Asian women say shootings point to relentless, racist tropes

They say they’ve often had to tolerate racist and misogynistic men who cling to a narrative that Asian women are exotic and submissive.

In this March 19, 2021, file photo, flowers, candles and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Candice Choi)

In this March 19, 2021, file photo, flowers, candles and signs are displayed at a makeshift memorial in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Candice Choi)

For Christine Liwag Dixon and others, the bloodshed in Georgia — six Asian women among the dead, allegedly killed by a man who blamed his “sexual addiction” — was a new and horrible chapter in the shameful history of Asian women being reduced to sex objects.

“I’ve had people either assume that I’m a sex worker or assume that, as a Filipino woman, I will do anything for money because they assume that I’m poor,” said Dixon, a freelance writer and musician in New York City. “I had an old boss who offered me money for sex once.”

Tuesday’s rampage at three Atlanta-area massage businesses prompted Asian American women to share stories of being sexually harassed or demeaned. They say they’ve often had to tolerate racist and misogynistic men who cling to a narrative that Asian women are exotic and submissive.

Elaine Kim, who is Korean American and a professor emeritus in Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, recalled being crassly harassed by white young men while she was in high school. Later in life, one of her white students made sexualizing comments about the Asian women in her class and lurked outside their apartments.

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Kim was reminded of these moments when she heard that the man accused in the Atlanta-area shootings had said he had acted because his targets tempted him.

“I think it’s likely that the killer not only had a sex addiction but also an addiction to fantasies about Asian women as sex objects,” she said.

Two of the Georgia massage businesses had been repeatedly targeted in prostitution investigations in the past 10 years, according to police records. The documents show that 10 people had been arrested on prostitution charges, but none since 2013.

The suspect in the shootings, a 21-year-old white man, considered the women inside the spas “sources of temptation,” police said.

Grace Pai, a director of organizing at Chicago’s Asian Americans Advancing Justice branch, called that characterization of the attacks “a real slap in the face to anyone who identifies as an Asian American woman.”

“We know exactly what this racialized misogyny looks like,” Pai said. “And to think that someone targeted three Asian-owned businesses that were staffed by Asian American women … and didn’t have race or gender in mind is just absurd.”

Framing the women who were killed as “sources of temptation” places blame on the women as the ones “who were there to tempt the shooter, who is merely the victim of temptation,” said Catherine Ceniza Choy, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of ethnic studies and a Filipino American woman. She said this scenario echoes a long-running stereotype that Asian women are immoral and hypersexual.

“That may be the way the alleged shooter and killer thinks of it, that you can compartmentalize race in this box and sex addiction in a separate box. But it doesn’t work that way,” Choy said. “These things are intertwined, and race is central to this conversation.”

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Stereotypes of Asian women as “dragon ladies” or sexually available partners have been around for centuries. From the moment Asian women began to migrate to the U.S., they were the targets of hypersexualization, said Ellen Wu, a history professor at Indiana University.

The Page Act of 1875 prohibited women coming to the U.S. from anywhere for “immoral purposes,” but the law was largely enforced against Chinese women.

“As early as the 1870s, white Americans were already making this association, this assumption of Asian women being walking sex objects,” Wu said.

Asian lives are seen as “interchangeable and disposable,” she said. “They are objectified, seen as less than human. That helps us understand violence toward Asian women like we saw this week.”

U.S. military deployments in Asia also played a role, according to Kim. She said the military has long fueled sex trafficking there, starting after the Spanish-American War, when traffickers and brothel owners in the Philippines bought and sold women and girls to meet the demands of U.S. soldiers.

During the Vietnam War, women from Thailand and many other Asian countries were used for sex by U.S. soldiers at various “rest and recreation” spots. The bodies and perceived submissiveness of Asian women were eroticized and hypersexualized, Kim said, and eventually these racist stereotypes were brought back to the United States.

In American culture, Asian woman have been fetishized as submissive, hypersexual and exotic, said Christine Bacareza Balance, an Asian American studies professor at Cornell University and a Filipina woman.

A prime example is the wildly popular 1887 novel, “Madame Chrysanthème,” a French narrative, translated into English, in which Japanese women are referred to as “playthings” and “China ornaments.” More recently, an Asian woman has generally been portrayed in films as either “a manipulative, dragon lady temptress or the submissive, innocent ‘lotus blossom’ meant to please a man,” Balance said.

Choy, the ethnic studies professor at Berkeley, said Tuesday’s shootings and subsequent efforts to remove race from the conversation is yet another example of the denial of the racism and sexism Asian and Asian American women face.

“In American society, Asian Americans are not seen and listened to,” she said. “We are seen in specific ways at times, as model minorities, as projections of white, male fantasy, but we are not seen as full-fledged Americans. We are not seen as full human beings. It’s a kind of erasure and dehumanization.”

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