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A Sociologist's View On The Hyper-Sexualization Of Asian Women In American Society


On Tuesday, a mass shooter drove into Atlanta and targeted three spots in the area. He killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Law enforcement officials have held off on calling the attack racially motivated. They say the perpetrator instead blamed his sex addiction. Well, experts and many others say it is damaging to separate race from this conversation because it ignores the history of hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women in the U.S.

Nancy Wang Yuen is a professor of sociology at Biola University. She studies pop culture and specializes in race and ethnicity in media, particularly in Asian American representation. She joins us now to help provide some context to this whole conversation. And just a warning - this conversation contains content that may not be suitable for all listeners.


NANCY WANG YUEN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So when you first heard that authorities in Georgia were holding off on calling this a racially motivated attack and instead they focused on the suspect's, quote-unquote, "sex addiction," as if that were a separate, alternate explanation for these shootings, tell me what you first thought of that.

WANG YUEN: My first thought I don't think I can say on public radio. I was just so angry, and I just thought, you know - and I also thought, like, you know, they just - these police officers and maybe all of America just doesn't understand how racism and sexism intersect.

CHANG: And this man - I mean, let's get into it. This man, according to law enforcement, said that he committed what he did this week to, quote, "eliminate his temptations." Let me ask you, Nancy, how does that connect to your understanding of the way Asian women have been hypersexualized and fetishized in American society? Like, can we just take a moment for you and I to say out loud what those sexual stereotypes of Asian women are?

WANG YUEN: I think submissive. And I've actually gotten - this is, you know, really personal, but I've actually been asked if my anatomy is different. So a kind of very fetishized, exoticized - that we're somehow even physiologically different from other women.

CHANG: Yeah.

WANG YUEN: And I think that goes back to history of fetishization of women of color in this country. And servile - what else?

CHANG: Exotic lotus flowers.

WANG YUEN: Yes, dragon ladies.

CHANG: Temptresses.

WANG YUEN: Yes. And I think with the lotus blossom, like, death at the end of movies - like, they're - they never survive. So it's the kind of "Madame Butterfly," "Miss Saigon" thing where, you know, you want them, but then you also, you know, can't have them. They're - like, they're taboo. They're forbidden.

CHANG: And let's not forget "Full Metal Jacket."

WANG YUEN: Yes. So the prostitute - right? - the Asian prostitute - and that's a very common stereotype. And the kind of, I think, propositions that Asian women get in public all surround "Full Metal Jacket" quotes. And they're horrible, and everyone knows them even though the movie is rather old. But it's now part of society or culture in general, like life imitating art and imitating kind of an imagined life, right?

CHANG: Right. So when you heard reports that this man, this perpetrator, said that he committed these shootings to, quote, "eliminate his temptations," what did that say to you about his motivations?

WANG YUEN: First of all, I thought that he completely dehumanized these women, right? He labelled them as temptations to be excised, to be eliminated. I mean, these are human beings, right? He is the one - if he has an addiction, he has the problem. Why treat whatever fetish that he has, you know, with Asian women - why treat the women as the problem? I mean, this kind of externalization of his own issues is - it was so horrible to hear. And as an Asian woman, it felt, like, totally dehumanizing.

CHANG: Yeah. I just want to take a step back here for some context and talk about some of the larger institutions that play a role here and why this happens in American society. Can we just - let's talk first about the U.S. military. How do you think the military figures into this conversation?

WANG YUEN: So the U.S. military, you know, has had many wars with Asia. And so the kind of even rhetoric of thinking of Asia as a place that you want to take over - right? - to dominate, and so there is this kind of fetishization of Asia proper as a country. And then, of course, when the GIs are over there, they're participating in the sex industry. And as a result, there have been what are called camp towns that pop up around U.S. military bases. And those camp towns have sex workers. And so the GIs, I think, associate, you know, being in Asia with sex workers, even though Asians are not any more likely to be sex workers than any other, you know, race or culture.

CHANG: Exactly, which only further reinforces attitudes that permission is granted to Asian women's bodies.

WANG YUEN: That's right. So the kind of easy access and inexpensive access and continual access through those camp towns contributes to the idea that Asian women's bodies are just for white male pleasure.

CHANG: And there's some other history here, right? I mean, this wasn't exactly part of my U.S. history curriculum in high school, but I want to talk about with you some of the other ways Asian women have been targeted by specific laws and policies in this country. Let's talk about the Page Act.

WANG YUEN: So the Page Act of 1875 actually predates the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was an act that particularly targeted East Asian women, and it was applied mostly to Chinese women. And they thought of Chinese women as all prostitutes, right? It was a way to exclude the Chinese population. And they were successful in enacting it against women because they perceived that or they constructed that they carried venereal diseases and, actually, that they were temptations for white men.

CHANG: So what do you think the legacy is of laws like the Page Act, legacies that you still feel resonate in American society today?

WANG YUEN: I think Asian women, particularly East women in this case, are still reeling from the perception that they are prostitutes and temptations, including to - you know, linking it back to the current Atlanta shootings, where Asian women are seen as temptations and yet deracialized. I mean, we have the Page Act just to prove that we have a history of racializing Asian women.

CHANG: I mean, I'll be honest. Like, I'm 45 years old. I've been an Asian woman, obviously, my entire life. This is the first time I can remember talking to anybody about the Page Act for this network as a journalist. And I'm just wondering if you feel - even though violence against Asian women has been happening for a very long time, if you feel the conversation is different in this moment. Does it feel like it's more robust now? And if so, why do you think that is?

WANG YUEN: I actually think that Black Lives Matter is part of it, that because our society is finally having a racial reckoning, that they're becoming aware that racism exists. And now we're able to nuance race and nuance race intersecting with sexism, that all of this is America coming to a greater understanding of all the layers of bigotry and discrimination that the various groups of color have experienced in this country.

CHANG: Yeah. Nancy Wang Yuen is a professor of sociology at Biola University. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with all of us today.

WANG YUEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE WANSKI'S "LA COULEUR DU SON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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