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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Fetishization of Asian Women Isn’t Flattering—It's Terrifying

The recent murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee are a gutting wake-up call about violence that’s long targeted Asian women and often been ignored.

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In the span of less than a month, two Asian-American women have been murdered in New York City. On Jan. 15, Michelle Go was pushed to her death onto subway tracks, and on Sunday, Christina Yuna Lee was stalked and stabbed 40 times by a man who followed her into her Chinatown apartment. The attacks come amid a national surge in violence against Asian people during the pandemic; but contrary to the often gender-neutral media coverage of anti-Asian violence, Asian-American women like Go and Lee have been targeted disproportionately.

The widespread erasure of this violence extends from a broader issue of daily, race-gendered oppressions that Asian women face, which are ignored by society in general. Asian feminine identity has long been depoliticized, typically pushed to the margins in public reckonings with racial injustice and white supremacy as a result of popular stereotyping of Asian women as silent and subservient. And in a similar vein, years of hypersexualization due to racist, sexist tropes that frame Asian women in America exclusively as “mail-order brides” or “me so horny” sex workers have even led some—particularly Asian “men’s rights activists”—to see Asian women as uniquely privileged, due to the conflation of racist, sexual fetishization with desirability, flattery, and social status.

But today, the rising tide of violence against Asian women speaks to a reality we’ve long been left alone to contend with: Fetishization isn’t flattery. In a country steeped in white supremacy and patriarchy, it’s violence.

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Last year, Asian women accounted for nearly 70% of reported anti-Asian hate incidents, per research from reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate. This March will mark the anniversary of the shooting in an Atlanta massage parlor that killed eight, six of whom were Asian women. The shooter, Robert Aaron Long, was a white man who told police he had a “sex addiction,” and carried out the attack because he saw Asian women-run massage parlors as a sexual “temptation.” At the time, Atlanta police appeared to take the shooter at his word, suggesting that Long’s own admission of being motivated by sex and gender meant it was impossible for the attack to be an anti-Asian hate crime, as if Asian women simply don’t exist.

Long’s perception of Asian women massage workers as innately sexual, and his fantasy of subjecting them to punishment, didn’t come from out of nowhere. The perverted sexualization of Asian women, particularly by the white male gaze, is inseparable from hundreds of years of western imperialism, and the sexual enslavement of colonized Asian women by the U.S. military. Fetishization of Asian women isn’t a compliment, nor is it even about consensual sex—it’s about colonial power and dominance.

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This history has rendered Asian women more vulnerable to violence to this day, while media coverage often obscures the gendered nature of violence against Asian women, and authorities like the Atlanta Police Department indiscriminately parrot language that regards Asian women’s bodies as a sexual invitation. Notably, 21 to 55% of Asian women across different ethnicities in the US report experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, and the hypersexualization of Asian women certainly contributes to victim-blaming and erasure of Asian sexual assault survivors.

The collective cultural shock surrounding the brutal killings of Go and Lee speak to a persistent problem with the mainstream #StopAsianHate movement. Perhaps if the popular social media hashtag hadn’t spent the past year framing anti-Asian violence as gender-less and class-less, the recent attacks wouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

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Calls for more media representation of Asian characters, or increased funding of policing and state surveillance apparatuses for more efficient reporting of anti-Asian hate crimes, might make for neat, digestible social media posts. But they do little to address actual systemic oppressions that Asian people—and particularly Asian women and more marginalized Asians—face. Believe it or not, increased funding of policing diverted from mental health services or other community resources that prevent violent attacks is actually counterproductive to stopping Asian hate.

In contrast with #StopAsianHate activism’s sidelining of violence against Asian women, our analysis of violence against Asian women should recognize those who are especially vulnerable—Asian sex workers, domestic workers, low-income Asian women, queer and trans Asian people, the many undocumented Asian immigrants in the US, and others who are further marginalized under white supremacy and racial capitalism.

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All women of color are sexualized and fetishized in unique ways shaped by their particular cultural histories under colonization and white supremacy, and this fetishization often contributes to tacit approval of violence enacted upon their bodies. With anti-Asian violence on the rise, the devastating murders of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go are a gutting wake-up call about racist, sexist violence that’s long targeted Asian women, and often been ignored or even excused.