Asian Women Are Not a ‘Temptation’

The Atlanta shootings were a culmination of centuries of hypersexualization of Asian women

A photo of a young, Asian woman in winter clothes
Photo: recep-bg/Getty Images

On Wednesday, I learned that the white man who murdered six Asian women in Atlanta denied that his actions were racially motivated. Like many Asian American women, I was overwhelmed with disgust.

Typical. How many times have white men tried to excuse their actions toward me by saying, “I’m not racist, I’m just — ”

By this point in my life, I don’t really care what comes after that. The excuse is always racist. And the man never has to face consequences for it.

In the case of the Atlanta killing spree, the excuse was particularly infuriating. The shooter told the police that he targeted the spas not because he had anything against Asian people, but because he had a “sexual addiction” and wanted to eliminate the “temptation” of something “that he shouldn’t be doing.” But no, that’s not racism, not by his account and certainly not by the account of Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office, who said the shooter was having a “bad day” — the same police captain who promoted T-shirts that said “Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA” on Facebook. Maybe the shooter was a guy with some fucked-up feelings about sex, but don’t call it racism.

Let me tell you why it’s racism.

Consider that the shooter first targeted a place called Young’s Asian Massage before going to Gold Spa, two establishments that investigators said he had frequented before. It is critical to ask: Why did he go there in the first place? And why did he travel to three different Asian massage parlors in total to inflict his deranged retribution?

Why did he kill Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, Hyeon Jeong Park, and one more Asian woman who hasn’t yet been identified?

The answer lies in the long and sickening global history of Asian women inaccurately being exoticized and hypersexualized by white supremacist cultures as people who create the “temptation” to do things that men “shouldn’t be doing.” In so many Westerners’ minds, Asian women are perceived as meek, weak, and submissive. That stereotype has been linked to bewildering rates of violence. Between 41% and 61% of Asian women report physical or sexual abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetimes, more than women of any other ethnicity. As the sad events of this week have shown, this violence can lead to murder. Add this all together and you start to get a sense of what the shooter may have expected when he entered these businesses for the first time — and for the last.

But it’s not just what happened on Tuesday. These racist perceptions are embedded in the touchstones of American life: the phrase “me love you long time,” uttered by a Vietnamese prostitute in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket; the demure but cunning women of Memoirs of a Geisha, seen through director Rob Marshall’s gaze; comedian Amy Schumer’s joke that Asian women have small vaginas, tolerated and celebrated under the banner of white feminism; the scathing anger toward Kelly Marie Tran — now our defiant Raya — for daring to take a lead role in America’s beloved Star Wars, notably one that was not sexual.

Maybe it’s easy for you to claim you’re innocent of perpetuating these stereotypes. And maybe that’s true. But consider that they’re so deeply baked into the foundations of this country that you may not even realize when you do it. Travel back with me to 1875, when the U.S. government passed the Page Act. It required Chinese people, especially women, to be vetted by officials before immigrating because white American officials contended that Chinese women tended to be prostitutes. Historians now know that the U.S. wanted to prevent Chinese women from immigrating because their presence encouraged Chinese men to settle down permanent roots after the United States brought them here to work and be exploited. After the Page Act was passed, the ratio of Chinese women to men dropped to 47 for every 1,000. Racist policy in action: it works. And the effects persist.

The negative experiences Asian American women face today are all rooted in the same white supremacist thinking that leads a white man in America to murder six Asian women then call it “eliminating temptation.” There’s the experience of white men expecting us to fawn over them; of being asked to take on extra projects at work because no one thinks you’ll make a fuss about it; of people wondering whether your mom is a caregiver or a nurse; of the indignance of a man discovering you’re “not like other Asian girls”; of that man being turned on by it; of colleagues admiring your impressive model minority work ethic; of a man in a bar trying to sleep with you by saying “me rikey,” or “konnichiwa” or, when they think they’re woke, parroting a phrase in your native language back to you — never did I think that “mahal kita” would make me want to punch someone. All of it stems from the inaccurate misconception that we are submissive, sexualized, and weak.

White people have stepped away from me in line at Whole Foods, and I got hate mail yesterday for writing about the coronavirus and combating anti-Asian rhetoric.

The setting of this week’s gruesome killings — at Asian-American-owned massage parlors in a neighborhood known to locals as a “red light district” — is central to this narrative of hypersexualization. I can already sense the question forming in the back of some readers’ minds: Aren’t some Asian women who work in some spas sex workers? The short answer is yes. And so what? It does not excuse abuse and violence toward these women.

And yet that’s what they endure: A 2019 study of women working in illicit massage parlors in New York City and Los Angeles, a significant proportion of whom were Asian, showed that they were at constant risk of abuse, violence, robbery, and rape. They could not seek protection because they are afraid of being arrested or, in the case of illegal immigrants, deported. Some were deceived into doing sex work; others chose it from the limited number of job opportunities available to them. Sex work must be decriminalized so that women in this industry can access protection and support.

Without it, they remain vulnerable to society that excuses a white man for killing them because he is having a “bad day.” (And even if sex work is decriminalized, I am doubtful of the protection the police will extend to those involved in it.)

Anti-Asian hate in this country is not new, but there has been an uptick in anti-Asian abuse and violence during the pandemic because of the racist misconception that Covid-19 is linked to Asian people. The abuse has been largely directed toward the elderly, children, and women. White people have stepped away from me in line at Whole Foods, and I got hate mail yesterday for writing about the coronavirus and combating anti-Asian rhetoric. This feeling is not unfamiliar to me, but what is new is my fear of walking around New York City because of the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes.

In my early twenties, I went on my first date in New York with a white man who was over 10 years older than me. He took me out for fancy sushi; it was fine. Later, he showed me photos on his phone of him and other women, all of them Asian. He told me that I was outspoken and that it made me different from them, like it was supposed to be some kind of compliment.

At the time, I didn’t yet have the words or strength to say what so many other Asian women before me have had the courage to: “That’s racist.”

But I already knew what he’d say if I did.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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