7 Asian Women Share Their Experiences On Being Stereotyped and Fetishized
"I wish people knew how uncomfortable it is to be reduced to your appearance."
Not everyone's comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people's bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG's monthly column Sex IRL, we'll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.
Warning: Story contains some sexual trauma.
In 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center received over 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents, a 2,500% increase from previous years. The numbers (released hours before the tragic Atlanta massage parlor shootings in March) reveal a disproportionate number of attacks have been aimed at Asian women, with that category making up over 68% of those reports. According to an April 2021 Pew Research center survey, 81% of Asian Americans say violence against them is still rising, in contrast to the 56% of other Americans who say the same. Asian respondents mentioned the violence has increased because of others scapegoating and blaming Asians for "causing" the pandemic but noted this type of discrimination and bigotry has long existed against the AAPI community. It is important to keep in mind, though, that most hate incidents often go underreported. Like mine, for instance.
As a 20-something Vietnamese woman living in New York City during the pandemic, people have told me to go back home to China and yelled anti-Asian slurs passing me on the street. Unfortunately, I can't say this kind of discrimination is a new experience for me. It's existed throughout most of my life, although it's never been quite as heightened as it is now. I have become apathetic to having my humanity stripped away from me and others relating to my identity primarily through some flattened, one-dimensional concept. Men have assumed I'm either a demure virgin or a hyper-sexual temptress, with no in between. A former boss once joked that I worked at a massage parlor because I had several jobs at the time to pay off my student loans and bills. I've had clients sincerely applaud me for understanding English even though it's my native language. The microaggressions go on and on.
Not being seen may have given me a small degree of safety and adjacent belonging but at the cost of erasure and the loss of my own narrative. Now others can't help but notice people that look like me but at the cost of potential violence.
It is emotionally disorienting to oscillate between extreme invisibility to the other end of extreme visibility. I am scared for everyone in the AAPI community and for our BIPOC brothers and sisters. I worry for my and my family's safety. Every day I am terrified that the next hate crime will hit closer to home.
Amid this wave of fear, I am finding solidarity and community with other Asian Americans through our shared rage, frustration, and guttural grief. For women, racism and sexism are inextricably linked, leaving us vulnerable to discrimination. And since imperialism and U.S. settler colonialism are some of the active contributors to the ongoing dehumanization and belittlement of Asian Americans, for Asian women, historical context cannot be ignored as we face the complex nuance of dealing with the triple jeopardy of racism, colonialism, and misogyny as well.
I spoke to seven women/non-binary Asians about how sexualized misconceptions and stereotypes affect their everyday and romantic lives. They share their thoughts on fetishism, racialized objectification, and their feelings about sex and safety in the world as it stands presently. Here's what they had to say.
"The world expects me to be a docile, well-behaved, studious, pliable, gentle, and nurturing being. Yet I am rarely any of those things"
"What has been hard for me, as an Asian American professional, is understanding how to live in a world that doesn't recognize me for who I am. The world expects me to be a docile, well-behaved, studious, pliable, gentle, and nurturing being. Yet I am rarely any of those things.
"Yes, I have two degrees from a prestigious school, but I didn't become the leader I am today by being well-behaved. 'You're so beautiful,' my patients would tell me—but my beauty doesn't heal you. 'I love your kind,' a man would say suggestively—but 'my kind' doesn't define who I am as a friend, lover, or partner. Not to mention the unspoken prejudices I face as a non-white, non-male CEO of a company. Women received 2.3% of all venture dollars in 2020, with women of color making up but a fraction of that tiny slice.
"With the hate against Asians lately, these thoughts have become violent. I started writing because I felt the need to speak up and do something. I want to live fearlessly, yet the world keeps proving to me that I have *a lot* to fear—in my work, my love life, and my home. I have survived so far, but not without intense resilience, strong support from loved ones, and incredible luck against a world that needs to be taught how to see, hear, and know me for who I am."
— Hillary, 31, Taiwanese American, New York, NY
"I am sex-positive but I don't want to keep reducing my worth to my body."
"I've had sex with men who used me to obtain some porno sexual fantasy. I used to do sex work and I've had some fairly graphic and explicit requests. They would tell me they have 'yellow fever' or how they can't wait to have sex with me because Asian girls feel 'tighter' and better in bed. For the most part, nothing bad happened but I've had some men try to push the boundaries. At the time, it gave me icky feelings I was being commodified like that but I did it anyway. I wasn't being politically correct. I was doing whatever they wanted because they were paying for the service.
"As for intimacy in my private life, I've had partners assume that I'm alright pushing the limits. They want to come all over my face to fulfill some bukkake wet dream or tie me up because they believe I'm automatically submissive. In casual sex, I've noticed some partners don't particularly care to ask me what I want in bed. It's a lot of assumptions. They mainly see me as submissive and compliant—which I'm not. If I reject them, they get angry and call me a slut. I enjoy sex but I don't say yes to everything because I'm not a brainless sex doll. I don't just function inside of their fantasy.
"I was horrified by the mass murder of Asian women in Atlanta. The relentless anti-Asian violence in the news shocked me into a profound realization. By not educating the people in my life about the falseness of certain Asian cliches and stereotypes, I was maintaining this understanding or belief that what they believed about me was correct when it's not the full truth. I am sex-positive but I don't want to keep reducing my worth to my body. I'm rebooting my attitudes towards sex and tabling my anything goes attitude. I'm taking a hard look at consent. I'm questioning if I really like certain acts, or if I do it because I think I should like it or because they want me to like it."
— Sara, 44, Japanese American, Las Vegas, NV
"I wish people knew how uncomfortable it is to be reduced to your appearance."
"I dated someone in high school and after we broke up, I noticed this weird trend. He only ever dated Asian girls and had Asian girlfriends. Years later, he finally told me that he never cared about personality. As long as the woman was Asian, it would be okay with him. That really messed me up. It affected how I approached dating for years. I would constantly wonder if people were dating me for me, or for being Asian.
"As an actress, I am acutely aware of my image and what I represent for people. I wish people knew how uncomfortable it is to be reduced to your appearance. When dating and interacting with the world at large, I've often doubted people's intentions because I question why they want to date, work with, or be my friend. I've also not been taken seriously or treated with the respect I should be accorded due to being sexualized or objectified for work situations, no matter what my job title is at the time. All of this adds up to an isolating and lonely existence. I wish I knew when people liked me for me, and not because of my appearance.
"As the only Asian screenwriter in my class, I sometimes feel obligated to choose scenes with an Asian American family because if I don't, it probably won't get chosen and it'll end up on the cutting room floor. It feels like a weight that I am compelled to take—a weight that others assign to me or I assign to myself. I've had to take extra care of my mental health since I've had to write incidents of anti-Asian violence for two separate screenplays. I'm trying to find a good balance between being informed enough and being overly informed so I don't end up feeling sad and scared all the time.
"I've had non-Asian friends check in on me and ask me how they can support me during this time, which has been touching (I'm so happy and grateful that they care about my well-being), but at the same time, it's stressful. I think too much—and this could be my anxiety speaking—but when something traumatic happens in the world, I need time to sit with my emotions. I feel I've had to come up with an 'official stance' on how I feel about anti-Asian violence often less than 24 hours after the [Atlanta] incident has occurred, which isn't how I usually like to process things. I know what I'm feeling but I still need time to figure it out."
— Jessica, 29, Taiwanese American, Queens, NY
"I've been harassed in public at the grocery store where men have followed me around saying 'Ni hao' or 'Konichiwa' to get my attention."
"As a public relations professional, one of the sectors I work in is entertainment and before the COVID-19 pandemic, males at red carpet events have made comments about my body like 'Damn, she's got ass and t*tties for an Asian' or 'For an Asian, she's cute.' I've heard a plethora of dirty pick up lines mentioning Bangkok when I am not from Thailand. I've been harassed in public at the grocery store where men have followed me around saying 'Ni hao' or 'Konichiwa' to get my attention. If they aggressively ask me on a date and won't take no for an answer, I [would] run to the customer service desk or speed walk away, and I don't feel safe. In an extreme instance, an older male I said no to followed me in his car so I drove to the police station to lose him. Another time, I walked down Hollywood Boulevard when I didn't want to take a CD from a stranger and he yelled at me, 'I don't like ch*nks anyways!'
"Being thin, docile, submissive, and quiet are all stereotypes I've heard on dates. People also believe the stereotype that our female anatomy (vaginas) is tighter than other races. On apps, since I am a woman that has curves, I get a lot of messages that say 'You look like you're the type of Asian girl that only dates Black guys.' One of my worst dates ever was with a guy who had 'yellow fever' but hid it until we met in person. He had the nerve to tell me that I was from the wrong part of China because I am not tall and skinny. I've had ex-partners who were cis-males sexualize me and compare me to Asian adult film stars in casual conversation. They thought it would be a compliment to share in their spare time, since they've been dating me, they only watch 'Asian' porn.
"I've felt uneasy and had a lot of anxiety with the spike in anti-Asian violence but this has been a time for me to further educate myself on the history of racism, violence, and the injustices in the world. In regards to dating and my friendship circle, some relationships have come to an end due to disagreements about views and differing opinions about current events—which is sad but I will not stand down and associate with people who don't believe the mass shooting in Atlanta is a hate crime or those who don't stand in solidarity with the Asian, Black, and non-white communities."
— Tiffany, 30, Chinese American, Los Angeles, CA
"I don't want to be seen as deferential or controllable because I am not those things. I'm done being told how I should be or who I am."
"I was born and raised in a predominantly white area. I got along pretty well with my classmates but I wouldn't say I was a part of the crowd. People made fun of my real name because they couldn't pronounce it. Back then, my friends would jokingly call me wonton or orange chicken as 'nicknames' because they thought it was cute and harmless. I threw a tantrum and begged my mom to let me legally change my name. Anglicizing my name quieted the taunts I guess, but I remember looking at my best friend's text messages one day and saw her boyfriend of two years refer to me as that Asian girl instead of my Western name. Like I could have been anyone and it didn't matter. It hurt because I changed my name to fit in. I gave up a piece of my identity and it didn't get me closer to people. It just got me further away from who I was.
"Personally, I do think that affected my sexual preferences. Back home, I was always known as the smart, nerdy, quiet Asian who never got in trouble. I was okay being a virgin and not investigating my sexuality further. I only experienced a sexual awakening when I went away to a liberal arts college. I put myself out there and found out that my sex drive is actually really high. It was confusing to acknowledge that because it was at odds with this image of purity and conservatism that I had crafted for myself. But I see now that was more of a projection and not my true identity.
"Now that I'm embracing my true personality, I've since come out to my family to let them know that I am enby and queer instead of keeping it a secret. Turns out I'm not meek, either! My true personality is strong, confrontational, and loud, the opposite of my younger self. It's been really triggering to process anti-Asian hate crimes and hear stories about people targeting the most vulnerable members in our community. I feel helpless and scared but it fuels me, too. We aren't safe by staying quiet and keeping our heads down anymore. The attacks can't be dismissed. I'm angry and pissed off. It makes me want to actively buck and speak against stereotypes more, specifically the ones I have internalized. I don't want to be seen as deferential or controllable because I am not those things. I'm done being told how I should be or who I am. I know who I am and it's not some model minority take. I am more than that."
— K, 34, Vietnamese American, Austin, TX
"There's the type of man who's treated me like a novelty or fantasy, saying something like 'I've never been with an Asian girl before.'"
"So, there are two big schools of men I've been with who've displayed a kind of sexualized racism towards me. There's the type of man who's treated me like a novelty or fantasy, saying something like 'I've never been with an Asian girl before.' (Once I just replied to that and was like 'Well, I've never been with a Canadian before, so that's cool!') And then there is the other type—which I'm embarrassed to say I've been with more than one of them—who admitted to the fact that they had an Asian fetish (maybe not in public but in private with me). They joked about it and thought it was cool that *I* was cool with it, they were like 'Well, I can't change how I feel.'
"The recent spike in anti-Asian violence shook up something in me. I'm no longer going to tolerate that kind of behavior. It's actually not funny. Those stereotypes and fetishes are the same roots of the kind of fatal violence that we saw in Atlanta. If you're consciously seeking out a race and that race only to fulfill some kind of fantasy, it doesn't mean you're automatically a bad person, but you need to examine what is behind that.
"That's also made me examine some of my own behavior in dating, and how I've subconsciously or consciously sought out white men in the past in order to have a partner who will both help me assimilate into white society or be acceptable to the racism in the Asian community, which can be quite hostile against Black and brown people."
— Heejin, 29, Korean-American, Brooklyn, NY
"I've been told before that I deserved to be raped for being Asian…"
"The stereotypes I often hear are the infamous [ones like] 'Asian women are submissive,' or 'Asian women are tight and small.' Specifically, though, a lot of East Asian men I've interacted with tend to think I'll be an easier lay because they have these preconceived notions that 'Filipinas are easy.'
"I've barely had sex and I don't really actively date but I've experienced sexualized racism plenty [of times]. I've been told before that I deserved to be raped for being Asian… that all I'm good for is starring in Asian porn or that I'm a legal loli/pedo bait/IRL hentai character, etc. When I was 16, I met someone who was 30. He would often ask me weird sexual questions and then proceed to tell me that if anything happened to me, it was because I was 'asking for it.' I've had some people express interest in me because I apparently look a certain way, (i.e. the type of Asian they're fetishizing. When they find out I'm Filipino, some men have gotten really weird about it almost as if I've tricked them or something. I've had men tell me that they try to find Filipina porn actresses that look like me so that they could better jack off to my photos. Sadly, a lot of the sexualized racism I've experienced has been from men in our own AAPI community, [too.]
"I feel sad, worried, angry, but I'm not really surprised. Racism and violence against Asians are nothing new and have been going on forever, really. There's been a spike due to COVID, but it's just adding onto a problem that was already there. Something I wish people knew? Outside of wishing for certain people to keep their mouths shut… I guess you could say that I wish people would realize that being objectified and fetishized isn't the compliment they think it is."
— Anonymous, 23, Filipino American, United States
Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and/or clarity.