The History of the Hyper-Sexualization of Asian Women// The Militarization of My Body

Authored by: Winnie Pham

As the United States slowly reopens and everyone begins cautiously dusting off a year of unsteady quarantines and COVID-19 safety practices, an event so heinous and heartbreaking abruptly rocks its way through America. On March 16, eight people are massacred, six of which were Asian American women, all on the whims of a white man with a supposed sex addiction. Though the shooter has yet to be charged with a hate crime due to ongoing investigations, it has left many both within and outside the Asian American community questioning the depravity of the shooter’s intentions. The tragedy has already been given its own Wikipedia page, and if one were to casually read up on the incident through the Wikipedia platform, they would see that police had chalked the shooter’s motivations up to the fact that “he was motivated by a sexual addiction that was at odds with his religious beliefs”. But like many others, I am still left baffled in the face of these mediocre reasonings that are seemingly meant to justify the murder of my fellow Asian women. I ask myself, what could these Asian women have done that could personally provoke such violence upon themselves? 

The answer? 

Absolutely nothing. 

As I challenged myself to uncover the reasoning behind these violent deaths, I found myself questioning the history behind the sexualization of Asia bodies, and more specifically, of Asian women’s bodies. I was shocked to see that very few academics have delved into this sinister topic and acknowledge that there is still a plethora of hidden history for us to expose, but it is imperative for us to understand that the foundation of Asian women’s sexualization began with, you guessed it— U.S nationalism and imperialism. Though it is difficult to pin down the exact beginning of widespread Asian women sexualization, an early milestone is the Page Act of 1875. The act is coined after a Californian representative named Horace F. Page under the guise of stalling the immigration of “cheap labor” and “immoral Chinese women”. Chinese male immigrant workers were already unpopular in the U.S during the California Gold Rush, but now the California government had turned their sights onto a slightly new demographic— Asian women. So even though the statute was transparent in its goal to officially prevent the immigration of sex workers, in actuality the passing of this act prevented all East Asian women from immigrating to the United States. In a twisted sense, the Page Act had made it so that almost all East Asian women were equated to sex workers and therefore were seen as lesser and undeserving. In the end, the U.S had officially and successfully restricted immigration through discriminatory laws and consequently kickstarted the root of anti-Asian sentiments under the pretense of keeping the labor force as “American” as possible. 

Fast forward a few decades to the aftermaths of the Philippine-American War, World War II, and the Vietnam War where we began to see the consequences of an overwhelming presence of white western men in Asian countries. Asian women had gradually become what scholar Sunny Woan describes as “the perfect complement to the exaggerated masculinity of the White Man” spurred on by the belief that Asian women are ideal sexual objects meant for consumption. Rachel Kuo, a  fellow scholar and the co-leader of Asian American Feminist Collective cites that there is a deep history of American service members approaching Asian women for sexual services while abroad with little to zero repercussions, which only further solidifies the running stereotype that Asian women are meant to serve as sexual outlets. Sexual violence towards women has always been a weapon of war that imperialistic countries adopt to enforce control and through calculated cultural reinforcements, sexual violence against Asian women has become normalized. 

Woan further explains that there are three main factors that all play a significant role in the sexualization of Asian women by White men;

  1. U.S Imperialism 
  2. Racial Inequality 
  3. Sexual Inequality 

Post World War II, the U.S occupied Japan under the pretense of halting their imperialism by involving themselves in East Asian politics. With this comes the notion that White imperialism was somehow more permissible than Eastern imperialism (imperialism by any means should not be allowed or be excusable) and further bolstered the concept of White supremacy. The unfair treatment of Asian women surrounding the military bases was inconsequential for white men and Asian women were seen as conquests that came with the job. Furthermore, the rise of the feminist movements in the 70s led many white men to look elsewhere for their ideally submissive partners and since the prevailing stereotypes surrounding Asian women fit their criterion, the concept of mail-order brides, a disgustingly inhumane way of viewing Asian women, was born. Additionally, the U.S’ deep-rooted racism had already placed Asian women as lesser than their white counterparts, which only perpetuated white men’s ability to view them as “unconditionally submissive creatures”. Hence, it is undeniable that imperialism has played a hand in fortifying the racial and sexual inequities that Asian women have faced both presently and in the past. 

So now you’re wondering what does all of this history have to do with the recent Atlanta shooting? 

Well, almost everything actually.  

Nancy Wang Yuen, a professor of sociology at Biola University details exactly why the white shooter’s vendetta against innocent Asian women is a reoccurring, learned behavior that stems from western imperialism and white supremacy. The U.S military has a longstanding history of war in Asian countries and has imperialism has reduced these countries and their people simply to things that can be conquered. Yuen mirrors Woan’s and Kuo’s sentiments from earlier, stating that the easy and inexpensive access to Asian women surrounding those obtrusive American military conquests made it so that Asian women’s were nothing more than bodies that existed for white male pleasure. Yuen also angrily cites that the shooter claimed the women were temptations to be eliminated, shifting the blame onto the victims rather than acknowledging his own distorted view of Asian women. In every sense, the white male shooter dehumanized these women and demonized them to prioritize his own gratification and his assumption that each and everyone of these working class Asian women would partake in sex work is inherently racist in itself. Asian women are no more likely to engage in sex work than any other race or culture. We are not born genetically inclined to be submissive. We are not objects to be utilized and discarded inconsequentially. We are humans, deserving of respect and worthy of love.

In the end, we have only begun to scratch the surface of the issues that play a role in the sexualization of Asian bodies, but we can begin here. 

Resources and References:

White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence by Sunny Woan

Fetishized, sexualized and marginalized, Asian women are uniquely vulnerable to violence by Harmeet Kaur

A Sociologist’s View On The Hyper-Sexualization Of Asian Women In American Society by NPR

Digital History: Barring Female Immigration,coming%20to%20the%20United%20States.

White Sexual Imperialism: “Me Love you long Time” by Sam Louie

Racialized sexism/sexualized racism: A multi-method study of intersectional experiences of discrimination for Asian American women.

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