neferti Tadiar (2003) elucidates, the language of family and romance has been used to euphemize (neo)colonial domination and to characterize literal and metaphoric “sexual economies,” such as the “Pacific marriage” between the U.S. and Japan in the post–World War II era or the “prostitution economies” of subordinate countries whose natural resources, labor, and bodies are extracted, exploited, and circulated on the global market. The Japanese military’s conscription of thousands of females, many of them colonized Koreans, to work as “comfort women” during World War II also reveals the imbrication of imperialism and institutionalized sexual violence (Soh 2008; Yoshiaki 2000). The postwar formation of U.S. military camptowns near bases in South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Okinawa and the regulation of military prostitution in those areas similarly exposes the sexual politics of empire building (Moon 1997; Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992; Yuh 2002). The mixed-race children produced from these conditions, often stigmatized in South Korea and Viet Nam for their associations with war and prostitution, prompted state and religious organizations to address the needs of orphans through transnational adoption programs, even as adult adoptees themselves have developed alternative forms of kinship beyond the (transracial) nuclear family and the nation-state (Eng 2010; Eleana Kim 2010; Jodi Kim 2009). The United States’ involvement in Asia, the “domestication” of Asian female sexuality, and internet and “mail-order bride” practices have rendered Asian women desirable mates for non–Asian American men (Constable 2003).
From another angle, scholarship in queer diaspora studies has examined how sexuality is not only regulated by U.S. institutions and discourses but also by homeland political movements that seek to enforce culturally “authentic” codes of behavior on their compatriots abroad. These frameworks illuminate the ways that (queer) diasporic subjects navigate the competing claims on their allegiances, negotiate ethnic and mainstream gender and sexual norms, remake domestic relationships, and create alternative public cultures and expressive practices (Gopinath 2005; Manalansan 2003; Ponce 2012). Queer diasporic critique has also unraveled the temporal logics underwriting the bifurcated meanings of sexuality in “developed” and “developing” nations. Jasbir Puar’s (2007) term “homonationalism” denotes how the United States’s supposed progressive tolerance toward upstanding (white) gays and lesbians depends on demonizing other, especially Muslim, Arab, and South Asian, societies as morally backward and un-modern for both harboring “monstrous” sexual deviants prone to terrorism and refusing to accept nonheterosexuals in their midst. This spatio-temporal critique extends into the international arena the trope of cross-generational Asian Americanization in which the new generation establishes itself against the immigrant generation’s views of extramarital or queer sexual relations as lamentable signs of Western decadence (Y. Espiritu 2003; Maira 2002).
Whether as an instrument of U.S. biopower that has generated what Judy Wu calls Asian Americans’ “compulsory sexual deviance” (2003, 60) or as the locus of homeland anxieties and familial discipline, sexuality remains a principal domain of Asian Americanist critique, activism, and rearticulation. The protests against the 1991 New York production of Miss Saigon, the controversy surrounding Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel Blu’s Hanging in 1998, and the furor incited by Details magazine’s satire “Gay or Asian?” in 2004 represent a few recent examples of sexuality’s contentious place in Asian American social life (Yoshikawa 1994; Fujikane 2000; Masequesmay and Metzger 2009, respectively). Debunking sexualized Asian images disseminated in Hollywood film and other mainstream media—the dragon lady, lotus blossom, lascivious Chinaman, Filipino rapist, effeminate houseboy, asexual nerd—remains a venerable undertaking. At the same time, feminists and queer theorists have cautioned against reinscribing heteronormative ideals regarding “proper” gender roles, sexual desires, and respectable domesticity (Cheung 1990; Eng and Hom 1998; Elaine Kim 1990). Celine Parreñas Shimizu (2007) and Nguyen Tan Hoang (2014), for example, have approached female “hypersexuality” and gay male “bottomhood” as categories to be analyzed and reevaluated, not merely condemned as inherently degrading.
Recent scholarship has implicitly heeded Dana Y. Takagi’s challenge to “rethink identity politics” in both racial and sexual terms (1996, 32). Opening up sexuality beyond rigid classifications and prescriptive moralisms has led to reconsiderations of inter- and intraracial, cross-sex and same-sex relationships through affective registers of intimacy, longing, friendship, material sustenance, and “queer sociality” (Ponce 2011; Shah 2011; Sueyoshi 2012; J. Wu 2005). Such approaches may provide alternatives to the identitarian codifications that subtend what David Eng calls “queer liberalism,” the dominant form of U.S. sexual politics aimed at petitioning the state for recognition through marriage and military service equality, antidiscrimination laws, and the right to privacy (2010, 4). Framed within the racial history of state intervention in sexual matters, this style of politics should give us pause. Thus, while analyzing sexuality in its manifold guises—as the sign of racial difference, of vitality or degeneration, of racial commitment or betrayal, of liberty or repression, of asymmetrical power relations—the contemporary moment also demands that Asian American studies continue to trace historical and emerging lines of affinity and attachment—enduring and ephemeral, sexual and otherwise—that are informed but not coopted by the biopolitical and neoliberal logics of state and diasporic nationalisms.