Contesting the sexual objectification of Asian women by embracing the power of the erotic | By Stephanie Drenka (Spring 2021 issue)
To those who are beginning to see – for the first time – the violence against Asian women highlighted in the news, I need you to understand that none of this is new.
Asian women have been objectified, dehumanized, hypersexualized, and victimized for centuries.
I wrote this paper (below) for a college Women’s Studies class back in 2007.
When Trump was elected, I warned white parents of Asian adoptees that this country would always see their children as perpetual foreigners.
Last year, I addressed rising anti-Asian crime in my op-ed about adoptee citizenship.
Just a few months ago, I overheard white men (friends of friends) making jokes about Korean women, and sat in stunned silence that they would have the nerve to bring it up in my vicinity. But of course they did. Because this is America.
When I say that I have no more words left, it’s because I’ve written them already. I’ve screamed them. I’ve cried them. I’ve bled them.
It’s time for others to say something now.
My buddy and I have a $100 bet on this one: What’s a more popular request among guys who pay for sex—a threesome or an Asian chick? —Sal, 20, New York City
I would say it’s 50-50. Asians are really hot right now. The standard thinking about Asian women is that they’re great because they’re submissive and they do anything, and there might be something to that. But beyond the whole submissive stereotype — and I know plenty of Asian women who don’t fit that profile at all — Asian women always seem to have really great skin. That’s part of the attraction. They look very clean and presentable in public. Guys want a girl they can bring to a charity function, then take home and get her down on all fours and do the nastiest things they ever thought of. Classy on the town and a porno star in the bedroom — that’s what guys are after. (“Ask Heidi,” Maxim.com, June 2006)
According to Heidi Fleiss, infamous Madam to the stars, Asian women are sexually desirable due to their porn star like bedroom habits. The request for “an Asian chick” by men soliciting sex contrasted with the choice of a threesome, an activity rather than racial or ethnic classification, exemplifies the dehumanization of Asian women’s sexuality. Affect and emotion, characteristics innately human, are removed from prurient material, rendering the participants in said materials objects rather than subjects.
Asian women in pornography, typically portrayed as hypersexual and submissive (Japanese schoolgirls, China dolls, etc.), are simultaneously objectified as racial objects and feminine victims. The denial of emotion and pleasure in Asian females’ sexuality can cascade into other facets of their identity, suppressing their inherent power as women and leaving them extremely vulnerable. Emphasizing the exotic rather than erotic, degrading stereotypes, which commodify Asian women as victimized sex objects submissive to the demands of the Westernized male, are so readily accepted by the dominant culture that a shift of perception must first come from within the women themselves.
Asian women should look inward to the erotic and utilize the heightened sense of joy and fulfillment as a tool of power to reclaim their sexuality and identity from subversion and abuse, and to discourage the acceptance of mediocrity in any aspect of their lives.
Growing up in a region of the country where oftentimes I was the first Asian person that someone had ever encountered outside of the mass media, the phrases, “yellow fever” and “Asian fetish” often hovered in my consciousness anytime a member of the opposite sex would approach me. Although adopted and raised by white parents, my upbringing did not give me immunity from assumptions that my being Asian carried with it certain characteristics, especially ones pertaining to sexuality.
Even as a young girl who understood nothing of sexuality, least of all her own, men failed to see the inappropriateness in educating me on the benefits of engaging in sexual activity with Asians. “I hear you Asians are tigers in the bedroom,” or, “I like Asians because their eyes aren’t the only things about them that are small.” Comments that at the time merely made me feel uncomfortable, I now understand to be forms of harassment that hinged on my being an Asian female.
Kiini Ibura Salaam wrote of her experiences being objectified by male strangers, “They were loud (silent) proclamations that informed me of the entertainment and sexual titillation that I provided them, just by walking by.” It was this intrusion on her ego boundaries and figurative space that “squelched [her] autonomy and personal power.” The significance in so-called compliments of this type is that it is the men who receive satisfaction in their being said. They are meant to catch women off guard, and by doing so, regulate the interaction and take control away from the women.
Control seems to be an ongoing theme in the communication and relations between Westernized men and women of Asian ancestry. In discussions with men who admitted to having a preference for Asian women, one explanation that I received was that, “Most Asian girls are petite, so I can toss her around easily in the bedroom.” This logic and the image it brought to mind are disturbing, but unfortunately, not surprising.
A study reported by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) found that “APA women have one of the highest domestic violence fatality rates in the nation. Eighteen percent of women and children killed in domestic violence-related homicides in the state [of Massachusetts] were Asian, although Asians represented only three percent of the state’s population.” NAPAWF also reported that “61 percent of Japanese immigrant and Japanese American women experienced some form of physical, emotional, or sexual violence that they classified as abusive” (Violence Against Women Act 2005).
The prevalence of sexual violence towards Asian women mirrors the disproportionate frequency of Asian women portrayed as sexual victims in violent pornographic material, which can be found in abundance thanks to the rise of the World Wide Web.
“Violent pornography, the pornography most linked in research to actual violence against women, is just as accessible as nonviolent or soft pornography on the Internet. Thus, actual women may experience increased danger of sexual violence due to the proliferation of violent pornography on the internet.” This excerpt from Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne’s content analysis of “internet rape sites” addresses the link between sexually violent pornography and actual violence.
Their findings also demonstrate the ways that race plays a significant factor in determining the victims of sexual violence. “In our sample, 34 of the 56 clear images (pictures that are clear and in which the race can be identified) depict Asian women. Eleven of the sites advertise Asian women in their text through use of words such as Asian, Japanese, and Chinese. Nearly half of the sites contain either a text reference to Asian women or an image of an Asian woman.” Although Asian women are not the only race or ethnicity to be portrayed as victims in pornographic material (or in real life), the fact that their race is such an important factor in the advertising is troubling. The concepts of Asian women and victims of sexual violence become not only entangled, but glorified.
Asian female characters in pornographic material set unrealistic expectations that can have polarizing effects on Asian women’s identities. Some may feel the need to live up to men’s ideals of the exotic and sexually submissive characters out of fear that refusal to conform to these stereotypes will make them somehow deficient in the eyes of their partners, while others seek to inhibit their sexuality completely. The obvious alternative to succumbing to the unrealistic ideals of Asian women as sex objects by denying one’s sexuality and erotic power is not without problems.
Like Salaam who “inferred that the miniskirts and tight jeans of [her] preteen years would worsen the attacks,” even though it was clear that “clothes were inconsequential,” I similarly blamed my own Asian identity instead of the men who targeted me. Asian women, in order to fight perceptions as sex objects, are often encouraged to ignore their sexuality completely. Similarly, the Asian culture avoids the topic of sex, leaving Asian women without the understanding of sexuality’s benefits and consequences. According to studies conducted by NAPAWF, abortion rates between the years 1994 and 2000 “decreased for all racial groups except API [Asian Pacific Islander] women” and “API women have the second highest rate of pregnancies that end in abortion” (APA Women and Ayotte V. Planned Parenthood).
Patrice Justine Tumang wrote of the lack of education on sexuality from Asian families. “My mother never spoke to me about sexuality when I was a little girl, let alone the topic of abortion.” Even when most girls turn to friends for advice when it is not provided from their parents, Asian women predominantly are taught not to talk on the subject. “Many of my friends became pregnant and had abortions, though they didn’t speak about it. They were perfect Asian girls, they couldn’t.”
Expectations of Asian women to be “perfect” extend beyond the realm of sexuality. “The National Center for Health Statistics (1994) indicated that Asian American adolescent girls have the highest rates of depressive symptoms of all racial groups and have the highest suicide rate among all women between 15 and 24 years of age” (Briefing Sheet on Women and Depression). The prevalence of depression amongst Asian American women reflects the enormous social pressures that shape their identity. Asian women often feel pushed to excel in school and choose careers that will have the most financial gain, even if it is doing something they do not necessarily enjoy.
The erotic, which according to Audre Lorde is, “not a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing,” could be a vital resource in improving the quality of life for Asian women. “The lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do.” Lorde describes the erotic as having, “been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation,” and that “pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.”
Pornographic portrayals of Asian women as objects deny them not only of feeling, but also the erotic knowledge that according to Lorde, “Becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.” Lorde’s embrace of the erotic allows for a different choice in contesting sexual stereotypes of women beyond relinquishing our sexuality or right to pleasure altogether. Becoming in touch with the erotic, women “become less willing to accept powerlessness.”
Asian women cannot be voiceless and apathetic in the face of oppression if we are to see significant change and deconstruct harmful perceptions. What is required for such a task is a deeper understanding of the complexity of the multiple oppressions in play.
“We yearn for a feminism that addresses our realities as Asian American women and women of color, one that incorporates race, class, gender and sexuality in its analysis and application.” Denial of the erotic, and its fulfillment of pleasure and self-awareness, severely limits the ability to address these realities with the necessary energy and empowerment.
Without embracing the power of the erotic as a means to construct one’s own sexuality and identity, Asian women run the risk of being defined without consent by abusive and pornographic ideologies. Asian women must proactively take back that which has been stolen from them through such blatant objectification by becoming consensual participants rather than victims ashamed of their sexuality and inherent feminine power.
For footnotes and a list of works cited, visit Stephanie Drenka’s original blog post: https://stephaniedrenka.com/asians-are-really-hot-right-now/
Stephanie Drenka is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of VISIBLE Magazine, an online publication committed to making storytelling accessible and inclusive. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from DePaul University, with minors in Asian American Studies and Women’s Studies. Stephanie’s photography and writing have been featured in Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, and ABC News.