More Than a Fetish

Words by: Dena Tissera 
Art by: Ruth Ong

CW: Racism and violence against women.

On Tuesday the 16th of March this year, in the US city of Atlanta, a man shot nine people. Seven out of nine of his victims were Asian American women, who worked at a massage parlour that the shooter often visited. 

Law enforcement stated that this behaviour could be explained by a sex addiction, a fetishisation of Asian women. The desire to eliminate desire itself. Many people of colour were able to see this incident for what it was, the grotesque result of racism and misogyny. Despite the fact that racism has become a more widely discussed issue in recent times, it took a few days for the media to catch up.    

The toxic mix of hatred for people of colour and women has festered in society for a long time. I, as many women of colour, have seen it in people’s eyes. Harmful sexual stereotypes play a big role in this issue, whether that be over-sexualisation or fetishising Asian women, or an expectation of submissiveness. Interestingly the victims of this shooting anti-Asian racism were of East-Asian backgrounds, although we know that anti-Asian racism extends to every group in Asia, and that darker skinned women of colour from other parts of Asia face the same dehumanisation that contributed to this horrendous event. 

In order to better understand the Atlanta spa shooting, I interviewed three young women of Asian ethnicity. Kim, an undergraduate student of Filipino background, Crystal, a researcher at the Doherty Institute who is of Chinese background and Nicole, a postgraduate student of Malaysian background. Each of these women had their own experiences regarding the sexual stereotypes enforced on them. When asked what their first response upon hearing about this attack was, their words reflect pain and the kind of maturity that only comes from adversity.  

How did you feel when you first heard about the shooting that occurred at the Young’s Asian Massage Parlour in Atlanta? 

N: I don’t want to belittle the event but sadly I wasn’t too surprised. 

C: I felt like something like this was inevitable. When there’s so much hate simmering for so long against an entire race of people, anti-Asian sentiment is nothing new, especially in the US, where violent attacks against minorities are a dime a dozen. Every week, who’s the hated group? I felt kind of numb to it. 

K: At first I was like this is racially charged for sure. This is DEFINITELY some White dude who had a weird fetish for {Asian} women and he probably got ticked off because some girl didn’t reciprocate… It’s also the fact that America doesn’t care about their gun control. This is just gonna keep happening. Some White dude is gonna get away with killing a bunch of people. 

One place when the over sexualisation of Asian women is particularly prevalent is in the media. Depictions like the Japanese twins from Austin powers in Gold Member show Asian women in an overtly sexual manner. Simultaneously, these women are shown to be submissive, think Coach Carr and Trang Pak from Mean Girls. This encourages people to view Asian women through a hypersexual gaze, making it extremely difficult for Asian women to navigate the world. 

What is your experience of stereotypes such as over sexualisation or submissiveness? Do you see it on dating apps or when you go out? 

N: there is very much a societal gaze that is enforced on asian women and who they choose to be in a relationship with. I think there is some pressure to date another asian person, but there is also this underlying disappointment that you experience because in some cases the idea of bi racial relationships and children have been glamorized. There’s also this sense that asian women can’t think for themselves, that they can’t differentiate between someone who likes them and someone who’s just fetishing them. 

C: The way I deal with the awareness that others might perceive me as hypersexual, submissive, the ‘oriental doll’ stereotype or any of that disgusting stuff ever since I was 12 years old is just through repressing it. By not even considering my own sexuality until very recently as a young adult.

K: As someone who spends a large sum of time on dating apps, it’s very easy to tell when someones fetishshising you just because you’re an Asian girl. There’s a lot of openers like “hey spicy” or “oh, you’re exotic.”

It’s also weird being an Asian girl in a predominantly White area because of the radius of your app. It’s the algorithms! You’re presented with mostly White people because they’re the more popular people on the app. Especially when you first join Tinder, Hinge or Bumble. On those apps when you first download it, they show the most popular people in the area, and it’s always White dudes. Always. And with everything going on, it’s more important for me to think twice before continuing any relationship that I have with another person, because what happens if I don’t fit into their world?

The Atlanta spa shooting has brought anti-Asian racism and misogyny to the forefront of our society in a way that can no longer be ignored. It’s important to note that this is not a new issue. Way back in 1875, the US Government passed the Page Act, which prohibited women from “China, Japan or any Oriental country” immigrating to the United States because it was assumed they were travelling “for purposes of prostitution.” In an Australian context, these young women haven’t been able to escape anti-Asian racism and misogyny either. 

This shooting occurred in the United States but do you think anti-Asian racism particularly against Asian women exists here in Australia?

N: It’s very much about microaggressions and casual racism, there’s less in-your-face blatant racism but that doesn’t mean it’s not damaging. Because it’s so casual, it does feel like our experiences are dismissed or belittled as a result of that. 

Unfortunately for these young women, sexual stereotypes are something they face even in their own communities. Dating is a minefield for most of us, but for women of colour, even something like dating preferences become loaded with socio-political connotations.  

Do people in your own communities expect hypersexuality or submissiveness from you too?

C: I used dating apps for a brief amount of time and fortunately I didn’t experience anything too overt, but I felt when I was matched with other Asian boys, there would be a certain expectation of what I’d be like, or a desire to fit me in a category — am I a party girl? A good girl? I can’t just be myself. There is a fixation on what kind of person I am or who I date, whether it’s only Asian boys or White boys. That was just nonsense. My own personal dating preferences become socio-political where I can’t just prefer what I prefer. It’s always gotta be people telling me that I have internalised racism even if I don’t and everything I do is always about appearance. I constantly think about how one of my boyfriends was Asian but my current boyfriend it White. How are people gonna perceive that?

Ultimately, as a South-Asian woman of colour myself, I can tell you that these stereotypes of hypersexuality and sexual submissiveness are incredibly damaging. Whether it is individuals such as the perpetrator of the Atlanta spa shooting, the media, or even attitudes of our own communities, the experiences of women of colour prove that the toxic mixture of racism and misogyny is nothing short of deadly. 

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