I Am AAPI, Not an Object
On March 26, 2021 eight people were murdered by a white man in Atlanta, Georgia. Six were Asian American women and all of them were killed in 3 seperate visibly Asian-owned massage parlors. The killer denied that the attack was racist, claiming he couldn’t help himself and blamed the Asian-owned massage parlors as temptations for his sex addiction. Which is outrageous because he chose to go to places with AAPI women employees, stating he wanted to “eliminate the temptations”.
AAPI women have repeatedly and historically been fetishized and sexualized. The Page Law of 1875 was an anti- CHinese immigration law built on the paranoia that Chinese women were STI-ridden prostitutes, tempting poor white men. Sound familiar? This hystorical fetishization and hyper sexualization has become rooted in our cultural perception of AAPi women. Even now AAPI women are viewed as ¨Exotic Lotus Flowers¨, submissive ¨ChIna Dolls or Geishas a la Madama Butterfly or Miss Saigon. Or we are labeled as Tempresses or Dragon Ladies. These dehumanizing stereotypes continue to the present, ranging from subtler forms in racist beauty trends and appropriation to shocking displays of violence and murder.
And for today, week 7 of our AAPI Army 2021 Campaign, that is the topic of our deep dive. How AAPI women became fetishized as fragile, submissive individuals and how this racist stereotype leads to our dehumanization, the erosion of our agency over our bodies, and increased rates of violence as we saw in Georgia.
So massive trigger warning for sex, sexual violence, sex trafficking, sex in gerneal.
In 1875 the first anti-immigration laws in the US targeted Chinese women as prostitutes. Chinese women were labeled as a ¨sexual threat¨ despite women of all races participating or being sex trafficked into prostitution. Though there was already anti-Chinese sentiment due to Chinese laborers, Chinese women specifically were scapegoated as promiscuous, prostitutes, and spreaders of STIs which was used to justify the Page Law of 1875 which wrote ¨That in determining whether the immigration of any subject of China, Japan, or any Oriental country, to the United States, is free and voluntary . . . it shall be the duty of the consul-general or consul of the United States residing at the port . . . to ascertain whether such immigrant has entered into a contract or agreement for a term of service within the United States, for lewd and immoral purposes. The Page Law also used the racial word for Chinese: the C word. Due to the Page Law targeting women, Chinese women stopped immigrating and the male population rose dramatically. Because there were limited options for marrying and starting families due to a lack of Chinese women and laws prohibiting interrracial marriage, Chinese men garnered a stereotype for being perpetually single and emasculated. The Page Law of 1875 sanctioned the emasculation of Chinese men and Sexualization of Chinese women (1, 2, 3). Just in this one example, we see the consequences of the intersection of racism and sexism AAPi women experience. In this case it set the stage for years of closed borders to Chinese citizens, as well as a lasting stereotype about Chinese women and men. Crazy Rich Asians from 2018, which featured attractive male asian leads, was one of the first examples I have seen where Asian men are shown as masculine and desirable. Although the Page Law of 1875 is decades old, its legacy remains as does the characticuters is created.
Another example: the American military occupying Asian countries and sexually abusing Asian Women, calling them ¨prostitutes¨ but much of it was rape, sexual exploitation of people in desperate war-torn areas, sex trafficking, and coercion to do sex work out of economic necessity. The countries include but are not limited to the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc. When these military people came back, it shaped the stereotype of Asian women as docile, easy, and available. And although AAPI women are no more or less likely to be sex workers than other races, the proximity of American GIs to these prostitutes celemted a legacy of AAPI bodies for white male pleasure. You can see this in the Broadway musical ¨Miss Saigon¨ which romanticized fetishization, American Imperialism, and the sexual exploitation of Vietnamese women (plus female character in the show was a minor).
In 2019 Vanity Fair even did a story about the scandal that broke when Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner, visited Orchid, one of many Asian massage parlors in Palm Springs. The AAPI reporter also researched the culture in Palm Springs and had multiple encounters with men who expected AAPI women to be prostitutes. Here was the reason why:
“At a bar in Jupiter, a Patriots fan named Billy told me that he is a regular at Orchids, and had visited the spa only two weeks before the raid. His father and uncle had served in World War II, he explained, at a time when the U.S. military tacitly endorsed prostitution as good for morale. Over the years, many soldiers returned from Japan and Korea and Vietnam with a highly sexualized view of the women they met.
Marry an Asian woman,” Billy recalled being told. “You’ll be happy for the rest of your life. Asian women know how to take care of a man. You come home and she cooks dinner, takes your shoes off, never complains.”(10)
Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
Billy is describing a multi-generational fetishization of Asian women that fuck you and are so docile they will cook you dinner, takes your shoes off, and never complain. These concepts of Asian women that were created and encouraged by the United States military.
This also isn’t an isolated incident unique to Palm Springs.
According to Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium and an expert witness in criminal and civil court cases related to human trafficking. "Asian women are highly sought after because they are perceived by American men as being more submissive. In my interviews with commercial sex consumers, and through research into the forums where many of them post about these Asian massage parlors, they talk about their dislike of American women, who they perceive as more opinionated and more recalcitrant to their sexual and social demands."
Another example?. .. the popular double eyelid surgery… the surgery that creates a crease in one's upper eye lid and is particularly popular among AAPI women who are known for having a monolid? It was popularized in Korea by Dr. D. Ralph Millard, an American military plastic surgeon who was stationed in the country during the Korean War (1950-53). He was stationed there for public relationship purposes, and described the double eyelid surgery as a way to transform “Oriental” features to “Occidental”.
A well known racist stereotype about AAPIs are our ¨slanty eyes¨ ( a common racist taunt I experienced as a kid was other kids mocking my eyes as weird and ugly). Dr Millard even wrote “The absence of the palpebral fold produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the oriental,”. Also the first recipients of the double eyelid surgery? Korean war brides who were married off to American soldiers. Apparently the surgery made them less racially threatening and their ¨passive, submissive nature¨ made them less likely foregnize their husbands. So the double eyelid surgery, which according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery was the most-performed plastic surgery worldwide last year (12) has roots in racism and the idealization of white beauty. It's especially popular among AAPI women who feel they need it either to be more beautiful (aka white) or increase job prospects. A surgery designed to make Korean faces more ¨trustworthy¨ (aka White) and Americanize Korean War Brides remains today as one of the most popular plastic surgeries in the world… especially in Asian countries.
There are other subtler current forms of sexualization too in the China Doll, Geisha Girl, Dragon Lady stereotype. And these examples, though subtler, serve to further perpetuate stereotypes rotten in violence and anti-Asian racism… stereotypes that are still resulting in violence and death. In 2012, beauty brand Lime Crime released a ¨China Doll¨ palette. The marketing image, featuring a white woman wearing an appropriation salad of kimono and Americanized accessories, states "Don't let her milky skin, pouty mouth and flushed cheeks fool you, underneath the poised facade, there lies a heart of a tigress" . Everything from the colors to the marketing slogan screams ¨submissive innocent yet sexy AAPI woman¨. 2020 (same year as the pandemic and rise in anti-asian harassment and attacks btw) brought us the fox eye/ headache viral beauty trend. This trend consists of beauty influencers pulling up the outer corner of their eye to achieve a ¨fox eye shape¨. This is particularly insulting because AAPI individuals have been mocked for the shape of our eyes. But like with the double eyelid surgery, when perpetuated by White individuals suddenly it is acceptable and ¨trendy¨. Not only that, but AAPi individual who experienced this racist taunt all their lives were then gaslited with ¨its a compliment. Because you're so pretty¨
What consequences do these create for AAPI survivors?
The intersection of racism along with hypersexualization, fetishization, and dehumanization adds a layer of vulnerability to the violence against AAPI women. Remember, the Georgia shooter specifically attacked 3 different AAPI spas during the massacre. These women were targeted for their race, and the implication that their race plus their work location made them sex workers. It doesn’t matter whether or not the victims of the Georgia shooting were trafficked, chose sex work consentually, or were massauses because that does not justify violence and murder
Because AAPI women, women who look like me, are historically and presently portrayed as sexual and submissive (translation: automatically available for the white male gaze) we are constantly navigating men who see race first and humanity second. Just like the Georgia Shooter. By labeling his victims as ¨temptations¨ he stripped their humanity in favor of their perceived sexuality.
This dehumanization, objectification and sexualization of AAPI women strips them of agency over their sexuality. Whether they enjoy sex, don’t care for it, or whatever they choose sex to be for themselves. That includes AAPi women who chose to be sex workers. And whether or not you agree with sex work, as long as there is consent, it is their choice to do what they want with their bodies.
Also, poor immigrant women from AAPI countries sometimes choose sex work because there aren’t a lot of economic options, and can be targeted by ¨anti-prostitution/sex work laws¨ which ends up hurting these women and not helping trafficking victims. (9, 10) Remember the example of Korean ¨War brides from before¨?
A modern example. Jabong Kim, an undocumented 38-year-old native of South Korea told the Bellevue Police Department ¨she had come here to flee an abusive marriage¨ according to the case against her. Both before and after coming to America in 2013, Kim made a living by selling sex, starting in Japan and then in New York, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
However, according to Savannah Sly, SWOP-USA Board President and former Seattle-based sex worker, “Migrant sex workers, especially Asian migrant workers, are often inaccurately labeled as trafficking victims. Just because a woman came to the U.S. and works as an escort does not mean she did so involuntarily. These assumptions are blatantly racist and xenophobic. Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily, because it’s often their best option for addressing issues of poverty, crime, family needs, and war, at home. It’s criminalization and stigma of sex work and immigration status that makes these workers so vulnerable in the US, not the work itself.” (11) Yes, sex trafficking is a huge issue and AAPI women are at risk. However, when we conflate trafficking with consentual sex work, we risk victimizing at risk individuals trying to make a living.
As allies, our goal is that survivors reclaim power and agency and we hold space for AAPI survivors experiences and choices, which includes agency over our sexuality. That means having the ability to choose to participate in sex work, choose not have sex, choose being openly sexual or whatever one chooses. It means dismantling the historical racist stereotypes that link AAPI individuals to sex, and modern attitudes that perpetuate the mentality that being AAPI means you are automatically available and sexual.
Objectification is dehumanizing. It strips AAPI women of agency over their bodies and sexuality. It is traumatizing. Even on a basic level, seeing racist attacks I have suffered my entire life turned into a viral beauty trend is traumatizing and minimizes the trauma I have experienced due to my race. The same when I see qipaos being turned into sexual outfits sold on fast fashion sites. The same people who bullied my looks as a child tried to claim my body as an adult. Just as being a woman is not an automatic YES, being AAPI is not an automatic YES either. Enthusiastic consent should be had always.
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