The hyper-misogynistic sexual exploitation of Asian women in American culture is one of the racist paradigms that can perhaps most easily be traced back to recent history. For this reason, I am always gobsmacked when people try to brush it off as merely “a preference.”
Then again, a whole lot of people don’t know their history:All women – and certainly any Feminist worth her salt – should be aware of the prevalence of rape and sexual exploitation in military culture and in the context of war. Not surprisingly, however, mainstream Feminist consciousness usually focuses most intently on sexual assault that occurs within the military and usually against White women. (Tailhook, anyone?)
This ignores the extensive and once notorious legacy of the rape, trafficking and forced sexual exploitation of women of color – and of Asian women in particular – by American soldiers abroad. For nearly half of the 20th century (from roughly 1939 to 1980), America maintained an enormous military presence throughout the Pacific Rim, initially to counterbalance Japanese imperialist aims. During this forty-year period a steady deluge of all-male American troops were stationed in Hawaii, Guam, the Phillipine Islands, Okinawa and Taiwan and during wartime formally occupied the Japanese Islands, Korea, and Vietnam.
In reality the U.S. committed far more troops in many of these regions than were necessary during the lulls between various remote battles. American servicemen stationed in the Pacific had a lot of time in which to explore “leisure pursuits.” Judging by the unprecedented number of STD cases reported in the military during this era, it is fairly evident what they were pursuing.
Millions of women who lived in these countries became collateral damage in the military and political conflicts that dominated the regions, left to the mercy of whatever men were in power at the time. Before the Americans arrived the Japanese military had already instituted a formal policy of using rape as a war tactic, forcing an estimated 200,000 primarily Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Japanese women (as well as women in Japanese-occupied parts of Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Macau) into prostitution as “comfort women” to serve the sexual proclivities of Japanese troops.
Much of the concept of Asian women as sexually submissive comes from the victimized condition in which American soldiers found these women when they arrived in combat zones throughout the Pacific. And many took full advantage:
We had these [boot camp] classes we had to go to, taught by drill instructors, and every instructor would tell a joke before he began his class. It would always be a dirty joke usually having to do with prostitutes they had seen in Japan or in other parts of Asia while they were stationed overseas. The attitude of the Asian woman being a doll, a useful toy, or something to play with usually came out in these jokes, and how they were not quite as human as white women. For instance, a real common example was how the instructor would talk about how Asian women’s vaginas weren’t like white women’s, but rather they were slanted, like their eyes. Some guys really believed this shit too. Like when you get overseas afterward, you look for things you remember from these jokes.
- an excerpt from an interview with a U.S. serviceman c. 1972 from the book Chinese-American Workers Past and Present
It is doubtless many of these women took advantage too, congregating near U.S. military bases and choosing attach themselves to U.S. soldiers. The dynamic was, however, inherently and overwhelmingly unequal. On the one hand, a woman at the mercy of an unstable government in a war-torn country, facing starvation, forced prostitution and possibly death as a casualty of war. On the other hand, an American service man with a gun, a steady paycheck and the promise of protection, liberation and a better life: maybe even one as a comfortable housewife in that far away promised land called America. (And oh the promises they made! Sometimes in moments of quiet bitterness you can catch an older Asian auntie or grandmother recounting the cautionary tales of women left pregnant and disgraced by their American GI boyfriends who shipped out and vanished along with all their seemingly sincere words of devotion.)
Modern American culture has added insult to this widespread injury by not only failing to chastise American men for this behavior, but celebrating it as suggestive of American virility and perpetuating the meme of the exotic, sexually permissive Asian woman in pop culture. From Miss Saigon to Memoirs of a Geisha to Lucy Liu dressed as a masseuse in Charlie’s Angels, Asian women are rarely represented as having any agency or choice. Their willingness – even eagerness – to be sexualized and sexually dominated is continually portrayed as their most common and most admirable characteristic.
It’s as though they spent 40 years raping us and the last 30 talking about how much we enjoyed it.
This particular form of racism has myriad consequences for Asian-American women. A significant amount of the attention we receive from non-Asian men is in the form of creepy, excessive enthusiasm — as if they grew up at Pappy’s knee listening to legends of how Asian women will do anything to your penis that you want them to. Then there is the offensive assumption that anyone who is half Asian is the product of an American GI and an Asian woman he met standing on the corner saying “me love you long time.” And then of course there is the fact of being overwhelmingly underrepresented in every single industry except porn.
The American feminist narrative focuses a lot on so-called rape culture. What it almost never bothers to mention, however, is that it is Asian women at whom this culture is most blatantly and directly aimed. It is Asian women for whom this culture is almost universally assumed to be an accepted – and even sought after – way of life.