Asian Women, American GIs, and Modern Rape Culture

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:

“This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for killing, the other’s for fun.” – a U.S. military training cadence popular since WWII [Image from Time/Life Magazine c. 1951.
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.

15 thoughts on “Asian Women, American GIs, and Modern Rape Culture”

  1. I find this article fascinating, because it presented far more history than I was aware of – I knew some of the things about American GIs, but not all.

    My brother has a preference for Asian women (he’s had a few crushes who weren’t Asian, but he does prefer women with darker hair and slight builds). All of his girlfriends have been Asian. I’d hate to see him as being labeled as fetishizing women or an “Asian predator”, as weetziebat said, simply because of that preference. As far as I can tell, his interest isn’t promoted by the rape culture – he’s also very interested in the languages and cultures of various Asian countries. He belongs to an Asian cultural fraternity in college and wants to live in Japan someday.

    In my brother’s case, I think he was more shaped by having a Japanese woman as a next door neighbor than anything else – she was athletic and the antithesis of the submissive woman stereotype that’s so pervasive for Asian women. But, he’s a white American. Where do you draw the line between interest/participation and fetishization? Is he not allowed to have such a deep interest because he’s white? It’s hard to tell what the right answer is.

    1. I think the answer lies in the intention behind the desire. My son likes Asian women, too. Why? Because he loves anime. I don’t think there’s one reason for a preference, but rather it’s a basket of reasons that overlap and intertwine.

      1. I think so, too – it is a big “basket” as you put it. It’s hard to draw a line and say that once you cross it, you’ve entered patronizing or fetishizing another culture. Because who really knows exactly where that line is?

        It’s a shame, because more broadly, we are still focused on this orientalism of Asian culture, even as American women, and we lose sight of the real life effects it has when you romanticize or fetishize another culture.

    2. I tend to be less skeptical of a non-Asian man’s interest in Asian women when he is also interested in other aspects of the culture. There are some folks of all backgrounds who adopt other cultures just because they feel some particular affinity for the country, the people (of all genders), the food, the language…dating and building a family with someone else who appreciates and practices that culture makes sense. This is why it is also less troubling when Asian men tend to exclusively date Asian women (the same is true in any race) because there is a basis for the connection beyond stereotype and objectification.

      It sounds like your brother falls somewhere in between. If the Asian women he dates are women he just happens to meet because he hangs out with mostly Asian people and does things Asian people do it’s probably cool. If it feels like he’s hangs he hangs out with mostly Asian people and does things Asian people do in order to meet Asian women then he’s probably on the creepy end of the spectrum.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily black and white and people are not always entirely conscious of their motivations given how stubbornly this dynamic has rooted itself into American culture.

  2. Thank you for this article, this is a growing and quite scary problem. There have been a lot of articles lately about American Women, and often with an accompanying Men’s rights slant, and how they have been ruined by feminism (ugh) and a particularly disgusting side effect of this is racist comments like “if you want a real women go to Asia”, “They are unspoilt by feminism”, “they know how to treat a man”, “Their primary concern is your needs” and the like. In the comments you will have men directing other men to go to specific websites devoted to pairing foreign men with Asian women. They will promote these women as subservient that do not care about looks or finances that just want an American man. It is a really uncomfortable and disgusting and you article helped clarify for me the history behind this fetishism.

  3. Recently, a Chinese exchange student at my university was murdered by a White man. Her boyfriend back in China witnessed the attack via webcam. She lost her life and was sexually assaulted either before or after her death by this man. But God, she put up one hell of a fight, according to media coverage.

    I don’t really have a point. Her death infuriates me and this pattern of behaviour by the White men around me infuriates me and I just want to scream. One man I went to high school with came to the same university as me and made it his quest to build an ‘Asian harem’ and fetishizes Asian women to the point where the girls warn each other about him. He’s disgusting but I’ve never been able to call him out on it.

  4. This piece is extremely well written. I want to say thank you for sharing it from the opposite side of the coin as the women who also commented. I am a white woman who lived my entire childhood and youth in almost all white areas. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I had the opportunity to experience any real diversity. Though I have been exposed to the negative portrayals and objectification of women of color through reading and the media, I find its hard for someone raised as I was to “get it”. All I could say is “Imagine what it must be like to live with that”. Reading an article like yours gives me an insight into the struggles of other women and broadens my perspective on my own place in our world. Its a touch of ‘walk a mile in her shoes’. If there more ways to try on each others’ shoes, we would be able to break through the lines drawn between different groups of women that LittleGirlBlue points out. So from someone who didn’t really get it before, but who has a better view of it now – thank you!

  5. this article is so dead on.

    A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend and this subject came up. I met my friend in college when she was an exchange student from Japan at a school that was mostly white. Now she is back in the states on a visa, getting her masters degree. Recently I was hanging out with her and some other girls who were also from Japan. One of the girls showed us a picture of her new boyfriend, who was white. Someone asked her if he usually dates Asian girls, and when she said no we all let out a sigh of relief. We all wanted to make sure he wasn’t an ‘asian predator’ our name for dudes who exclusively date Asian girls. In the collective experience of the girls in the group, there was something very ‘off’ about non-asian guys who only dated asian girls. Miz J’s article explains explains exactly why we could never accept it as just a preference and always found it a bit creepy and fetish-y.

    When we used to go out to clubs, my friend was often the only Asian woman in the building, and her speech patterns and mannerisms made it clear that she was foreign born as well. We would play a game called ‘find the asian predator’ where we would try to guess who would creepily hit on her, who would bolt across the room to talk to her or grab her arm. The guys that would hit on her were usually more slimy and predatory than the ones who would hit on other girls in our group, and they never went away after the first time she said no. Sometimes they would refuse to let go of her hand or arm until I told them to. Because her asking to be left alone wasn’t taken seriously until the white friend confirmed that yes, she really wants you to let go of her and go away. ugh, I feel dirty just thinking about it.

    On an unrelated note, has anyone here read FoxGirl by Nora Okja Keller? Its a story about Korean women working as prostitutes for the American GIs occupying their area. Its told from the perspective of a girl who grows up around it and eventually has no choice but to become one of the prostitutes. It also goes into some interesting race issues involving the separation of black and white american troops. Its fiction, but I think it is fairly historically accurate.

  6. 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.”

    This is so true and so annoying! It mostly happens to me from older men who usually say something like “wow, you look like you’re half-Asian! Was your father in the military?” For starters, asshole, both my parents are Canadian. Secondly, EW. Thirdly, do not look at me. Do not look at me in the eyes.

    Seriously though, very well-written, Miz J! I enjoyed it (as much as anyone can enjoy an article about rape) and look forward to your other posts too!

  7. Thank you for writing this. I am a half-middle eastern (Syrian) gal, who sort of, if I really stay out of the sun “passes” for being white – I have very dark hair and lighter skin, whereas my younger brother has lighter hair and much darker skin, and my Mother has both black hair and much darker skin.. Anyways, I sort of pass due to pigmentation and genetics I guess, but still definitely have experienced sexual othering- I have been told I was mysterious, that my dark eyes were seductive like they could seduce someone if the rest of my body was covered (seriously, why I didn’t proceed to deck the guy is sort of a mystery to me).
    Maybe because of my experience, I have been less than satisfied with literature on orientalism I have read (I read a lot of orientalism and post-colonial studies due to my dissertation research). I find this particularly lacking in Edward Said’s writing, which while it briefly touches on “oriental women” (aka any women who aren’t white) as a sexual other (who are often viewed as overtly sexual/mysterious/seductive/will do crazy things with white dudes in bed), Said provides no real nuance or glimpse into the power structures through which women who aren’t necessarily white are defined. Your article really helped me understand how power structures which have existed for a century have created the sexual othering/fetishizing of asian women, which is very different from how black women are fetishized, and how middle eastern women are othered. I just wish that there was a more frank and nuanced discussion in academic literature about this… rather than “hey all non-white women are treated as sexual others”.

  8. Being Irish this particular aspect of history and culture is not something I’m as familiar with, so thank you. Great piece. It always amazes me that people believe their choices and beliefs are ahistorical, contextless, and inborn when the vast majority of the time they’re anything but.

  9. Thanks Miz J, keep it up. A few hipster guys I’ve known have perpetuated this, refusing to admit that their “preference” for women who look Asian is a loaded fetish and nothing more. They’re never actually interested in what the woman thinks, or says or does–only what she looks like.

    Obviously, though, the rape culture narrative in America is aimed at all women of color–all nonwhite women are considered to be promiscuous, with our exotic features and our otherness hanging out for all to see. This reminds me of another danger of these stupid fetishes and othering of women. It starts to draw lines between us, women generally, that help to breakdown feminist ideals and pit women of any background against each other. Asian women are X, while black women are Y, and therefore X is better than Y, or Y trumps X. In this kind of othering, X never equals Y, and so instead of fighting rape culture and the idiots that perpetuate it, women buy into it and fight each other. Which: is unhelpful.

  10. Hi Miz Jenkins. First let me tell you what a phenomenal writer you are. I always enjoy reading your pieces.

    As a Black woman, I totally understand and feel you on this piece. As a matter of fact, it’s almost eerily timely, as the thought occurred to me in my kitchen this afternoon (not for the first time) that in many ways the feminist ideal has been co-opted and the degradation of women has been refashioned as some kind of pseudo expression of genuine female sexuality. You know, we LIKE to be exploited. We ARE empowered by being objectified. You don’t know how many young girls I hear actually espousing this very sentiment. It is as if they no longer understand that they’ve been brainwashed into believing that they are only worthy if they are a walking talking pretty face with big breasts, a thin body and a just sign here to use my vagina card . They actually think they’ve chosen the role and that its empowering.

    My family is from Haiti, and the military presence there, in the 21st century did the exactly what you’re describing. Poor women with no other means of making a living, no hope for an education or supporting themselves or their family were enlisted as prostitutes, I believe, without even realizing what was being done to them. Then I believe to escape the shame, they embraced it as the only choice they had.

    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.

    I’ve heard black men express the very stereotypes that you speak of, Asian women being subservient, pliable and easily controlled, while Black American women were regarded as perpetually uncontrollable, untamed, overly sexual and promiscuous.

    This perception of us in part is our legacy from our slavery days where we were viewed as an animal with a conveniently useful vagina without any rights whatsoever. As slaves it wasn’t even rape. We were there for the white man’s pleasure to do with as he willed, and I think in many ways we are still looked at in that way.

    Your piece made me think of two movies which I’ve seen:
    The Quiet American
    and Casualties of War

    While watching these movies I thought about the far reaching effects of war, how men who had lived in these dysfunctional environments are sent “home” to raise children and exist amongst us in society, and how their poisonous ideas, developed in a hostile sick environment were carried back home with them and are continuing to effect us all.
    Great article!

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