The dehumanization of Asian women: deadly narratives

How the way Asian women are discussed results in the dehumanization of them

Disclaimer: This article discusses subject matter that some readers may find triggering, including rape, sexual assault, and violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Growing up, sex was always a word that was spoken in hushed, measured tones. Maintaining my purity, my mother’s coded word for virginity, was fundamental to my upbringing. Unlike most of my female peers, I didn’t have the opportunity to freely navigate my own sexual desires; instead, I entered womanhood internalizing sexism and misogyny instead.

If my outfit ever showed a hint of shocking skin, my family and friends would disapprove, warning me that I looked like a “slut,” “hooker”, or “prostitute”. Then they’d tell me to adjust my wardrobe choice. 

I’d often hear snarky follow-up remarks like “Men will get the wrong idea,” or “Proper’ women don’t dress like that”. Eventually I’d internalize and use the same phrases to judge other women who were dressed too revealingly. Especially Asian women.

But these seemingly innocuous quips have deadly consequences.

The demonization of “whorephobia” 

In high school, my friends and I would judge other girls who were promiscuous. The words “slut” or “dirty” would easily escape our lips. But when the tables were turned, I would take offence if my friends jokingly branded me a “slut”. 

My non-Asian friends could never understand how that word held a distinct meaning for me. The intersection of my identity as an Asian woman changed the impact of that insult into something that deviated beyond mere cattiness. 

Whorephobia, the “fear or the hate of sex workers” is a term to shame or inflict “prejudice against any sexually liberated person.” It creates a divisive nature among women at an early age, in which we’re taught to distance ourselves from being lumped into these colourful terms.

When racism mixes with whorephobia, it becomes more personal. But unfortunately, there is a history of how Asian women are treated due to this. 

See also: Reclaiming sexualized Asian women through art

A history of dehumanization

Forty years before the 1875 Page Act which limited Chinese immigration to the US, the media was already publishing rhetoric that sensationalized Asians, particularly Chinese women as “sexual aberrations”. The tabloids, alongside government officials, health professionals, and religious leaders primarily focused their attention on Chinese women who were framed as “a unique danger… and tempting otherwise pious white boys into sin.” 

Women entertaining GIs in the village of Yon Sul Gol, South Korea, in 1961. Photo Credit: René Burri – Magnum Photos

Two centuries later, the Atlanta shooter described the victims “as temptations to be eliminated”. And the media only added fuel to the flame by assuming that the victims were sex workers. 

The assumption that they were is part of the fetishization and stereotype of Asian women; we’re either hypersexual or submissive, with no agency. This was evident in how different outlets wrote about the shooting.

Different narratives, different consequences

English-language media outlets framed the mass shooting around the illicit nature of massage parlors. In doing so, they vilified the alleged sexual occupations of the Asian victims as a sympathetic antithesis to the white mass murderer’s “sex addiction”. 

Reporter Jeong Park shared English translated summaries of the mass shooting from Korean media outlets which showed a different story. These articles noted the racially-motivated attack and highlighted the identities of the victims. This was a stark comparison to the headlines shared by mainstream media when the story broke.

The lack of empathy around the victims was a result of the media’s fixation on their work as massage workers. The danger here is how it fuels anti-sex discourse and further endangers sex workers.  

Red Canary Song, a grassroots organization of Asian and migrant sex workers, strongly condemned how the media handled the shooting. They emphasized that “Whether or not they were actually sex workers or self-identified under that label, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants.”  

Because even before the Atlanta shooting, Asian spa workers were already living under threat of potential violence. 

See also: How audiences can demand journalistic integrity to fight anti-Asian racism

Living in continual threat of violence

Most Asian immigrants who work at spas and wellness centres have cited discrimination, inspections, the threat of deportation by law enforcement, and physical/sexual assault as negative aspects that prevent them from seeking help from police if they have been victims of crime. 

According to a 2018 Survey on Toronto Holistic Practitioners’ Experience with Bylaw Enforcement and Police, only 6.9% of women reported incidents. More than a quarter of the women remained silent. 

Even when the Atlanta mayor stated that the massage parlors were legally operating, news outlets like The Associated Press and The Washington Post conflated the massage parlor with prostitution, sex trafficking, and exploitation. This further increases fear and hesitation to report incidents.

A makeshift memorial for the eight people who were killed during attacks on three Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday, at Gold Spa in Atlanta, March 21.
Photo credit: Chang W. Lee—The New York Times/Redux

And so some remain silent, if only to continue to support themselves. This decision further feeds the narrative that Asian women are passive when instead, we are trying to preserve ourselves.

See also: The dehumanization of Asian women: why we can no longer remain silent

We must rewrite the narrative 

The Atlanta shooting embodies society’s violent treatment towards women and condemnation of sexuality. The fact that the victims were Asian women at a massage parlor resulted in racialized misogyny. This increased their vulnerability at a time when anti-Asian racism was reaching its peak. 

The tragedy of the mass shooting is all too familiar for Asian women. For us, the intersections of our identity are intricately connected. After all, we can’t talk about racism without talking about sexism, misogyny, fetishization, and violence. All of these continue to oppress us.

“Whether Asian American women are desired or hated or both,” Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Director of the Humanities Center and Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine, says, “they are not understood as and permitted to be fully human, with their own agency and dreams.” 

No one should police or fear our sexuality. We must continue to reframe the narrative and call out those who fall back on expired false narratives about us, because the consequences of these narratives continue to be deadly. 

The hate and violence that we’ve experienced for centuries is slowly being recognized. Instead of waiting for society to change, it’s time to reclaim our story by acting upon our agency and our terms. We have a right to move safely in this world instead of being targeted for the perversion that has been inflicted upon our identity.

Because being an Asian woman shouldn’t be dangerous.


Feature photoJason Leung on Unsplash

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