Audio: As read by the author on Narratives, a Meanjin podcast.
We leave the club for M’s place. All I know is his name, where he works and that he’s a good kisser. I learn which city he’s from in the lift up to his apartment.
Once inside, he says, ‘We don’t need to do anything you don’t want to.’
‘Okay.’ I haven’t felt this attracted to someone for a long time. I trust him.
I ask for a glass of water and wait on the couch as M tidies his room. I scan the DVDs left scattered by the TV and watch headlights along a distant highway as they puncture the night.
‘Is there anything you’d like me to do?’ he asks. ‘I’m pretty open.’
‘I don’t know.’ No one has ever asked before. He goes down on me patiently. ‘If only there were a map,’ I say, more to myself than to M.
We try several times to have sex. We get so, so close, but I tense when he muffles my moans. As we listen to his neighbour sneeze through the walls, I tell him that sex is sometimes painful for me.
‘I should probably see a doctor but I keep putting it off.’
‘You should get checked out,’ he says, turning to me with concern. ‘You’re missing out on a lot.’
M texts the next evening, apologetic. He doesn’t think he can give me what he thinks I’m looking for in a relationship, so we shouldn’t see each other again. I reply:
I wasn’t expecting or wanting a relationship but I know there was plenty I said that suggested that I did. Anyway, I had a really good time yesterday. It’s been years since anyone cared how I felt in bed. All the best and if we bump into each other again, hope we can be friends xo
I refrain from adding ‘What if we just have sex?’
I read book after book, three in as many days, but I keep thinking about him. Not obsessively, just every now and then. I want to be sure I won’t fall for him, so I wait. Two months (and 19 books) later, deciding I have nothing to lose, I text:
Do you ever feel like doing something impulsive and reckless? (No obligations.) Y / N
Within thirty minutes, he’s at my door. It doesn’t hurt this time. We decide to keep things casual.
A month later, I list in my diary the things I want M to do to me. ‘I want…’ ‘I want…’ ‘I want…’ I write the words thirteen times. I write of being caught between wanting sex, not wanting to give M the flu, and being worried my period will start the following week.
The sex is always at my place and, like our texts, to the point. We’re both busy, so it’s an ideal arrangement. At first it’s just sex. I don’t ask M much about his life; I don’t want it to seem like I’m tricking him into a relationship. We learn about each other and our preferences over time. He never stays the night.
Six months after our first meeting, M asks me, ‘Do you have any fantasies?’
‘Not really… I tend to just replay sex I’ve had in my head.’
‘Is there anything you want to try?’
I think for a moment. ‘I’m open to new things. It’s just that I kind of need to try it before I know if I like it or not.’
‘Don’t take this the wrong way…’ he hesitates. ‘But the sex we have is pretty vanilla.’
I’d been thinking vaguely of ways to keep sex interesting, but other than suggesting we try it against a wall (M had said it was too difficult with our height difference), I didn’t know where to start. ‘I’ve never watched porn,’ I reply, partly to explain my lack of imagination and partly to head off any requests.
He closes his eyes and leans back against the pillows. ‘It’s not realistic.’ His face is half-lit by the glow of my lamp as he continues, ‘You should try reading erotica.’
So I tell M about Fantasian by Larissa Pham, an erotic thriller about power and identity as performance. ‘It’s about a woman who meets her doppelgänger. It’s not clear which one dies in the end. Do you want to read it?’
‘Do you want someone to talk to about it?’
‘It’s okay.’ I smile, touched by his offer. ‘I think I know who dies.’
I first read Fantasian in late 2016, around the time I met M. In one scene, the unnamed narrator, a young Asian woman at Yale, masturbates while picturing her doppelgänger, Dolores:
In the mirror I can hardly recognize myself—I add another finger, thrusting hard, watching my expression change, watching the look on my face, angling myself to see what I look like when I get fucked, and it occurs to me that Dolores probably looks similar.
She goes on to imagine Dolores and her boyfriend having rough sex.
Dolores grips the sill […] as Alexei sinks into her, his hand firmly in the small of her back to hold her down, all time reduced to the intervals between thrusts, between ‘Please Alexei please destroy me please’ and ‘Don’t stop fuck don’t stop I’m going to come.’
She loves it. She loves the way heat crackles between them, the way he pushes her to her limit, forcing her to recognize what she can handle, how much she can take.
I’d never read sex like this.
Curious, I touched myself weeks later, head tilted to my bedroom mirror. My sex face didn’t look terrible. I used to be embarrassed about the noises I made during sex, about my body twitching.
I’d turned to feminism earlier that year to understand why I’d been coerced into sex, again and again. I read Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Night Games by Anna Krien, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and The Sex Myth by Rachel Hill. I learnt about misogyny, rape culture and sex positivity. As I read, thought and discussed, I realised my experiences were part of a bigger picture. I was learning to forgive myself, but something was missing.
I wrote my own stories: about guilt, consent and the lack of representation of Asian sexualities. In response, a friend emailed me two essays: ‘The Summer I Learnt I Wasn’t the Exception’ by Jenny Zhang and ‘Bi Bi Hua’ by M. Elaine Mar. More than anything before, I saw myself in these Chinese-American women who also wrote about sex, trauma and youth. When a dorm-mate taunts Mar with ‘Don’t you know? Chinese girls are easy’, she laughs in disbelief.
Evan elaborated, making sure that I understood: ‘All Asian women are easy. […] Guys just come on to you because they know you’ll sleep with them.’
Like Mar, I’d never heard this stereotype before. I thought of all the times I’d been hit on, all the times I’d been coerced into sex… here was another reason, one that went beyond gender.
This revelation, the intersections and tensions between my identities, was given language in an essay by Tony Ayres, sent to me by another friend. In ‘Sexual Identity and Cultural Identity: A Crash Course’, he writes about the politics of sexual attraction from the perspective of a gay Asian man:
Meeting other gay Asian men in the making of China Dolls was an empowering experience. What I had always considered private anxieties suddenly became common points of sympathy, neither unique nor imaginary. […] I wasn’t alone.
Before I felt comfortable talking to friends about sex, I looked to books to feel less alone.
What I couldn’t find in Australian literature or Western feminist texts I sought elsewhere, working my way from essays and memoir to fiction and poetry. On finishing Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist essays on politics, gender and race, I wondered if there were Asian feminist texts, either by diaspora writers or translated. Not long after this, I stumbled across second-hand copies of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
The former, a story about two lovers who don’t speak each other’s language, is a heartbreaking meditation on dislocation, growth and the self lost in translation. Its protagonist, Z, is a young Chinese woman sent by her parents to study English in London. At one point, she lashes out in her diary:
[I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me. I am dominated by it.]
The portrayal of Z’s sexual awakening is humorous yet nuanced. In the last third of the novel, she admits, ‘Nobody Western would believe that I never try to masturbate as a twenty-four-year-old woman’. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck yes!’, when, a page later, she masturbates for the first time:
And I scream.
On my own. With myself. I did it. It is like dream.
For the first time in my entire life, I came by myself.
I can be on my own. I can. I can rely on myself, without depending on a man.
In an early scene, she reads condom instructions to her older, white lover:
I being stopped by these word: one hand pinch the teat of the condom to expel any trapped air . . . I needing several seconds to imagine that scene. Is like pornography. We cannot have words like this in Chinese. We too ashamed. Westerner has nothing too ashamed. You can do anything in this country.
I identified with Z’s shame and naivety. It resonated with me in a way most feminist texts did not. Ford declares that ‘masturbating is for everybody’, but this glosses over the reality for many women. (Indeed, her book does not claim itself as a universal experience.) Future Sex by Emily Witt is silent on how Asian fetishisation holds me back from Tinder. We all come to sex with different values and assumptions, but some are more acknowledged, more likely to be deemed ‘normal’, than others.
I didn’t think my upbringing was backward, but until I saw Chinese female sexualities accurately represented, I did question whether my guilt was unreasonable, a symptom of cultural repression. In the words of Mar, I was ‘angry at myself for having been so naïve about sex, and at my parents for having raised me this way’. Reading about female trauma, desire and pleasure from the perspective of Asian women allowed me to recognise and accept myself in a way that white feminism did not. The guilt I carried for years, fearful of hurting and shaming my family, was neither imagined nor irrational.
I think about M’s proposition—a threesome—while writing about my grandfather salvaging his business from flood. I tweet, then immediately delete and save under Drafts:
Did my forebears overcome poverty so my lover could suggest a threesome? #intergenerationalmobility.
When we next arrange to meet, he asks if there’s anything I’d like him to do or bring. He’s not great with knots so we compromise. I text:
Cuffs and blindfold sound like a good start. Texting these things is weird for me but thanks for being someone I can try new things with x
‘I want you to fuck me hard,’ I whisper.
M checks afterwards if I’m okay. ‘It hurt a bit, but a good kind of hurt.’ I pause. ‘Like, there’s this fine line between pleasure and pain and it was just on the right side.’
With M, I discover a different kind of pain, one that I desire, and to my surprise, enjoy.
I want you to tease me until I beg for it.
‘Kiss me against the wall.’
He presses me against the hallway, knee between my thighs, my hands in his hair.
I love the way he traces the inside of my ‘oh’. Tongue in my ear: he exhales, I crumble.
He pins my wrists above my head. My breath catches, uneven. He turns me around. I hold my hair up as he undoes the halter of my dress. Later, I tweet:
*googles* how to get lipstick off wall.
The last time we fuck, a month before I leave Canberra, M teases, ‘You’ll find some random dick in Melbourne.’
‘I don’t want random dick,’ I snap. ‘I want good dick.’
‘You have standards now,’ he looks up at me, putting his shoes on.
‘Benchmarks…’ I laugh. ‘It’s not that easy. You know how long it took to find you?’
‘It took me four years to learn to enjoy sex,’ I write in a pitch. ‘I will discuss the importance of trust, communication, consent and self-acceptance, including learning what turned me on and asking for it.’ The editor asks for it on spec. I attempt to cram four years into 800 words. I fail.
When I mention I’m writing about sexual awakenings, a friend exclaims, ‘How many can you have?’
‘It’s not just one moment!’ I insist. Nor is it linear, as I have come to realise.
Scared as I am of being pigeon-holed as ‘that Asian sex writer’, I swing back and forth between ‘I’m creating important political work’ and ‘Why would anyone read my “I-fucked-a-guy-and-I-liked-it” story?’ Then again, perhaps this story is not about me and M, nor the specifics of how we fucked, but rather about what women are taught to expect.
Scrolling through texts and tweets, I construct a chronology of books and fucks.
Does it matter that I devoured Fantasian three days before I met M, and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers two weeks before I next saw him? Had I not assembled a two-year syllabus on sexuality, had I not given myself my first orgasm between our first and second encounters, would I have eventually discovered pleasure? Far from X led to Y, I see my sexual awakening as a cumulative process, where the physical, psychological and intellectual bleed into one another.
Before M, I assumed I didn’t like sex. It took a good lover, and much reading, to discover that sex could be enjoyable. I could’ve lived my whole life thinking sex was mediocre at best. As an Asian woman, as a woman engaging in casual sex, I believed I had even less claim to pleasure. I deviated from the script (love, marriage, then children) and was thus undeserving of happy ever after.
Fantasian rewrote this narrative. Here, at last, was an Asian woman burning with sexual agency. On re-reading, I noticed the mirror motif. (I was a little preoccupied the first time…) When the narrator and Dolores first meet, the latter explains Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage:
He theorized that the formation of an individual’s identity—the I stage, he calls it—coincides with the mirror stage of development. The self forms in response to witnessing a reflection of itself. You become an I when you’re imaged.
I see my tweets and my writing as a hall of mirrors, refracting self upon self upon self.
‘Enjoy sex is a Western concept,’ says Guo’s Z. For a long time, I believed this too.
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer of memoir and criticism, who focusses on sex, culture, femininity and growing up. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, Seizure and The Lifted Brow. She tweets @hellopollyanna and is working on a collection of essays on coming of age as a young Asian-Australian woman in the twenty-first century.