America loves Asian women as products—things to be viewed as entertainment, items that can be easily tossed away once the consumer is through.
And in this day and age of extreme Asian American Pacific Islander bloodshed, “tossed away” is a generous phrase. While attacks on the AAPI community have always been pervasive in America, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only put folks of Asian descent in more peril. There have been at least 3,795 hate incidents against AAPI people since the pandemic began, according to Stop AAPI Hate. As this week’s horrific mass shooting showed, there’s no sign of the hate crimes slowing down.
On Tuesday night, a white man in his early 20s went on a shooting spree in and around Atlanta, attacking three massage parlors and murdering eight people in total. Seven of his victims were women and six of those women were Asian. As of Thursday, the names of the confirmed victims are Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Yan, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, and Park Hyeon Jeong. The gunman has since defended his actions by claiming a “sex addiction” and accusing the businesses he stormed as places of “temptation.” Law enforcement said he was “having a bad day.”
When Asian women are eroticized on a mass scale and deprived of their humanity, it puts them at risk on a systemic level.
Authorities have not yet called the attacks a hate crime—despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests they were—but these horrific events confirm a sentiment that all Asian women know to be true: being desired sexually by those in positions of power (aka white men) does not mean protection. If anything, it only puts us at more risk for sexualized misogyny.
The fetishization of Asian women has a long and documented history in western culture. A study done by the National Network to End Domestic Violence showed that Asian women are more likely to experience sexual violence by an intimate partner than any other ethnic group. Additionally, Asian victims are less likely to reach out for support due to their unique cultural barriers. All of which is to say that when Asian women are eroticized en masse and deprived of their humanity, it puts them at risk on a systemic level.
A huge factor in the fetishization of Asian women comes from the “submissive” trope, stemming from the days when colonial soldiers would invade Asian territories and sexually prey upon the women there. Today, it manifests as the idea that Asian women are easily dominated, siren-like creatures of sexuality. As a result, Asian women are often the target of other people’s, oftentimes crude, projections.
A quick scan of porn sites and dating apps quickly confirms this. Fetish is not inherently a bad thing, but the line between kink and actual harm has been so blurred by a willful misunderstanding of sexuality and consent that the fetishization of Asian women has, in so many instances, taken lives.
Atlanta’s gunman is not the first man to commit violence against the women he finds attractive nor is he the last who will hold them responsible for his desires and actions.
My own firsthand experiences with being fetishized started long before I hit adulthood. I would even argue that, as a minor, I faced more inappropriate behavior from men who would cast their sexual fantasies on me to the point of threatening my well-being. I vividly remember as early as my elementary school days every pointed remark about my schoolgirl status and men proudly bragging they have “yellow fever.” When I bring this up to my circle of AAPI friends, it’s horrifying how many women have the same story, starting just as young as I was.
As an Asian American female, it’s always been tricky to separate owning my sexuality from what others—both individually and as a society—expect from me. There is an air of entitlement from white men when it comes to Asian women and that entitlement, when radicalized by white supremacy and misogyny, is life-threatening.
There is an air of entitlement from white men when it comes to Asian women and that entitlement, when radicalized by white supremacy and misogyny, is life-threatening.
The details surrounding the shooting paint a very vivid picture of how disposable Asian women are to some of the men who are attracted to them. Being desired does not protect women from being subjected to violence. If anything, it only puts them at more risk. It enforces the notion that Asian women are inherently sexual creatures who “deserve” what we get. A never-ending victim-blaming feedback loop.
When news broke across social media about the murders, the phrase “happy ending” began trending. Even in death, Asian American women continue to face disrespect as their existence is reduced to how others perceive their sexuality.
The conversation around sex and power may have reached a boiling point over the past decade, particularly with the ascension of the #MeToo movement, but there is still an overarching misconception that women should be honored—even grateful—to be wanted. But most women, particularly marginalized women, know that male desire comes with a price and that price is often our lives. Patriarchy tells men that they are entitled to anything they want, and when that system goes unchecked for centuries, it grows into a culture where sex-based violence is not only tolerated but also expected.
What happened in Atlanta is just another tragic but preventable byproduct of this culture. And we can’t save future victims of male entitlement and sexualized misogyny without first examining, and then challenging, the way Asian women are treated in this country.
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