Asian Porn Performers Are Sick of Being Fetishized in Racist Roles

In 2019, adult performer Jade Kush shot a scene where she appears on an elliptical machine in a tie-dye thong leotard and leg warmers, before a man in sweatpants approaches her and she starts to enthusiastically fellate him. It was, by most standards, a fairly typical porn scene. Yet when the scene was ultimately released, Kush, who is Asian American, noticed it had an unusual title: “Cum Dim Sum.”

Kush was furious. The script had not made reference to such a title. “I was just like, ‘That doesn’t make sense at all. It’s a workout video,” she says. She approached the director of the scene to ask why the title had been changed, only for the director to tell her that the decision had been made by the distribution company. “There was nothing I could do about it except not promote it,” she says. “It was just something I did not want my name on, or all over my Twitter. All I could do was choose not to support it.”

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During her three-year career as a porn performer, Kush had made it a priority to avoid being cast in stereotypically Asian roles. She had told her agency, LA Direct Models, that she refused to don a silk dress and wear chopsticks in her hair. When she had played a massage therapist and was told by the director to speak in broken English, she had said no; when directors had asked her to speak in her “native tongue,” she had retorted, “I grew up in Chicago.” Yet when it came to starring in a scene that she had otherwise found inoffensive, she’d found herself marginalized when she had no control over the title. “Cum Dim Sum” it was. 

Such an experience is common among many Asian performers, who struggle with being fetishized and cast in roles that exploit outdated and offensive Asian stereotypes. In light of discussions about the exponentially rising rate of anti-Asian hate crimes, and how offensive tropes about Asian women factor into anti-Asian discrimination, there’s increasing discussion among Asian members of the adult industry about the role that porn has played in perpetuating such stereotypes. On Pornhub alone, there are thousands of videos featuring performers of Asian descent as masseuses, maids, or geishas, as well as more than one video in which a woman performs fellatio using chopsticks.

Issues of marginalization and fetishization are even worse for transgender Asian performers like Venus Lux, a performer, producer, writer, and director who has been in the industry for more than a decade. As one of a handful of Asian American performers on the trans side of the industry, “I’m a niche of a niche of a niche,” she says. “There’s not enough support to help us congregate and address issues related to Asian fetishization and there’s a lack of representation to have a conduit for us to vocalize our concerns and see improvements.” She says the level of support provided to Asian Americans in the industry is “abysmal.” 

Such conversations about representation within the industry are “unfortunately not new,” says Kristel Penn, creative director at Grooby Productions, which produces trans erotica. On tube sites and in award shows, performers have historically been categorized by race, with many performers of color paid less than their white peers. “Pornography is the least progressive industry in America,” black performer Demi Sutra told me last year. “There’s no other industry that can say, ‘You are black so you cannot do this movie.’”

When it comes to the depiction of Asian American people specifically, Penn says the issue is not specific to porn. “When we think about the ways mainstream society depicts Asian American women, it’s always as lesser than, or how Asian American women are useful to white men. To me, it’s an issue of race and misogyny,” they say. But in general, Penn says, there is “not a lot of representation” of Asian American women in the industry, and even less of Asian American men.

Asian porn is one of the most popular subgenres of adult content, with search terms like “Asian,” “Japanese,” or “Chinese” consistently ranked year over year as among the top 25 search terms. And indeed, there is a handful of Asian American performers who have ascended to the upper echelons of the industry, most notably former Penthouse Pet Tera Patrick, Venus Lux, and author and porn star Asa Akira.

But for Asian performers just getting started in the industry, the options for non-stereotypical roles are few and far between, says adult content creator Saya Song, who says she left the mainstream porn industry in part because she was tired of being asked to take such parts. “If you want to get your name out there, you do have to be OK with people fetishizing you,” she says. “If you do speak up about it, you end up like me — you just don’t shoot.”

Even Akira, one of the biggest names in the industry, has spoken publicly about starting her career being cast in stereotypically Asian roles, such as massage therapists. “I just hated the monotony of it. I didn’t feel sexy doing it, I guess you could say,” she told me in 2014. Over the years, however, she had come to “embrace it”: “I think a lot of people see it as degrading of Asian culture, but I see it as a celebration,” she said. “I don’t see anything wrong with fetishizing what I am. I think if anything, that’s celebrating what’s cool about me. I mean, it’s not like guys are watching my movies and laughing. They’re watching my movies and masturbating.”

But other performers say the pressure to take certain roles or adhere to certain tropes can be intense, particularly in the mainstream porn industry. Cam performer Joey Kim says that in her work, she has received customs requests from fans to make content where she is “very submissive, where they’re in control,” she says. “Thankfully with my work, I can decline such offers. But I know that in the adult industry in general a lot of times the woman can feel pressured to do something they’re not entirely comfortable with because they don’t want to disappoint their agency or the company they’re working for, when it’s not a reflection of who they are or the content they want to create.”

When she first entered the industry, Lux says she was primarily cast in “Asian ‘lady boy,’ prostitute, Asian massage parlor-type roles.” “Because a lot of the power is in the hands of white men, there’s a lack of inclusivity when it comes to the narrative, the storyline, the outfits, the portrayal of myself in these movies,” she says. “To pay my bills, I conformed to that narrative even though I personally did not agree to it. I felt more valuable than that. But I consented, because it was a job.” She says that she also faced degrading treatment from producers behind the scenes due to her race and gender identity. Later in her career, she adopted more of a dominant persona in order to avoid being cast in stereotypically submissive Asian roles. But “deep down, the scenes I’ve done [earlier in my career] have triggered some level of trauma within me,” she says.

The industry has not exactly been sensitive or responsive to these discussions. Shortly after the Atlanta shootings, in which six Asian women were shot dead, the porn production company Inked Angels tweeted a list of “10 tattooed Asian porn stars you should follow,” accompanied by the hashtag #StopAsianHate. When Saya Song, who was featured on the list, called them out for appropriating the hashtag and using racially insensitive language in the list, including such phrases as “land of the rising sun,” the website tweeted, “you try to show support and you’re the one met with negativity and hate” before deleting its entire account (the website also deleted the listicle in question, although a cached version still exists).

Kush was also taken aback when a distribution company tagged her in a tweet promoting a scene titled “Asian Massage Invasion” shortly after the attacks. She says the discussion in the industry about depictions of Asians in light of the attacks has been sadly short-lived. “I haven’t seen Asian performers really come together and talk about stuff like this. I think there’s a lot of difference of opinion too,” she says. “They might say, ‘Oh, it’s just acting, it’s just a scene, it’s just a costume.’ And if they do then who am I to tell them, no, this is wrong?”

Many creators also take issue with the way various racial and ethnic groups are categorized on tube sites, with “Asian,” “ebony,” and “latina” serving as categories in themselves. Indeed, it took only June 2020 for AVN, the industry trade publication that runs an annual award show, to announce it would be eliminating its “ethnic” and “interracial” awards categories, following outcry over an insensitive article related to the death of George Floyd.

Such marketing, while it makes sense from an SEO perspective, has the effect of making performers feel like they are the sum total of their identities. “I personally don’t think it’s OK and the language I see it on tube sites tend to be misogynistic and racist and it relies on very old tropes of how people of color are represented and from a business perspective, I don’t think we need to rely on those things,” says Penn. But porn sites largely serve as a reflection of societal tastes, and Lux says that changing the entire climate of the industry is contingent on a lot more than changing search terms: “until people stop using them, they won’t be abolished,” she says.

Major economic changes within the industry, however, herald positive change on the horizon for all creators of color. Within the past year, thanks to Covid, the balance of power has shifted substantively from studios and large production companies to independent content creators on platforms like OnlyFans. Such seismic changes provide performers and creators with more autonomy to shape their own career trajectories and be less dependent on studios — which means they’re free to make whatever content they want.

“It was really freeing for me to figure out I don’t need to rely on these companies and I don’t need to do whatever they tell me to do to make money,” says Kush, who has avoided shooting for safety reasons for the past year and has largely been making a living on OnlyFans. “If I don’t want to do another scene where I’d have to be dressed up or humiliated, I don’t have to do it. I make custom videos, and it’s a lot easier for me to tell fans I’m not comfortable doing that than it is for me to tell a company that. There’s not as much on the line.”

As the industry and the rest of the world slowly emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, and business as usual resumes again, Kush is hopeful that the current climate, combined with the change in recent power dynamics, will lead production companies to be more mindful of how they choose to portray marginalized people in their content. If not, she says performers should feel empowered to speak up and draw a line in the sand. “It goes back to the whole issue of consent in porn,” she says. “Whether it’s wearing an outfit you feel uncomfortable with or taking a dick up your butt, you should feel OK saying ‘I’m not comfortable doing this. Can we figure something else out?’”

But Lux emphasizes that the onus should not be on performers to change the climate, but on the people in power — producers, directors, and distribution companies — to lead the charge. “At the end of the day it’s about accountability, about whoever’s making money from a marginalized group being able to not further enable or reinforce derogatory, abuse, or exploitative behavior,” she says. “I think the change has to come from the top.” 

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