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When Porn Becomes Political: Brace Fellow Susan Lee ’19 on Reclaiming the Voice of the Asian Female “Subaltern”

A.Bhat/The Phillipian

Susan Lee ’19 began her project by questioning the culture and stereotypes surrounding Asian women’s sexuality.

As modern online services facilitate the consumption of pornography, the distance between viewer and actor increases, according to Susan Lee ’19. Specifically, the Asian female “Subaltern” lacks the ability to speak through porn.

Lee questioned this dynamic in her Brace Fellowship presentation, “The Asian Female ‘Subaltern’ in Porn: Theorizing and Interfacing the Consumption of Asian Porn Through 2.0 Search Engines” on Monday, February 18 in the Abbot School Room on Abbot Campus. Through her yearlong research, Lee found that the history of Western colonial domination has infiltrated our cultural consciousness and defined the narrative we expect other ethnicities to exhibit.

“Experience isn’t pure. Our experiences, and thus our identities, whether that be sexual, racial, etc., are formed through representation and in specific historical, political contexts. What we find sexy, about ourselves and about others, is always shaped by larger discourses outside of ourselves,” wrote Lee in an email to The Phillipian.

Lee continued, “So then you can see that porn, which is a representation of the performance of sexuality, isn’t just fantasy. What we want to see in pornography isn’t detached from whatever idea we have of our ‘true’ or ‘real’ sexualities, and we can only be ethical erotic consumers when we begin to take the responsibility of thinking about these questions.”

Inspired by Gayatri Spivak, who is considered to be the co-founder of postcolonial studies, Lee’s presentation emphasized how the imperialization of and domination over a culture can change the portrayal of its identity. Lee interrogated the nexus of Western imperialism, patriarchy, misogyny and racism that traditionally defines the Asian sexual subjectivity: What happens when sexuality is racialized?

Monika Cepeda ’20, an attendee at the presentation, agreed with the importance of acknowledging colonialism and its roles in the development of Western and Eastern sexuality. Cepeda mentioned that Lee spoke about the influence of societal structures born from the objectification and hypersexualization of certain demographics.

“[I learned about] the history behind the porn industry and the role that ethnicity plays in it. I think it wasn’t necessarily shocking. It was easy to draw the lines once it was said, but it was the kind of topic that you never really hear anyone talk about so openly and in-depth in the way that Susan did tonight. I thought that having someone there to explain their research and their findings and to draw those lines so clearly was such an important thing,” said Cepeda.

According to Lee, Japanese is the most popular category in PornHub, and this widespread search for foreign porn demonstrates that viewers are looking for an aspect of otherness. Similarly, with nearly half of victims depicted in rape and torture videos being Asian women, Lee said that it isn’t surprising that only 18 percent of Asian women would report rape, as the psycho-social impact of porn has narrativized their reality.

Erasing the Asian female subaltern’s sexual subjectivity makes them an unreliable narrator of their own sexuality, according to Lee.

Lee wrote, “Because we know that experience is not pure, this historical violence makes it impossible to untangle the conception of [Asian women’s] sexual experiences, their sexual identities, from the violence of colonialism. It also makes the reception of their sexual performances ‘straitjacketed,’ to borrow Celine Shimizu’s words, by imperialistically-informed biases or assumptions. Both their credibility and legibility are marred in multiform contexts.”

Corrie Martin, Instructor in English & Interdisciplinary Studies, was Lee’s faculty advisor for the project. According to Martin, Lee’s project aims to expose how pornography functions not only to objectify, but to create certain subjects. In a way, the viewers themselves are constituted by the porn they consume.

“By analyzing the specific mediums, filters and distribution and collections mechanisms of 2.0 search engines used by porn sites, Susan’s work also shows how pornography functions as a discourse that relies on, reflects and constructs Asian female sexualities…Susan showed that there is a powerful theory of resistance, even liberation from what might appear to be an otherwise closed discourse around sexuality and subjectivity,” wrote Martin in an email to The Phillipian.

Irene Kwon ’21, an attendee at the presentation, explained that a feeling of solidarity drew her to the event.

Kwon said, “The topic of Susan’s presentation is something that a lot of people, especially Asian women, think about but we really don’t know how to address it, or even begin to think about answering this bigger question. So, attending this presentation allowed me to gain a little insight into what makes this issue so complex.”

Sarah Stack ’19 also attended Lee’s presentation. Stack agreed with Lee and believes that, because porn is widely consumed, there should be more importance placed on educating the youth to recognize these racial themes.

“In her presentation, Susan brought up so many statistics about how so many people are consuming porn. And specifically on campus, we know so many people consume porn. So I think the issue of porn should be talked about more in EBI classes and in dorms so people can learn to especially look at the racial dynamics people are seeing in porn with a more critical eye,” said Stack.

Feb 24, 2019