CW: Racism; violence against women and POC; sexual and racial stereotypes and stigmatisation.
(Artwork by Jenny Li, @byjennny on Instagram)
"Never ever have I hooked up with an Asian"
"I haven't... oh wait"
He stared at me, a smirk on his lips as he put his finger down. At 15, I had no idea that this went deeper than him just being a dickhead.
Being hyper-sexualised and fetishised has become a norm in the lived experiences of many women of colour across the world, particularly those of East Asian descent, like me.
The psychological burden placed on us - where we have no idea if somebody actually likes us for us, or only finds us attractive based on our race - adds to the objectification that we are already subjected to as women. That little nagging voice in my head when I see an ex with their new partner, who bears the same features as me... “did he actually like me or was I just his ‘type’?” The thought that I am not valued because of who I am, but what I have come to represent: an amalgamation of sexual stereotypes that disregard the many cultural identities across Asia.
Many of these stereotypes in Western society can be traced back to a long history of Western imperialism and militarism in Asian countries, which often involved the forced sexual slavery of women. In particular, the contributions of military personnel in local sex industries have created associations between being Asian and being a sex worker. This stereotype prevails even though statistically, Asians are no more likely to be sex workers than people of any other race or culture. Even today, South-East Asia remains one of the most popular sex tourism destinations. Despite not being recognised by governments as an official source of revenue, the International Labour Organisation estimates that the sex industry accounts for up to 14 percent of the GDP of four nations: Indonesia, Phillipines, Thailand and Malaysia.
While the traditional stereotypes of being a 'submissive lotus blossom' or 'docile geisha' still exist, the rise of East Asian pop culture such as anime and K-pop has also contributed to the creation of new ways to fetishise us. There is even a belief that we are somehow physiologically different from other women: petite frames, small hands (which apparently “makes your dick look bigger”) and even a “tighter” genitalia. This has led to Asian porn becoming one of the most popular subgenres of adult content. In 2019, PornHub reported that ‘Japanese’ was the most searched term, followed by ‘hentai’ in second place, ‘Korean’ in fifth place and ‘Asian’ in sixth.
The events in Atlanta earlier this year, mere days after March 4 Justice in Australia, hit home for Asian women across the world. Not only did it demonstrate how degrading it is when women of colour and other marginalised groups are reduced to punchlines, it was dangerous. Instead of focusing on the racial aspect of the crime and calling it what it was, a “racially motivated” attack, authorities opted to focus on the shooter’s “sex addiction” and how he carried out a mass shooting in an attempt to “eliminate his temptations”.
However, these comments only served to reinforce the intersections between racism, misogyny and racial fetishisation, and the systemic way that Western institutions enable such stereotypes to flourish. Labelling the shooter's victims as “temptations” completely dehumanised them - they were a 'thing' that could just be eliminated, rather than human beings with lives and families. Instead of treating his addiction as the problem, the shooter chose to treat the women as the problem - and take steps to eliminate it.
Media coverage of the event, where the differences between spas and massage parlours (which have a connotation of sexualisation and prostitution) were quickly distinguished, showed how pre-existing attitudes were already framing the way people perceived this case. Twitter users made jokes in response to the news tweets of the events (“Not the happy ending they were expecting!”), demonstrating the casual disdain for Asian women that allows for incidents like this to happen every day.
Growing up, popular media characterised people who looked like me as either one of these hyper-sexualised stereotypes, or as the nerd with no social life. This groups Asian women into two very narrow and mutually exclusive categories: if she's smart, then she can’t be sexually attractive and vice versa. It has been reassuring to see recent movies, such as The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians, moving away from these representations and celebrating the diversity in Asian experiences. However, my friends telling me to stay away from certain guys because they have “yellow fever”, or the DMs that I regularly receive on Instagram still speak volumes of the social change around perceptions of Asian women that still needs to happen.
We are not your “real life anime girl”, the “Asian wife you always wanted”, or waiting to be saved from our cultures.
We are not here to be your sex objects.
By Angela Chen