N’jaila Rhee is many things…
Accidental Chinese Hipsters, Asian American Porn, Chinatown, Feminism, IMPACT, N’jaila Rhee, sex work, Sex Workers Rights, yellowface
N’jaila Rhee is many things — a writer; a phone sex operator, web cam girl, and former exotic dancer; a nerd; and a self-described “Blasian bitch.”
A native of New Jersey and a Rutgers University alumna, she’s carved out a niche for herself as a vocal critic and commentator on issues ranging from sex workers’ rights to favorite toys to racism in the porn industry. She uses her blog, social media, and “After Dark,” the popular podcast she co-hosts on the “This Week in Blackness” network, as platforms to voice her provocative positions.
N’jaila’s mission, it seems, is to get us all to bring our private desires out from the bedroom and into the open. Do this, and “we’re all going to be a little more healthy,” she explained on a recent evening in a Brooklyn coffee shop.
We chatted about the need for more Asian American porn, her thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey, and what it’s like to, as she put it, be constantly “dancing at the intersections of race, sex, and identity.”
You became a stripper in college. Why did you decide to become a dancer?
Sex is the most natural way that I can relate to other people. And it’s always something that just felt innately right. So because it was so easy for me to express myself sexually, it was something that I felt very comfortable with.
I got dumped by my [boyfriend]. I don’t want to say that he’s a pedophile, but he dumped me for a 14-year-old. I met him when I was 15, and he was like 36. He got rid of me when I was in college, because I grew up.
I sat in my dorm room, and I cried, and I didn’t take any of my finals. They didn’t kick me out of school, but I was no longer eligible for [my] scholarship.
I was [already] a dancehall dancer. And I realized I could do the same thing in slightly less clothing, and leave with money every night.
Did you ever work in New York City?
I’m brown and fat so I never danced at any high society gentleman’s club in Manhattan. I can remember trying to get a job at a wank station in Chinatown that was looking for Asian hostesses. I actually called to see if they would consider me Asian enough. They wanted to know if I could speak English and how long my hair was. Apparently they could deal with my blackness as long as my hair was past my shoulders. I wasn’t brave enough to go in for a full interview but it was oddly affirming to be “Asian enough.”
I was always in the trap. Hood places like Hunt’s Point or the end of the 2/3 train. It doesn’t shock me that I was able to work so much in New York City. Mainstream-looking folk go to a BBW strip show or to a T-Girl revue and still blend into society because New York City has a much more forgiving definition of normal.
Did being Blasian impact the kind of work you got?
Certain promoters would want to highlight that I was mixed race, and they’d want me to say that I was like, Southeast Asian, or not Black. Or one guy wanted me to not speak English. I was uncomfortable with a lot, obviously.
I was told I couldn’t have my hair natural. It’s not like I have the curliest of ‘fros. But they didn’t want me to have natural hair, so I would wear a hair weave because you couldn’t be a mixed Blasian if you didn’t have silky straight hair.
I had to buy my identity for $220 a pop.
[P]eople aren’t seeing that they are making something that is erotic labor. This is somebody’s labor.
After a while, you stopped dancing and got into web cam modeling. And now you’re a phone sex operator. In my head I always imagine that you must get a lot of lonely people who just want to talk to someone.
You have all types of people. There are people that get off being abusive. And they want to call you a dirty whore. I just block those people.
You go in the [chat] room, and you don’t want to hear one more idiot yelling a slur at you. I don’t want to hear stereotypical things. I’m not going to tell you that Asian guys have small dicks for you to whack off to. Which is a weirdly popular request.
Really? What other requests do you get?
Yes. Non-Asian men like to hear that Asian men have small dicks. And then a lot of white men like to hear that they have small dicks and Black guys have the big dicks. You’d be very surprised what gets people off. I need to write a book of all the weird stuff.
You’ve written a lot about your experiences, like the time you got assaulted by a client when you were a dancer. And you’re passionate about sex workers’ rights.
I think reminding people that sex workers are people, especially in progressive spaces, is really important. I see it as activism because in all the spaces I am, even though they’re super progressive, there’ll be times where somebody is like, why is that an issue? And I would have to tell them, you think it’s not an issue because you don’t see sex work as work. Or you’re not thinking about sex workers as human beings, wanting to be paid for their labor, or human beings that want to make their way in the world in the way they choose with their bodies.
It’s not something that should be so shocking. I don’t think it might change the world, but it’ll change the world of sex workers and how we’re treated.
What do you think about feminist anti-porn activists, who think that all porn is inherently degrading?
I always think, when people say that they’re anti-porn, it’s not the sex that they’re offended by, it’s all of the baggage that we put on it. Like they don’t want to see a movie called Dumb Asian Sluts 5. The actual sex acts aren’t as offensive but when you put it in that context, it becomes offensive. I think if you have more sex-positive porn, then I think we’re all going to be a little more healthy. You know, human beings have been making what we would call pornography since we found that we could scribble on cave walls.
But I think a lot of the argument that people have is that we don’t create or watch porn in a vacuum. And we bring a lot of fucked up notions of race and gender and sex when we watch.
Well, because it’s not made for us. I mean, it’s not made for people of color, it’s not made for people who consider themselves women. It’s not so much that you don’t like porn, maybe you just haven’t found the porn that does it for you.
I mean, I am not your rescue project. And I had a lot of people that were basically just telling me that I was propagating racism because I was doing sex work and in a body of a non-white woman. That’s why we have racialized sexism. Which I think is ridiculous and also puts the onus on women of color, not racists, to change their disgusting outlooks. I don’t think it’s inherently degrading. Instead of trying to ban all the porn, why don’t we just make better porn? I mean, I like real sex, so what Gail Dines has decided to call the pornification of sex, I don’t really think it’s porn’s fault. I think porn is a reflection of our society. So it’s kind of like looking in the mirror and then getting angry at the reflection instead of changing your clothes.
What kind of porn do you enjoy?
I actually find myself more drawn to queer porn. I mean, I like penises so obviously gay porn is great, there’s a whole bunch of penis. But there’s also a lack of representation of certain groups of people. Like you could watch gay porn until your eyes bleed, but you probably won’t see an Asian guy or an Indian guy. Or you know it’s going to be very hard to find guys with certain amounts of body hair, unless it’s represented as a fetish.
What do you think can change this? What can we do?
Stop stealing porn and pay for it. Because you know, the people who mass-produce the same old, same old, they’re mass producing it so they’re still going to make their money back. But the person who’s making something more experimental, or progressive, if people steal that content, they’re just not going to make any more content.
This is a terrible analogy but it’s like shopping at the farmer’s market instead of Wal-Mart. It’s a business at the end of the day, right? If people are doing quality stuff, they need to be supported.
Well, it’s kind of true.
It’s interesting to think of the power we have as consumers. People also assume no one wants to see an Asian guy in porn.
I think people think they’ll lose money because they mostly market things to middle aged white men. And they think middle aged white men don’t want to see Asian men in porn.
[T]here’ll be times where somebody is like, why is that an issue? And I would have to tell them, you think it’s not an issue because you don’t see sex work as work.
They want to see themselves.
Or they want to see a big Black guy and a tiny Asian girl.
When we’re talking about just stealing it, and we’re not supporting the independent performers that are making the content that’s a little more progressive, sometimes people aren’t seeing that they are making something that is erotic labor. This is somebody’s labor.
You’ve also critiqued instances of overt racism in porn, like the time a Walking Dead porn parody had an actor in yellowface to play Steve Yeun’s character, Glenn. And you got a lot of flak for it.
It was basically, “Oh you’re ruining porn, who are you to talk about it anyway, because you’re not even like an adult performer, you don’t know full contact porn. Who are you to judge?” It was basically the idea that because it’s porn, anything goes. And I understand that we’ve kind of made that in and of itself its own fetish. That we’re doing something wild and crazy and so wrong.
And yes, we fetishize that, but there’s a big difference between somebody doing a production called Nice Jewish Girls, that’s supposed to be guys having sex with nice Jewish girls. And they’re actual Jewish American actresses, or actual people that are Jewish that had something to do with this. Nobody that was Asian had anything to do with this production. It was basically the idea that you could slap makeup on somebody and say, it’s Asian, it’s ok.
My point was, you can do whatever you want, but what you can’t expect is nobody to critique you. But the act of yellowface, just like the act of blackface, is racist. And it’s rooted in racism.
But what are the lines? Because I’ve also seen a lot of porn that is clearly trafficking in certain tropes about race. It might not be as overt as someone in blackface or yellowface. But there’s that element, and it’s uncomfortable.
I think you should be open to critique that. I don’t think anybody should say, “Oh it’s porn, you can’t talk about it because it’s weird.” I don’t think it’s super healthy to only consume porn that leaves out a lot of people. You know? I think it’s really sad that there’s no Asian-American porn. I mean, if Black people want to watch two Black people going at it, it’s there. Will it be kind of annoying, will the company be Black owned? That’s iffy. But it still exists.
There is that guy Jeremy Long in California!
But I’m holding my breath. He has like four scenes? I’ll check on him in a year if he’s still in the biz. Everybody feels great when you’re “Little Miss Gold Star” sex worker, but when he becomes just another dude who does porn, we’ll see how long he lasts. I mean, I hope he does. But he’s another person who is concentrating on having sex with non-Asian women.
You know, human beings have been making what we would call pornography since we found that we could scribble on cave walls.
We’re talking about Asian American representation, which is such a hot topic these days as Fresh Off the Boat has been turned into a sitcom.
I still haven’t seen it. As a Blasian person, I’m kind of conflicted. While I don’t represent the main narrative of the Asian American experience, my narrative is part of the Asian American experience regardless, on the virtue that I’m an Asian.
Little Eddie on the show gets to express himself with hip-hop culture, but I could not. Because I’d be codified as ignorant. I’ve always had to codeswitch. So, there’s something about having to watch other people who get to embrace a culture that is part of you, but that you can’t really enjoy because you don’t want to get shot wearing a hoodie. I’m afraid to have kids because if they like hip hop and they’re playing their music in a car, some old white guy could empty a gun in them.
It’s the idea that everybody loves Black culture, but no one wants to actually be Black.
Exactly, and I think if Eddie was a young Black kid or if Eddie was a Haitian immigrant who came to south Florida at the same time and fell in love with hip hop, I don’t really think that show would be on TV.
Do I really want to see grandmas bopping to Snoop Dogg, and it’s “hilarious”? I feel that’s so othering.
I feel like you have a particular perspective on this, as someone who’s Black and Asian.
When I went to New York for the first time, I was three and it was the first time we met another mixed raced child like myself. New York City was always a symbol of something better for me. It’s easy to romanticize New York when you live in Bergen County, New Jersey. You’re close enough to go to all of the good stuff a few times a week, but you don’t live there so the city doesn’t have the chance to drain your life force.
I started going to Harlem once a week to be part of this amazing youth theater called IMPACT, when I was only 14. My parents let me travel there by myself. I used to have a crippling social anxiety. Like panic attacks asking the bus driver questions. I think being able to explore made me a stronger person. It also gave me a chance to go to places where everyone is Black or Caribbean or explore Queens and learn about Korean culture. I would go to shows and talks and it was just the greatest experience. It made my Bergen County town seem so small.
I also was bullied pretty steadily in school. I felt so ugly and funny looking. But in Harlem, people I never met would compliment my smile, say good morning, just acknowledge I was there. I felt that was so important. It taught me how to distinguish what is polite and what is harassment early on.
I think porn is a reflection of our society. So it’s kind of like looking in the mirror and then getting angry at the reflection instead of changing your clothes.
I’m itching to hear your thoughts about 50 Shades of Grey. Did you read the book or see the movie?
I read a lot of the first one. It actually kind of disturbed me a little. The Christian Grey character, how he talks to the little chick, it seemed kind of emotionally abusive. And I know they’re saying it’s cause he’s a dom. And I’m like, no that’s just abuse. And it kind of reminded me of a dude from when I was a teenager.
What did you think of the BDSM?
It kind of made me feel like I’m not as vanilla as I thought I was. I would say I’ve engaged in light BDSM. Apparently, it wasn’t so light, after reading that book. I’m trying not to be a porn snob, I just don’t understand why [the book] exists. Because we have kink.com. And then you don’t have to worry yourself with bad characterization or inner goddesses, you just see James Deen whale on somebody.
I think a lot of times people are a little afraid of admitting that what arouses them, if they explained it, would not sound quote unquote politically correct. And I think once you start having a conversation about why those things are turning us on, either you can A) not be as turned on by those things, or B) have a deeper understanding so you don’t have this conflict inside you that makes you ashamed of being turned on by it.
I mean, I’ve had partners who were Asians who wanted me to be screaming like, “Oh fuck me with your big Black cock.” I’m a giver, so I would just do it. But I want to talk about it afterwards. So you wanted me to say that, I know you were in the heat of the moment, but let’s talk about it.
Because where does that come from.
And you confronting that, it’s so personal, and people get very uncomfortable.
And I think especially for women, we’re not told that it’s okay to explore what turns us on and be very frank about what turns us on.
When I was in college, I remember the first time somebody got one of those bootleg cable boxes. They were like, “We can watch porn!” I was like, all these guys look the same, they don’t have any Black dudes, they don’t have any Asian dudes? I was in a group with Asian women, and they got embarrassed that I said Asian dudes. They were like, you want to see Asian dudes?
And I was like, I like to imagine me having sex, so I want the people in the porno to look like me. It just seemed like that was the natural thing, but then I learned that it’s not how a lot of people operate. When I did a TWiB roundtable, one of the Asian men that was on the panel actually said that he never thought of looking for porn that had Asian men in it, because looking at a white guy having sex with the bombshell blonde—he can imagine himself as that guy. And he didn’t want to imagine himself as an Asian guy. That was something I never considered.
I would love that one day, we don’t have to think it’s weird that there’re two Asian Americans doing a scene together. Like that wouldn’t be a rare thing.
If they ever make a “Fresh Off the Boat” porn parody, maybe that’ll be the first.
Well, they’ll just slap yellowface on white dudes. Or they’ll just make all the Asian characters women.
You’re probably right. I wonder what they would call it.
Probably “Fresh on My Cock.”