A group of demonstrators hold signs that say, “Stop Asian Hate” during a vigil and rally in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge)
Content warning: This story contains graphic depictions of sexual harassment, racism and violence.
At last, a reckoning with what it’s like to be an Asian American woman has come. It took eight people—six of them Asian women—murdered by a white, male shooter in Atlanta for the rest of America to understand that the hyper-sexualization of Asian American women’s bodies leads to death.
Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise.
The organization Stop AAPI Hate counted 3,795 hate incidents from all 50 states and Washington D.C. from March 2020 to February 2021. Verbal harassment make up 68% of them, while physical assault constitutes 11%. Women are 2.3 times more likely to report these kinds of attacks than men. An even more disturbing statistic is that Asian women are the most trafficked group worldwide.
The fetishization of Asian American women is nothing new. The media’s portrayal of Asian women as subservient and/or deviant—in other words, sexual beings created for other people’s erotic fantasies—has clearly been harmful to society at large. Historically, pop culture has only amplified these objectifying stereotypes. From cheap nail salon jokes to full mockery reducing Asian women to their genitalia, Asian American women have been historically used as punchlines.
Prior to writing this article, I tweeted an invitation for Asian American women to tell me their stories of objectification and harassment, and what came after was a deluge of fierce voices, absolutely defying the subservient stereotypes that have been cast over them.
Deep in the flood of stories were common tropes and slurs: “Ling Ling,” “Oriental chick,” “Tiger Lily,” “Little China Doll,” “Geisha,” the “mail-order bride.” A woman wrote that after she moved to San Francisco, she was asked very casually among a group of “friends” if her vagina was as small as her eyes. Another woman from Charleston, South Carolina claimed that somebody suggested she should work at Forever 21 because “they loved Orientals there.”
Other women shared that they were repeatedly described as “exotic” and subjected to off-the-cuff remarks about Asian women’s genitalia (one woman shared that on a first date she was asked if she was one of those “hairless Asians”). They recalled too many sexually degrading comments to count (“You look like a pornstar I know,” “You’re my first Asian,” “Your body is so tempting,” “Speak Asian to me while we have sex,” “I’d like to eat some Chinese takeout tonight,” “I’d like to catch Yellow Fever”). As a Filipina myself, these damaging insults were so difficult to read.
And then there were stories that were much more atrocious. Stories that hit close to home for me. A stalking incident so horrible the woman still remembers the sound of her stalker’s footsteps. Others described dodging certain neighborhoods and businesses out of fear for their safety. And even in their workplaces, the sexualization followed them.
A woman shared with KQED, “At an office job I had, the CEO accidentally copied me on an email he sent his friends with the subject line ‘Happy Friday.’ Over a dozen photos of naked Asian women in the body of the email. At 20, I didn’t speak up like I should have. I was too scared of losing my job and income, good health insurance, a job that was flexible with my work schedule, was afraid no one would believe me. When my boss came to my cubicle to ‘apologize,’ he told me to delete the email in front of him.”
Another woman recalled meeting an elected official at a professional event. “I stuck my hand out and instead of shaking my hand, he put his arm around me and said to a group of colleagues: ‘Hey, look at me, I’m Woody Allen and I love Asian women.’”
Let’s be clear: these sexual jokes open the doors for dehumanization that leads to people like the Atlanta gunman to think of us as objects meant to fulfill their sexual fantasies.
Eroticizing our existence reconstructs our bodies into sexual objects. Summarizing the existence of Asian American women in a comedic sketch or a stereotype decimates the agency we fight to have over our bodies. It steals our childhood, our girlhood and our womanhood.
The podcast This Filipino American Life recently delved into how racial fetishization of Asian women is rooted in “European and American imperialism of Asia dating back more than 100 years. Military occupation has shaped and informed the ‘R&R’ economies at Subic and Clark in the Philippines, the global sex trafficking industry and low-wage work at massage parlors in the United States.” A Filipino shared with KQED, “One time I was on vacation at a resort in Clark, Pampanga. In the restaurant, two uniformed American servicemen approached us and asked us, ‘How much?’ We didn’t understand at the time that they thought we were prostitutes. We were around 15 at the time. One serviceman said to the other, ‘I don’t think they’re...you know.’ His friend scoffed and said, ‘You haven’t been here long. They’ll all do it for enough money.’”
These stomach-churning stories speak volumes about the everyday atrocities Asian American women experience.
It took a white male murderer for America to hear us. Asian Americans have been here for centuries, and Asian women have been marginalized, dehumanized and brutalized throughout that entire time.
I am enraged that Asian women have constantly been treated as objects under the white gaze. I am exhausted knowing that the majority of these hate crimes were not immediately reported in the media because they were not seen as breaking news.
But the time has come for the awakening of the Asian American woman. Our headline-worthy stories were never meant to be sidelined. Though the threads of our cultures are different, when woven together, the tapestry of our unified bond as Asian American women is immutable. We were not born to be anyone’s objects for on-demand pleasure. We are not punchlines or punching bags. We come from generations of unbreakable women from Asia, and are continually protected by our ancestors. We are women of the mountains, the seas, the islands, the rice fields and more. We will not be erased.
If you’re an Asian American woman and you’re reading this, I urge you to tell your story. To scream, full-throated, into the digital wild, and find your community in person too. We’re waiting to listen, honor and cherish your existence.