Cody Silver still remembers the 6-foot-1 white man he hooked up with one summer in 2013 after he came out. They were rolling around in bed crazily, and the room started to get steamy. Finally, the man lifted Silver’s briefs and looked down.
“Thank God,” he whispered.
Silver immediately pulled back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, Asian men usually have small…”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Silver shouted. He got dressed as fast as he could and stormed off. This was just one of countless insults Silver has heard as a queer Asian sex worker.
“There are all these terrible stereotypes being perpetuated about Asians, especially being a queer Asian man in the sexual market,” Silver told me last December, over a cup of coffee at Mom’s Kitchen in Manhattan.
These stereotypes are bolstered by a longstanding feminization of Asian men in the media and the idea of Oriental passivity, according to Martin F. Manalansan IV, an Asian American studies professor at the University of Minnesota. He said America has a long history of anti-immigration policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which gave rise to these stereotypes.
The Act prohibited all Chinese laborers from entering the United States and declared that Chinese immigrants were ineligible for naturalization. For a long time, Manalansan said, only white masculine men were considered legitimate citizens. Even though the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed in 1943, the damage has been irreversible.
C. Winter Han, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College, agreed. He said the feminization of Asian men is still America’s justification for some anti-immigration policies, colonialism and domination.
“When society does not allow Asian men to take the jobs that white men do, Asian men are forced to do all the jobs that women would historically have done, like laundry work,” Han said, noting that Asian men were often seen as incapable of governing themselves and were infantilized by American society.
Some Asian men have found an unusual venue for combating these powerful stereotypes ― sex work. Since last November, I have followed three well-known Asian male queer sex workers: Cody Silver, Niohuru X and Sammy Kim. They live in New York and I found them on OnlyFans, an online subscription platform where creators earn money from their subscribers. Beyond working for financial survival, they say they are constantly challenging stereotypes imposed on queer Asian men. More strikingly, they say they are embracing sex work to find sexual affirmation.
Cody Silver: “I think it is time to tell my own story.”
Silver is a 29-year-old porn star, comic artist and model. He was born into a conservative Jewish-Chinese family in California and said he is anything but a model minority. He lives in Brooklyn and joined OnlyFans in July 2020, after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. On OnlyFans, which is known for its adult content, Silver goes by the porn star name Cody Seiya. This year, he was nominated by GayVN, a leading Gay porn industry news organization, as the best newcomer in 2022.
Silver remembers watching gay porn illegally when he was 16 as a way to help find his identity. However, all the pornographic videos were of white people. He thinks these stereotypical images — and the lack of people who looked like him — hurt his love life.
“At one point in my youth, I didn’t like other Asian men and I wished I looked more white,” Silver said, explaining the way he felt about Asian partners in his youth. “I’m already the Asian one in the relationship or in sex. I don’t want my partner to be Asian. Looking back, if I had seen other Asian men in the sex industry, I would have changed my mind and not accepted internal racism.”
After graduating college, Silver struggled to pay his rent, as it was difficult to find a desirable job in the comic industry.
“l first became a sex worker to make money, but then as it kept going, people responded really well,” he said. “It created a positive feedback loop and it gave me the self-worth I’ve always wanted.”
Silver, showing off his strong triceps during our conversation, said he is proud of his body. However, at work he does not want to be seen as a typical Asian “twink,” gay slang used to describe a young, attractive and slim gay man. In gay porn, the top position in sex is often seen as dominant and masculine, while the bottom is considered submissive and feminine.
The hyper-sexualization of Asian women, Han said, is similar to the fetishization of Asian men, at least to some degree. “Oddly enough, for those white guys who fetishize Asian men, they are looking for men who are more submissive and docile. And these qualities parallels with what a straight white man might be looking for in an Asian woman.”
Silver said he is not always a bottom, but even when he is, he likes to show that he is in control.
“There can be a kind of dominance in being submissive, if you are the one controlling the pace,” he said. “Effeminacy does not mean desexualization.”
In a sense, Silver is on a mission. He believes it is important to let his audiences see an Asian performer enjoying sex and not just being passive. “My goal is to show that Asian men deserve intimacy and passion to enjoy their sexual experiences,” he said.
Even though Asians are often seen as desexualized symbols, Silver said he is also aware of the danger of hyper-sexualizing Asians, especially mixed-race people like him.
“When I was young, I would accept compliments like, ‘You’re so exotic; you’re so beautiful and different,’ because I did not get much recognition. But little did I realize how most hostile that was.”
Silver goes on to speak about why he stays away from advertising himself as an Asian on his video porn platforms. He asks for another mug of coffee, puts down his fork and settles his gaze on me.
“It’s not out of shame, but I want people to find me attractive for being me,” he said. “I don’t want them to just exoticize us Asians.”
If there is one thing Silver regrets, it’s that he never came out to his dad before he died.
“There is just so much shame involved in it,” he said, looking away. “I’ve always been a very sensitive person, maybe a little bit more feminine at times. My dad, on the other hand, is very masculine, very loud and kind of abusive verbally and physically. I’ve always wanted to live up to his expectations, but I failed all the time.”
There was a time when his father asked if Silver was gay, but Silver became defensive and denied it. “If I had come out sooner, I would have a better grasp of the queer community. Coming out feels like a second puberty. You’re rediscovering everything.”
“It’s not out of shame, but I want people to find me attractive for being me. I don’t want them to just exoticize us Asians.”
– Cody Silver
Silver was relieved when he told his mother about his identity after his freshman year in college at 19, even though it did not turn out well. “I showed her my negative HIV test result and told her that I had sex with men. She flipped out and started crying and screaming. She threw me out of the house for a couple of years, so I had to live with friends in a warehouse in Los Angeles. I eventually got a job in San Francisco with the help of a friend.”
Silver’s mom was raised in a conservative family in Hong Kong, so Silver remembers her always teaching him, “Don’t make a scene and be quiet, so you can blend into the group easily.” It wasn’t until years later that she became understanding after seeing her son doing well on his own. However, Silver is still not fully out with his mom in regards to sex work, although he thinks she has some sense about it.
“One of the last things she said to me before I got on the plane to New York was, ‘Have fun and also don’t sell your body.’ I felt awkward. What if I did that, literally? But when the time comes, I will tell my mom.”
When I asked about what he would miss the most if he had to stop doing sex work tomorrow, Silver took a long pause. “I’d miss the access this work granted me: the traveling, the meals, being able to afford a beautiful home. These are all things I dreamed of having while growing up.”
Right now, Silver is planning to create a comic book that reflects his life as a queer Asian man and a sex worker. He pulled his black drawing book out of his backpack. On one page, a blue sticky note said, “Starting a comic with a stream of consciousness is against all my teaching! Am I even worth sharing?” On the same page, a yellow sticky note has a drawing of a shirtless man looking away and a line that read, “Maybe one day I’ll be loved. Don’t think that’s today.”
Reflecting on all the part-time jobs he has had in the past to survive ― face painter at Disneyland, go-go dancer ― Silver said that most jobs are about “pleasing other people in a way that adheres to what they want.” But now, he is ready to create a story of his own.
“After becoming a sex worker, I only want to please myself and my partner,” he said. He takes off his denim jacket, despite New York’s freezing winter and strikes a superman pose.
Niohuru X: “All the trauma I went through made me who I am today.”
Niohuru X, who prefers the pronoun “they,” said it was a long journey to feel desired by others.
In 2017, they were 19 years old and escaped from a gender conversion camp in Southern China. The camp aims to change a teenager’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, based on the false view that being queer in any way is an illness. For years, they could not bear to think about their gender identity because of traumatic events during that time.
“I remembered my parents said they were taking me on a trip to a beautiful village in Southern China during my sophomore year’s summer break, and I was so excited to travel as they got me a first-class plane ticket,” Niohuru told me. “But before I realized, I was ditched at a deserted camp, and they took away my phone and wallet. My parents left me with a note, saying I need to live here for a while. Then I realized that I was imprisoned.”
At the camp, Niohuru found other teenagers who were struggling to accept their genders assigned at birth. The camp instructors offered so-called “conversion therapy” sessions that let gender-nonconforming kids attack each other verbally to make them ashamed of being LGBTQ+.
“I remembered the instructors asking us to scold each other, saying, ‘We are unfilial to our families’ and ‘We are perverts,’” Niohuru said.
Niohuru went on hunger strike for three weeks to protest their stay at the camp. They became so sick that their parents had to come pick them up.
Five years later, Niohuru rejects gender constructs.
“I don’t think gender exists,” Niohuru said. “I do not conform to gender norms, but I don’t think I am nonbinary either. Gender, it’s like a social concept that the society forced us to use to categorize ourselves.”
In 2020, at 24, Niohuru left their family and flew to New York to explore their gender identity and study fashion design at Parsons School of Design. Niohuru chose to take a new name that reflected their Chinese royalty roots. Their family name “Niohuru” is derived from a prominent Manchu clan during the Qing dynasty.
“I realized that if I am brave enough to let people watch me enjoying sex, then I don’t have shame for anything else. All the trauma I went through made me who I am today.”
– Niohuru X
These days, Niohuru is a popular makeup artist on Instagram by day, creating fantastical looks. By night, Niohuru is a sex worker, shooting collaborative porn videos with other queer Asian men and posting them on OnlyFans.
Still, this life is no nirvana for Niohuru. Anything can trigger their memory of being a “deserted queer son.” They reflected on a time when they were filming a makeup commercial at a dilapidated factory. Niohuru’s mind suddenly went blank as they entered the factory because it looked so similar to the camp’s location in rural China.
The psychological trauma of being an Asian queer person and a sex worker is unique, according to Lola Wang, a psychotherapist and evaluator for immigration court. “In court, we’ve pleaded for many Asian queer sex workers,” she said. “We are educating the court that this community had to bear an insurmountable amount of pain and pressure when they were leaving their home countries.”
At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Niohuru went into the sex industry to make money after being cut off by their parents during a fierce verbal fight. But later, Niohuru said, they found out that sex work made them feel “wanted” for the first time.
Unlike Silver, who wants to show Asian men’s masculine side, Niohuru said they are fine with being an Asian “twink.”
“If you want to break a stereotype, you have to embrace it first,” Niohuru said, their naturally soft voice growing louder with apparent passion. “You are using my body as an Asian token? No problem, because I am using your body, too. I’m strong enough to be the stereotype.”
Niohuru said that, as a child, they always wanted to make their parents proud. “I had been a perfect kid growing up. Straight As, skilled at sports and music, never cause troubles at school. But I did not make my parents proud when I came out to them accidentally, during a fight we were having in my sophomore year. Shortly after, they sent me to that camp.”
Niohuru is grateful that their parents could send them away to New York. “They did not want to see me anymore. I was constantly fighting with them. My dad told me over the phone just a couple of months ago, saying he’d rather I was limbless than neither a man nor a woman.”
Even though Niohuru had traumatic experiences in China, they remain proud of their Manchu heritage. Wearing a champagne silk shirt that shows their tattooed neckline, Niohuru told me the dragon tattoo means courage and the butterfly wings on their back symbolizes transformation. Many of Niohuru’s makeup looks are inspired by Chinese traditional culture and their experiences at the gender conversion camp. They have, however, received many negative comments about their makeup looks on Twitter saying “it’s scary and gives me nightmares.”
“I never meant to do pretty art,” Niohuru said. “I want people to feel the pain I transformed in my art.”
Niohuru has not talked about their sexual journey before, largely because it is still painful to remember what has happened in the gender conversion camp. Though in recent years, they said they are surprised to learn that sex work has given them a “second life.”
“I realized that if I am brave enough to let people watch me enjoying sex, then I don’t have shame for anything else,” Niohuru said. “All the trauma I went through made me who I am today.”
Sammy Kim: “I work to nourish people.”
When Sammy Kim, who also uses the pronoun “they,” was 21, they had a tough breakup with their first boyfriend. Kim was heartbroken and financially broke in college. All they wanted to do was have fun and earn quick money, so they became an escort. Seven years later, Kim is still a sex worker but feels differently about it. They no longer work for survival. They aim for a bigger purpose — using sex work to heal queer people’s traumas.
“My relationship to my work did not change, but it evolved,” Kim told me over dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. They wore a black sweatshirt that read “Made for(e)play,” ripped black jeans and layered silver chains. “I was really private about my sex work at first, but I found there aren’t enough positive representations of queer Asian nonbinary people like me within the sex media, so I decided to be vocal,” they said.
Kim now shoots collaborative porn videos once or twice a week with other queer people of color for OnlyFans — and makes an average of $25,000 monthly. Since the pandemic, Kim rarely works as an escort for safety reasons.
Four years ago, Kim’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer and Kim’s mom with Parkinson’s disease. Now living in Bushwick and retired, Kim’s parents rely on Kim’s income and governmental support to sustain themselves. Kim said the work pays for their parents’ medical expenses.
To Kim, this profession is more than a job. After discovering that most sex worker community groups in New York City focus on heterosexual women, Kim created several community gatherings for queer sex workers, calling for more inclusive sex worker representation.
“In Western spaces, Asian culture is inherently queer as it is defined as something that differs from what is usual,” said Maya Reddy, founder of the Queer Asian Social Club. “We Asian immigrants, or third culture kids, are often different from the dominant culture. Being queer has always given me the space for embracing the otherness and recognizing it.”
Kim is constantly fighting against restrictions and regulations concerning sex workers. In August, OnlyFans released a statement saying it would ban all sexually explicit content from its platform. After a huge outcry from sex workers who have been using the platform to survive during the lockdown, the company reversed course and greenlighted nude photos and videos, saying, “We have secured the assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community.”
“I was really private about my sex work at first, but I found there aren’t enough positive representations of queer Asian nonbinary people like me within the sex media, so I decided to be vocal.”
– Sammy Kim
But people like Kim are still worried about their future producing porn online.
“One of the great things about OnlyFans is that you get to choose whom you want to work with. You have total control, so I work with many queer Asian men to bring diverse male representations. I don’t want to lose this platform,” Kim said, noting that the platform also provided a safer working environment for sex workers during the pandemic.
In online dating apps, Asian men often find themselves the lowest on the racial hierarchy, according to Han’s research. On Grindr, a popular social networking app for LGBTQ men, many users filter out Asian men by adding “no Asians” in their profile introduction, while some “rice queens” — non-Asian men who are attracted to men of Asian descent — fetishize Asian men.
To combat this stereotype, Kim aims to heal people struggling with their sexual identity through sex work. On RentMen’s website, which offers gay male escorts and massage services, Kim’s profile reads: “We all deserve to explore our deep sexual desires and needs. Join me in a passionate and sensual process of healing and self-actualization that makes us feel connected to our bodies and souls, and makes us feel free. I’m open-minded and comfortable in my own skin, and I plan to make you comfortable in yours too.” On the website, Kim received 100% full starred reviews and the majority of the clients wrote “very relaxing” in their comments.
Kim’s longest-standing client, Jules, whose name has been changed to protect privacy, said Kim’s profile read differently from others. “I am pretty sure Sammy is the only person who wrote ‘healing’ in the profile and executed it,” Jules said.
Jules first met Kim after he got divorced and wanted to explore his sexuality with men. He was really nervous when he met Kim last year because it was his first sexual experience with a man. “There are times when I get emotional, but Sammy is really adept in dealing with that,” Jules said. “Sammy is my companion, who is there to witness how I evolved along the way.”
Jules said Kim would take more than a quarter of their time to talk to him and listen to his troubles. As a middle-aged man, Jules said he was scared to explore his sexuality so late in life, but believes he is lucky to have met Kim.
“Sometimes Sammy doesn’t feel like a sex worker,” Jules said. “Before I met Sammy, I didn’t buy the whole sexual healing thing, but now I absolutely agree that sexual healing will give me a transcendent experience.”
Kim said many clients are looking for healing experiences in sex. “I work to nourish people,” they said. “I think everyone can benefit from the care in sex work because a lot of us had sexual experiences that are not fulfilling and even traumatizing.”
However, not everyone in the industry agrees with Kim’s belief that “sex work is care work.”
“I don’t believe sex work will empower us,” said Raani Begum, a queer South Asian sex worker who has been in the industry for five years. “I don’t like to see sex workers saying we are doing ‘care work.’ Sex worker theorists who bring in a caregiving framework are contributing to sexual violence. All we need right now is to normalize and decriminalize sex work. I do sex work simply because it can sustain myself and my family.”
Kim recalled the disheartening experiences of being used as a sex machine. “Some clients just want to lash out by having a quick sex and treating me very rudely. I feel used, but I know this part of my job cannot go away.”
Like most sex workers, Kim struggled to have their partner to accept their job.
“My partner has to really believe how positive sex work can be,” they said. “There are still things we need to navigate right now, but we’ve had these conversations several times and these talks bring us closer. Even though my work is to have sex with other people, I can still be in love with just one person.”
Kim said they would not do sex work forever. They hold a bachelor’s degree in painting from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and Kim’s artwork was showcased at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New York. Due to the financial burden from Kim’s parents’ medical expenses, Kim has not been painting lately but hopes to go back to it soon.
At this point, Kim feels there is still much more to offer in the sex industry.
“I fell into the industry at the beginning, but now I choose to do it and want to do more,” they said. “I get to learn so much about myself — my capabilities, my limitations and my strengths — in spaces where I am sharing such vulnerable parts of myself, and hopefully I can heal our culture towards a sexually liberated one.”