Why Fetishizing AAPI Women Is an Act of Violence

Shadow of young woman

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the tragic Atlanta spa shootings, xenophobia and racist attacks against Asian Americans have surged. A 2021 study published by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian violence increased by 339%, shattering city records from previous years in places including Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

The anti-Asian incidents occurred in the form of slurs, shunning, microaggressions, verbal harassment, and physical assault. More than half of the reported incidents were directed toward Asian American women. It’s still likely to happen to both genders, but women are significantly more fearful about being a target.

According to a survey by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) women are uniquely confronted with a disproportionate number of discrimination, with 62% of national hate incidents self-reported by AANHPI women. Over the last 12 months, 74% of AANHPI women reported experiences of racism and discrimination with 53% of these incidents perpetrated by a stranger.

While these numbers have reached a fever pitch (and are most likely undercounted), this type of race-based harassment is not a new experience for Asian American and Pacific Islander women. Asian American women have been scapegoated ever since they first arrived on American shores, long before former president Donald Trump termed COVID-19 the “China Virus,” The attacks have confirmed that they may belong in society—but always as perpetual foreigners. 

The centuries-old legacy of Asian American women continues to be entrenched with harmful, sexual biases that still persist today. They have been stereotyped, othered, and racially objectified to the point of cruel and senseless mistreatment. 

Brief History of Objectification

In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, an anti-immigration law, created to prohibit prostitution and bar “undesirable” women from any “Oriental country” from entering the United States for immoral purposes like sex work and prostitution.

The exclusionary federal law was a response to the rising influx of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush. After natural disasters and strife from the Opium wars, many Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. to look for economic stability. To care for their families overseas, they took up demanding work in dangerous conditions as laborers, farmers, miners, and railroad workers. During its peak, Chinese Americans made up nearly 30% of all immigrants.

However, paralleling the rising Chinese workforce was the rising anti-Chinese “Yellow Peril” rhetoric. Americans feared they were taking all of the jobs away from them. As a result, the Page Act was implemented for various political reasons; labor tensions, distrust of foreigners, and ultimately out of racial and economic fear of Asian people. 

The Page Act served its purpose and the measure dramatically reduced the number of incoming Chinese women immigrants: Chinese women didn’t want to subject themselves to hostile governmental interrogations or undergo discriminatory and often humiliating medical exams to prove they were “respectable” women. Seven years later, Congress would go on to sign the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to ban Chinese men from immigrating to the U.S.

Why Objectification Happens for Asian Women 

This early act of legislative discrimination depicting Asian women as sex workers has had far-reaching effects on the American consciousness today. Even after the Page Act was repealed in 1974, the damaging effects still remain. Asian American women have been abstracted into hypersexual stereotypes and othered into fetishized objects. 

Pop culture has only compounded and reinforced these fantasies with movies like “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Full Metal Jacket,” and stage productions like “Miss Saigon” systematically exploiting Asian women as submissive, docile playthings. The negative media portrayals further reduce Asian women as one-dimensional objects used for sexual utility only, eliminating the nuanced, individual identity of their very personhood which inherently sets them up for depersonalization and violence. 

If not seen as a sensual temptress or a tiger lady, Asian American women are then perceived as a meek model minority–a detrimental cultural concept painting Asians as an integrated and upwardly mobile community co-existing with their peers seamlessly. The myth essentially renders their struggles unworthy of societal support since they are believed to be successful, further pushing Asian Americans to the outside margins of invisibility. 

My Personal Experience

As a first-generation Asian American, these stories hit too close to home. Although I was born in Orange County, California, I grew up in a small town in Indiana where I was frequently the only Asian in class. At school, my crushes didn’t compliment me on my personality. Their praise skewed towards my exotic nature and how much they desired me because of my small stature. I learned how to shrink myself to disappear from their gaze

The dehumanizing stereotyping extended to my professional life as well. When I worked at retail and restaurant jobs in high school and college, male bosses would routinely harass me with inappropriate comments about my appearance. Or worse, they felt like they could touch me to pull up my sleeves to expose my wrists or stroke my hair—never with my permission. On top of the physical violation, an alarming consequence of the fetishization was the loss of agency I felt. 

I often identified with the monolithic projection of who I was supposed to be, a misogynistic typecast scaffolded by U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism contributors. Taught obedience made me the perfect target.

A study from Springer shows I’m not alone. If the attention felt shameful, Asian women would either blame themselves or respond passively if the objectification was presumed to be flattering—which I did time and time again as a youth. 

Impact on Mental Health

The Pew Research Center noted the Asian American population has experienced rapid growth in the U.S., growing from roughly 10.5 million to a record 18.9 million between 2000 and 2019.

It’s clear there needs to be a focus on developing mental health resources and public policies to better serve the expanding Asian American community. Yet there are simply not enough studies and research being conducted to understand the needs of the collective. The only and last comprehensive study was published in 2006, almost two decades ago.

Most importantly, there’s a need to combat the hurdles for Asian Americans to meaningfully receive assistance. A mental health report conducted by the University of Maryland pointed out Asian Americans found it difficult to utilize mental health services for a number of reasons but mainly because of mental health stigma and language barrier issues.

Studies reveal Asian Americans are the ethnic group least likely to seek out professional help. It’s still seen as an embarrassment or a sign of weakness to reach out for aid. Instead, some Asian Americans choose to reach out to relatives, friends, and community members for aid or they forego social support altogether and suffer in silence.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reported findings linking racial and sexual objectification with Asian American women’s health issues in areas related to trauma symptomatology, body image concerns, and disordered eating–issues I struggle with too.

There’s still much work to be done to eradicate the destructive, marginalized messaging and install preventative measures to meaningfully address the many mental health challenges that exist as a product of sexualized discrimination against Asian American women. Validating, processing, and grieving this trauma is needed so we can move forward. 

How Non-AAPI Folks Can Support AAPI Women

Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit organization and coalition addressing anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate, outlines several steps you can do as an ally to support Asian American women if you witness fetishization or any type of harassment: 

  • Speak up when you hear derogatory comments and engage in honest and authentic conversations with perpetrators about anti-Asian racism.
  • If you notice an Asian American woman is being harassed, step in to safely de-escalate and chaperone them to their destination if necessary.
  • Get involved with grassroots organizations and mutual aid groups to support their efforts for the #StopAsianHate movement.
  • Read about the historical context of AAPI immigration and discrimination to combat unintentional biases and learn about the erasure of Asian American bigotry to better educate others.
  • Reach out to elected officials to increase resources and prevention-based programs for anti-racism education in schools and communities.  
  • Report a hate incident on the Stop AAPI Hate website.
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13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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