Asian Women On Being Sexually Objectified & Fetishised

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Frankie, 26, still remembers the time a man approached her at a bus stop in west London and asked: "How much do you charge? How much for a blow job?" She was 16 at the time and was dressed in her school uniform. "I was so scared," she reflects today. "I was by myself at the time. I was like, 'Wait, is he gonna kidnap me? Is he gonna drag me into a car?'"
It was one of her worst encounters with street harassment. "I was born and raised in Ealing my whole life,” says Frankie, who is of Thai and British heritage. "I know that area like the back of my hand. It was like, 'Do I not even feel safe in the area I consider my home?'" It happened again when she was walking with her father. "This guy came up to my dad and was like, 'How much did you pay for your wife?'" 
These anecdotes might shock you if you’re not an East or Southeast Asian woman. But for many of us, this kind of overt harassment is all too familiar – and the Atlanta spa shootings in March have brought up long-simmering fears and anxieties around racialised misogyny and objectification. 
The shooting in Atlanta – in which six women of Asian descent were killed – was the highly visible crest of the wave of anti-Asian hate that has hit Europe, America, Australia and the UK. According to an April Pew Research Center survey, 81% of Asian-Americans say that violence against them is rising in the US. In March 2020, the number of hate crimes towards people of East Asian appearance in London alone was almost three times higher than the number reported in the same month in 2019. 
Understandably, most of the attention has focused on these hateful, violent incidents. But many women say that the events in Atlanta are inextricable from our everyday sexualisation – something that became apparent at the now-notorious press conference following the shootings, in which a police captain claimed that the shooter had a "sexual addiction" and that the spas were a source of "temptation … that he wanted to eliminate." 

There's a long history of East Asian and Southeast Asian women being 'othered'. They're not seen as any ordinary citizens. These women are sexualised and portrayed as sexual objects – they're also often seen as obedient or submissive.

Dr Sarah Liu
"That really plays on the stereotype that people often have with East Asian women," says Dr Sarah Liu, a lecturer in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, of the remarks. "There’s a long history of East Asian and Southeast Asian women being 'othered'. They’re not seen as any ordinary citizens or any other white woman. A lot of times these women are sexualised and portrayed as sexual objects – they're also often seen as obedient or submissive."
It’s something that Jess, 33, knows well. "I’ve seen how white men – not just white men but non-Asian men – view Asian women as submissive, more loyal than other races, as this smaller, delicate lotus blossom stereotype," says the London-based artist and designer. 
Jess describes a "feeling of being singled out because you’re Asian". Comments she’s received about the texture of her hair and skin – and more explicit remarks like "Asian women have tight vaginas" – put her on edge. "[It’s] the way that people comment on your body and feel like they have a right to," she explains. "On the surface, it doesn’t seem like sexualisation, but when you get so many comments … It feels like being fetishised."
This fetishisation, explains Jacqueline Wallace of End the Virus of Racism, an advocacy group for ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) people in the UK, can be traced back to centuries of colonialism and imperial conquest. "If we look at how Western countries like the US or Britain have colonised Asian countries – for example Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong – these places have all been affected by this issue of white supremacy… I think that these histories just haven't really been analysed in this way of understanding how discrimination can still run rife today." 
US military activity in East and Southeast Asia, including the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War and the Korean War, led to soldiers patronising local sex workers and fostering a narrative of Asian women "existing to serve white men", says Wallace – a stereotype that flourished in Hollywood films and musicals like Full Metal Jacket and Miss Saigon.      
Gender and ethnicity intersect in ways that put East and Southeast Asian women particularly at risk of violence. A report from Stop AAPI Hate on Asian-American hate crimes between March 2020 and February 2021 found that 68% of the victims were women. In the case of the Atlanta shooting, Wallace says, the victims' gender, race and class combined in ways that made them especially vulnerable. 
"There is a huge stigma attached to massage parlours being places of sex work," she says. "While there hasn't been confirmation that these women were sex workers – and no one should be victim-blaming or demonising them for working in a place where there is that kind of stigma attached – unfortunately it led to the gunman coming to the conclusion that [they] were just sexualised objects that he had to 'eliminate'." 

If we look at how Western countries like the US or Britain have colonised Asian countries – for example Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong – these places have all been affected by white supremacy.

Jacqueline Wallace
This prejudice against sex workers and those perceived to be sex workers is known as whorephobia and it’s existed for centuries. As far back as the 19th century, Dr Liu adds, the Page Act of 1875 forbade Chinese women from entering the US because of fears they would engage in sex work and spread disease. But, she says, you can look back even earlier to the European boom in "Oriental art" after the First Opium War to see where the "sexual objectification of Asian women really shines". 
"You see postcards, images and decorative objects with Asian women on them, back in the 1800s," she explains. "All these troops from European countries go to China and profit from this trade route; that’s probably one of their first exposures to Asian women, which creates this bourgeois desire for Oriental art and collectibles – and that is when women become one of these collectibles." 
This collector's mindset is all too reminiscent of the way that some men treat ESEA women today, even on dates – the one place you think people might try to impress or be on their best behaviour. "I will just outright ask: 'Have you ever been with any Asian women before?'" says Stockholm-based designer Amanda, 29. "When men say, 'Oh, you’re my first one!'" she adds, "you can hear this sense of achievement in their voice, like [they’re] collecting [me]." 
In fact, all the women I spoke to had experiences of encountering boys or men who seemed especially – or exclusively – interested in dating someone from their ethnicity. Jess, who grew up in a "very white town" in northeast England, says that she ended up dating mainly white boys by default. "After we broke up, they only dated Asian girls," she says. "One of my exes actually is now dating an Asian girl and living abroad in Asia." 
Amanda says that she once straight-up asked an ex if he had yellow fever because all his long-term relationships had been with ESEA women. "He was super adamant it wasn’t his thing," she says. "He said: 'No, Asian women are attracted to me.'" When she later looked at his Instagram following list, she realised he’d followed mainly Asian IG models.
It can be easy to dismiss these incidents as the awkward byproduct of dating while Asian in a Western country. What’s wrong with having a dating preference, in the same way some people prefer blondes? What’s wrong with being complimented about your physical features? But they’re the thin end of the wedge of more insidious forms of racialised objectification that haunt women throughout their lives, even in adolescence. 
Frankie remembers finishing high school in the mid 2000s, when Japanese anime and hentai was beginning to take off among her age group. She remembers boys leering at her in class: "'Is she kinky? Does she wear that anime schoolgirl outfit?' They look at you like dogs; like they’re hungry." The experience, she says, was incredibly degrading. "You just feel like you’ve been reduced to an object."

'Is she kinky? Does she wear that anime schoolgirl outfit?' They look at you like dogs; like they're hungry. You just feel like you've been reduced to an object.

Jess says that she’s already dreading lockdown lifting and having to go outside. "With all the anti-Asian hate and the Atlanta shootings, I’ve felt so anxious and nervous about facing the world," she says. "When I get catcalled, it’s really sexually and racially intersected. It’s not just 'Hey baby', it’s 'ni hao ma' and 'konnichiwa'. I’ve been really anxious because of the thought of having to go outside when there’s loads of people." She’s now planning to learn Krav Maga as self-defence. 
Like many ESEA women, I’ve also found myself on the receiving end of this objectification. I can only speak for myself when I say that the intimate betrayals have a particular sting – the ones that happen on a date or in a relationship, where potential lovers or partners are revealed to be (or even openly admit to being) interested in you on account of your ethnicity. 
"There’s a reason it’s called sexualisation," explains Dr Liu. "It means people don’t care what’s in your brain or other parts of your body... It’s just objectifying women and treating them like objects – things you can play with and do things with, but nothing more than that."
It’s hard to explain how much this can hurt if you’ve never experienced it. All of us go through life expecting to be treated as a fully rounded individual, unique in our capacities and outlook. Being reduced to a stereotype – no matter how complimentary that stereotype may seem – is profoundly dehumanising. As Amanda puts it: "It makes me weary. It’s almost like we have an extra filter to check they’re not interested in us because of our race."
After speaking to women for this piece, I idly looked up an old boyfriend on Facebook. He went on to date one of my close friends at the time – also Asian – after we broke up. Back then, I didn’t think there was anything weird about the fact that he’d gone on to date another Asian woman; I was more upset about him hooking up with a friend. 
As I swiped through his profile, a few wedding photos caught my eye – he’d gotten hitched a few years ago. He looked radiantly happy, as did his now-wife, whom I didn’t recognise. The bride wore white and looked beautiful. She was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, Asian.

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