Stereotypes Aplenty: US’ History of Violence Against Asian Women

Harmful stereotypes of Asian women in American popular culture date back to at least the 19th century.

4 min read
 People march away from the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta during a unity rally – ‘Stop Asian Hate’ – on Saturday, 20 March. 

Asian-American women understand that the alleged murderer of eight people in Atlanta was acting in line with a culture filled with racialized and sexualized views of Asian women. Of the people murdered, four women were of Korean descent and two of Chinese heritage.

The shooter himself, Robert Long, said he was motivated to act violently because of his self-proclaimed “sex addiction”. He reportedly told investigators that the businesses he attacked represented “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate”.

Long sought to eliminate the objects of his sexual temptations – Asian women. In doing so, he drew on the US’ long history of sexualizing Asian-American women.

A Long History Of Stereotypes

Harmful stereotypes of Asian women in American popular culture date back to at least the 19th century. Back then, American missionaries and military personnel in Asia viewed the women they met there as exotic and submissive.

These stereotypes influenced the first US immigration law based on race, the 1875 Page Act, which prevented Chinese women from entering the United States. The official assumption was that, unless proven otherwise, Chinese women seeking to enter the United States lacked moral character and were prostitutes. In fact, many were wives seeking to reunite with their husbands who had already come to the US.

Around the same time, Chinese women in San Francisco also were scapegoated by local public health officials who feared they would spread sexually transmissible diseases to white men, who would then spread it to their wives.

In the mid-20th century, US wars and military bases in China, Japan, Philippines, Korea and Vietnam resulted in increased interracial contact between American soldiers and Asian women. The ground infantry’s (GI) restricted interactions with the larger Asian population meant that they met Asian women that worked on or near the military bases as on-base service workers who cleaned or cooked, or sex workers in the surrounding communities.

Some soldiers married Asian women and brought them home as war brides, while others primarily viewed Asian women as sexual objects. Both approaches perpetuated stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive, either as ideal wives or sexually exotic prostitutes.

This stereotyping is evident throughout US popular culture in the form of novels and movies, including “The Teahouse of the August Moon” and James Michener’s “The Bridges at Toko-Ri”, which feature romance between GIs and Asian women. Vietnam War-era films, like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon”, depict graphic sexual violence committed by American GIs against Vietnamese women.

Violence Against Asian-American Woman

In online pornography, Asian women are disproportionately presented as victims of rape, compared to white women or women of other racial backgrounds. Asian-American feminist and activist Helen Zia has argued that there is a connection between the portrayals of Asian women in pornography and violence against Asian-American women.

Rosalind Chou, a sociologist, describes how in 2000, a group of white men kidnapped five Japanese female exchange students in Spokane, Washington, to fulfill their sexual fantasies of Asian female bondage, a sub-genre of pornography.

Sexual attacks targeting Asian-American women are more likely to come from non-Asians. Though most attacks on white or Black women come from men of the same ethnic background, Asian-American women – and native American women – are more likely to be sexually assaulted by males of a different ethnicity.

The most recent high-profile example of this dynamic is the 2015 rape of a woman by white Stanford student Brock Turner. Not until 2019 did the woman, Chanel Miller, reveal her name and identity as an Asian-American woman.

At that point, many Asian-American women understood another element of what had already been a troubling case of white male sexual aggression: Turner likely felt entitled to use and abuse Miller’s unconscious body not just because she is a woman, but because of her Asian heritage.

Targeted Attacks

In March 2020, Asian-American and Pacific Islander community organizations joined San Francisco State University’s Asian-American Studies Program to document incidents of anti-Asian racism occurring across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group they formed, StopAAPIHate, recorded an average of 11 anti-Asian hate incidents in the US each day since its creation, including in-person and online verbal harassment, civil rights violations and physical assaults.

The group found that Asian women reported hate incidents 2.3 times as often as Asian men. The data doesn’t distinguish between sexual assaults or harassment and other types of physical attacks and harassment, but it nevertheless emphasizes the vulnerability of being Asian and being a woman.

Oppression of Women of Colour

Asian women are not the only targets of racial and sexual violence. Any non-white woman has a greater risk of these perils than a white woman does.

One day after the white male shooter in Georgia killed six Asian women, an armed white man was detained outside US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ official residence in Washington, DC. As a mixed-race South Asian and Black woman, Harris is not exempt from this culture that racializes and sexualizes Asian women and all women of color. None of us is.

The Conversation

(This was first published on The Conversation and has been republished with permission.)

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