Eliminating Sexual Violence Requires Uplifting AAPI Women

Despite the long, well-documented history of the unique traumas facing Asian women in the United States, policy too has long overlooked us.

Eliminating Sexual Violence Requires Uplifting AAPI Women
“On the receiving end of the ‘Asian fetish,’ we are objectified and flattened out, denied our agency and complexity as human beings,” writes Sung Yeon Choimorrow. Pictured: A Stop Asian Hate rally in D.C. on March 27, 2021. (Elvert Barnes Photography / Wikimedia Commons)

The murders of six Asian women in Atlanta a few short weeks ago spurred a national conversation on the racism, misogyny and dehumanization the white patriarchy has subjected upon women of color for centuries. The gunman claimed he had a “sex addiction” and viewed the spas he targeted as a source of “temptation.”

Earlier this month, predominantly Asian women survivors of sexual assault at the University of Southern California were paid billions of dollars in damages after being preyed upon by the school’s former gynecologist. He targeted them because of the stereotype of the submissive, docile Asian woman. 

Sexual violence is a tool of oppression used by men to show their power. 

When I first moved to the United States to attend college, I was shocked at how often I was subjected to sexual harassment because I’m Korean. Men would tell me, “I served in the military in Korea. I love Korean women.” Other men would try to pick me up by saying how they were “into” East Asian women. 

Perhaps to some—especially those who have never been subjected to racialized misogyny—these comments seem merely uncomfortable, but ultimately benign. But on the receiving end of the “Asian fetish,” we are objectified and flattened out, denied our agency and complexity as human beings.

The shooting in Atlanta prompted some action from policymakers to combat anti-Asian discrimination levied against women and girls. President Biden announced significant investments in community based, culturally specific services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. While a critical start, we need sustained, long-term investment in our communities that is built in partnership with AAPI women. Because threats against us did not start in 2020.

In 1875, the fear that Asian women were lewd and immoral temptresses who could disrupt and dismantle the American way of life justified the implementation of the Page Act of 1875, our country’s first immigration law, barring Asian women from entering the United States under the justification that they were or would become sex workers.

Now in 2021, these misrepresentations and stereotypes persist. Though the violence in Atlanta and California results from racism and sexism at their most extreme, extremism is not a spontaneous eruption of hate. It is stoked and perpetuated by how media and pop culture continue to depict us as subservient. It lives on in the production of traditional East Asian women’s garb for Halloween costumes. It is ingrained in the “preferences” men express for Asian women as if we are a fetishized prize to be won. It is the refusal to acknowledge those who fall outside the framework of the model minority and the erasure of our sisters across class lines. It is in all of the little things that daily rob us of our personhood. 

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In the eyes of dominant white culture, we are malleable. In one moment, we are a threat. In the next, our bodies are commodified for American consumption. Our presumed submissiveness means that we will not protest; we exist however we are needed, with sexual violence as the weapon of choice.

Just two weeks before the Atlanta shootings, the organization I lead, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) completed a landmark study of AAPI women and their views on the issues impacting their lives. Over 80 percent of East Asian women said that racism was likely to impact their lives, and more than half of the AAPI women polled experienced significant racism in the past two years, including being called a racial slur, feeling unsafe walking home and experiencing discrimination and harassment at work. 

The worst part of it all is that despite the long, well-documented history of the unique traumas facing Asian women in the United States, policy too has long overlooked us. Why? Because even to those not looking to actively harm us, we are still erased, the perception of docility shutting us out of the rooms where policy solutions are created.

The experiences and voices of AAPI survivors of sexual violence and harassment, for instance, are not often examined in discussions about Title IX and workplace harassment, and data and statistics on experiences of sexual violence are often limited to Asian Americans, with scant information on Pacific Islanders. Further barriers prevent Asian women—especially immigrants—from even reporting the abuse they experience, including power inequities based on race, gender, immigration status, language barriers and social stigma. 

The visibility given to this issue over the past several weeks has been critical. But the only way we can dismantle the systems of oppression that encourage this violence is by confronting the centuries of unique discrimination against Asian women and uplifting the voices and leadership of our women and girls.

To erase the unique experiences of Asian women in the United States is to do what has always been done to us. Silence us. Erase us. Dehumanize us. But we refuse to be quiet, and we refuse to be invisible any longer. 

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Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to building power with Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. You can follow her @schoimorrow.