Invisibilia recently had an episode that tackled what to me is a really bold subject: can you control the types of people to whom you are attracted? And should you?

By types of people I’m not talking about character traits, I’m talking about race and ethnicity. Most of us agree that we shouldn’t show racial preference in things like hiring decisions, housing discrimination, things of that nature, and where we are made aware of our bias, we should try to address them. But does that apply to physical attraction? I for one have tended to make an exception for attraction, mostly because I assumed that it’s biological and can’t be helped. If Asians tend to be attracted to other Asians, that didn’t seem to me to be discriminatory, and even if it was, I wasn’t sure if it could be changed; I’m not sure how much control you have over what you find physically attractive. In the past, I haven’t been that bothered by white guys who had clear preferences for Asian women. Even if I ridiculed it as being an Asian fetish, and even if it felt a little weird, I assumed it’s just how they were and couldn’t be helped, so what’s the point of being bothered?

But is that true? That it can’t be helped? Or is having romantic preferences for particular races discriminatory?

The issue of cross-ethnic preference is a particularly fraught issue, and it’s even more fraught for Asian-Americans, and possibly most for Asian-American men. The episode focuses on that a lot, talking about a few issues that surprised me. One, it makes the claim that the emasculation of Asian males in the U.S. has its roots in government policy. It’s hard to prove that Asian-American males are seen as non-masculine, but there’s some statistical evidence – studies have shown that on dating sites, Asian-American males (and African-American females) get the fewest responses. In how Asian males are portrayed in entertainment, this just feels true; they’re largely treated as non-sexual, and Asian penis size jokes continue to be a thing (the episode includes clips of Louis C.K. making said jokes, and I still remember Jason Whitlock making fun of Jeremy Lin).

As mentioned, the episode makes the claim that this stereotype is rooted in government policy. It notes how in 1875, the U.S. banned single Chinese women from entering the country, framing them as prostitutes. This set the stage for the “fantasy of the hypersexual, immoral Asian woman”. When the U.S. fought wars in Asia, giving white soldiers access to Asian women, the U.S. passed the War Brides Act (in 1945) allowing soldiers to bring Asian wives to the U.S. In general, Asian female femininity was embraced as policy, even if it began with a fantasy view.

In contrast, U.S. policy tended to de-emphasize the masculinity of Asian men. At first they were manual laborers, “villainized in newspapers as sexual predators”. But later government policy limited what the work they were allowed to take on, forcing them to do “so-called women’s work – washing clothes and laundries, cooks, house boys, domestic servants.” They were “legislated to become emasculated,” and that perception continues today.

That’s a bold claim, but I find it very interesting. I won’t lie, growing up, I felt less masculine because I was Asian. And I honestly did not think it was cultural, I thought it was an inherent quality of Asian males. But that can’t be true, right? It must be culturally influenced. Asian males in Asia must be seen as masculine. If they are seen as less so in America, there must be some reason for it. That government policy shaped this cultural perception isn’t such a crazy idea.

What also surprised me in the episode is when it discussed a toxic subculture of Asian-American men who feel incredible rage at being seen as sexually unattractive. They have a name: men’s rights Asians. And they dish out violent misogyny online, especially towards Asian women who date outside their race (and especially those who date white guys). They argue that they’re bringing down Asian men by not sleeping with them.

That stuns me. I get feeling not attractive – I shared that feeling for most of my youth. But responding in rage? As if sexual attraction was some sort of right? That’s weird to me.

What’s also odd is that this seems to be a widespread thing. I’ve written before about Wesley Yang’s The Souls Of Yellow Folk. I did not mention a really uncomfortable and persistent undertone I felt when reading the book, which I would describe as a low-simmering rage at the fact that Asian males are seen as sexually unattractive in American society. It’s most felt in an essay about the Virginia Tech shooter, where he argues that part of Cho’s rage stemmed from his repeated rejections by white women. Cho was mentally ill and an extreme outlier. But what’s disturbing is that Yang seems to struggle against resonating with that same underlying feeling of rejection, though not to the same level. It gives the feeling, as do men’s rights Asians, that sexual unattractiveness leading to a sense of rage is not uncommon.

And it’s not limited to Asian-American males – the same effect seems to happen to many sexually unattractive men in America, of all races. Invisibilia had another bold episode where it discussed incels, a term I’d never heard of before. They’re “involuntary celibates”. And like men’s rights Asians, they occupy a vile corner of the Internet, spewing misogyny and rage basically because they don’t get the sexual attention from women that they apparently feel they’re entitled to.

These groups disturb me and I find it shocking that they exist. They also make me wonder how much misogyny in the U.S. is driven by feelings of sexual unattractiveness. And I also don’t get what seems to be basic assumption they make – that they are entitled to sex and angry that they aren’t getting it. Why is this an entitlement? Is it that our society is so hyper-sexualized that it feels like a right? To me, it’s just such a strange outlook to have, the strangest of the entitlement feelings of this generation.

In any case, it’s an interesting, complicated, and slightly dangerous subject. Pretty brave I think for Invisibilia to tackle it.

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