Violence and hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have increased by 149% during the pandemic, spurred by anti-China rhetoric regarding the coronavirus from former President Donald Trump and other politicians.
Particularly vulnerable are Asian women, targeted at the intersection of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia in U.S. society, who account for 68% of all reports of anti-Asian incidents over the past year. AAPIs who are working-class, immigrants, elderly, sex workers and/or undocumented are also at higher risk.
The shootings in the Atlanta area two weeks ago, in which six of the eight people killed were Asian women, is best understood in light not only of a year of accelerating harassment and violence, but also a long legacy of stigmatization and fetishization that has often benefitted white men.
In the United States, racialized disease narratives scapegoating Asian women have deep roots. As waves of Chinese immigrants arrived on the West Coast in the mid-19th century, raising fears of the “yellow peril,” public health officials developed racist and sexist “theories” linking Asian people with physical (and moral) disease. Even though women comprised less than 10% of the Chinese population in the U.S., they were singled out for blame.
In San Francisco, for example — where Chinese immigrants made up more than 15% of the population at the time — officials who had failed to mitigate smallpox, tuberculosis and syphilis crises in the city blamed Chinese women instead, regarding them as disease-spreading prostitutes who tempted white men into sickness. According to Nayan Shah’s book, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the police chief of San Francisco even “encouraged the public health authorities to devise a plan to ‘herd’ Chinese women to a distant location where they would not ‘offend public decency.’ ”
This stereotype led to the passage of the Page Act of 1875, one of the earliest pieces of federal immigration legislation. Ostensibly an anti-slave labor law, it prohibited the “importation of women into the United States for the purposes of prostitution.” Given the prevailing view of Asian women as all pursuing the “lewd and immoral purposes” banned by the act, the legislation barred the majority of women from China, Japan, and “any Oriental country” trying to enter the United States. The Page Act was followed, in 1882, by the more comprehensive Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially halted Chinese immigration into the country. Immigration laws passed in the early 20th century allowed immigration officials to deport Chinese women (still viewed as prostitutes) who had already entered — or even been born into — the country.
“Lawmakers and law-enforcement officers tried to keep out and control Chinese prostitutes not so much because they were prostitutes as such (since there were also many white prostitutes around plying their trade) but because — as Chinese — they allegedly brought in especially virulent strains of venereal disease, introduced opium addiction, and enticed young white boys to a life of sin,” writes Chinese American historian Sucheng Chan in her essay “The Exclusion of Chinese Women.” “In short, Chinese prostitutes were seen as potent instruments for the debasement of white manhood, health, morality, and family life.”
A similar logic — imagining Asian women as a threat to white men, and as only existing for sexual purposes — also guided the U.S. military during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. After the United States occupied Manila, the military checked women for sexually transmitted diseases as a way to help ensure sex for U.S. soldiers in what Vanderbilt history professor Paul Kramer calls the “military-sexual complex.” (The Army, notably, did not conduct health inspections for men, because “subjecting men to venereal inspection was believed to be intrusive, humiliating, dishonorable and ‘demoralizing,’ ” Kramer writes.)
While Asian Americans’ position in U.S. society has shifted over the past century, with the emergence of the “model minority” myth that elevated Asian Americans to a quasi-white status, women are still commonly stereotyped as submissive, exotic and hypersexualized. The model-minority stereotype casts Asian Americans as smart, wealthy, and law-abiding, and women in particular are seen as subservient and compliant, attributes that are often sexualized in relation to Asian women.
Hollywood and other media depictions of Asian women continue to reproduce the racist and misogynist legacy of U.S. imperialism. This “China doll” stereotype is perhaps most notoriously illustrated in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket, the pop culture origin of the phrases “me love you long time” and “me so horny,” later popularized in the song “Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew.
Chinese American filmmaker Debbie Lum dedicated her 2012 documentary Seeking Asian Female to analyzing this Asian fetish. In her interviews with men who posted personal ads exclusively directed to Asian women, they talk about how Asian women are “subtle and quiet” and “give more consideration to how the man feels than … themselves.” As Lum notes in an interview with NPR, “growing up as an Asian-American woman, you can not live without encountering so many men like the main character of my film.”
After the March 16th shootings in Atlanta, police reported that the white gunman claimed to have frequented massage parlors for sex, telling them that he had a “sexual addiction” and killed these Asian women to abate his “temptation.” The shooter appeared to blame the women working at the massage parlors for enabling his self-diagnosed addiction, and, viewing their bodies only as objects for his use or not, decided to eliminate them. The next day, Capt. Jay Baker, of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, said the suspect “understood the gravity” of his actions and had had “a really bad day.” This gender-based violence and the apparent sympathy the shooter received from the sheriff’s office echo the public officials who protected white men from the consequences of their actions over a century ago.
Since the shootings, many Asian women have come forward to tell their experiences of public sexual harassment and racialized fetishization, from white men who exclusively date Asian women (popularly referred to as having “yellow fever,” a disparaging throwback to conceptualizing Asian women’s bodies as disease) to racist catcalls to the expectation of subservience and docility. Asian American journalist Karen Ho recalls on Twitter the time a “prominent white male broadcast journalist” said she “shuffled like a concubine” after she gave a lecture to undergraduates. Asian American sociologist Wang Yuen, author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, shared in an interview after the shootings, “I’ve actually been asked if my anatomy is different … [as if Asian women are] somehow even physiologically different from other women.”
The shootings emerge from this relentless hypersexualization, fetishization and stigmatization of Asian women’s bodies. This story is the violent outcome of a larger problem.
A 2017 Harvard survey suggests nearly one in 10 Asian Americans have experienced sexual harassment because they are Asian. Asian women students are both more likely to be sexually assaulted during college than white women and less likely to report the assault, in part due to social and cultural norms that discourage Asian American women from openly discussing sex. In the workplace, Asian women and other women of color face significantly more harassment than white women or men because they are subject to both sexual harassment and racial harassment, which often go hand in hand. More than one million Pacific Islander and Asian American women work in jobs that pay below $15 an hour, especially food services, nail salons and massage parlors, and many of them are immigrants, making them particularly susceptible to workplace exploitation.
By casting all Asian Americans as wealthy and privileged, the model minority myth obscures the vulnerabilities faced by Asian Americans working in low-wages roles, and the specific vulnerability of Asian women. Belief in the model minority myth even among labor movements has resulted in the exclusion of Asian Americans from progressive conversations about the future of work. It erases the history of Pacific Islander and Asian American labor organizing among plantation workers on the Hawaiian Islands, for example, and later in the railroad and garment industries.
Labor protections are especially important for Asian sex workers who have been marginalized and criminalized. Some groups have responded to the Atlanta-area attacks by calling for sex-trafficking investigations into the massage parlors, for example, but these investigations pose further harm to workers there. The grassroots coalition Red Canary Song—an Asian migrant sex worker rights group — argues that anti-human trafficking strategies that rely on collaboration with police harm (rather than protect) sex workers.
“Decriminalization of sex work is the only way that sex workers, massage workers, sex trafficking survivors, and anyone criminalized for their survival and/or livelihood will ever be safe,” Red Canary Song wrote in a statement following the shootings. When workers in these industries suffer abuse, their status deters them from seeking police aid; when they do report harassment or violence, they are frequently ignored.
Gold Spa massage parlor, one of the workplaces attacked on March 16th, has previously been the subject of stings by the Atlanta Police Department, which resulted in the arrest of 11 women sex workers.
Police raids at sex workers’ places of employment — or places suspected of employing sex workers — are common, and often use anti-trafficking claims as a guise for arresting sex workers and seizing, detaining and deporting undocumented people and migrants. For example, in November 2019, a six-month undercover investigation in Florida resulted in 104 arrests: 28 sex workers charged with prostitution, 63 workers charged with soliciting prostitution (a first-degree misdemeanor that can land someone a year in jail or a hefty fine), and only three arrests that led to human trafficking charges.
The way in which police violence is inflicted in the name of anti-trafficking is exemplified by the 2017 tragedy of Yang Song, a 38-year-old Chinese sex worker in New York. Yang Song fell to her death attempting to evade arrest during a police raid at her massage parlor. She had previously gone to the police for help regarding abusive clients — reporting an assault by a man who said he was a police officer — but they never took her concerns seriously, according to Song’s immigration attorney. Red Canary Song formed as a mutual aid response to her death.
Though it has not been verified whether the women killed March 16 were sex workers, the shooting illustrates how the criminalization of sex work endangers people, especially people of color, who work in sex work or adjacent industries, such as massage parlors. Asian advocacy organizations and sex worker groups are responding to the violence in Atlanta by organizing for stronger protections for the workers most vulnerable to violence and demanding that conversations around protecting Asian people center on community resilience and solidarity rather than state or police intervention.
“We see the effort to invisibilize these women’s gender, labor, class, and immigration status as a refusal to reckon with the legacy of United States imperialism, and as a desire to collapse the identities of migrant Asian women, sex workers, massage workers, and trafficking survivors,” the Red Canary Song statement reads.
Thousands of demonstrators have gathered at vigils and rallies across the country after the Atlanta shootings. Mutual aid efforts have so far raised more than $2 million for the two sons of Hyun Jung Grant, a single mother killed in the shooting. Similar funds have been set up for the other victims.
Red Canary Song’s statement calls for awareness of and respect for Asian massage and salon employees, and demands that the “legal working rights of Asian massage workers must be protected.”
“The lives of Asian massage workers must not be lost in vain!” their demands continue.
Clara Liang is a writer based in San Francisco and Assistant to the Managing Editor at In These Times. She recently graduated from Carleton College with a degree in American Studies and Race, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity Studies.