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There are dangers to dating as an Asian-American woman that can have deadly consequences. Illustration: Brian Wang/SCMP

Why dating as an Asian-American woman can mean hyper-sexualisation and fetishisation, reducing people to objects

  • ‘He just wanted to have sex with an exotic woman that would make sexy noises he didn’t understand,’ says Karina Chan of her first date with a non-Asian guy
  • Experts say the dehumanisation of Asian women dates back centuries, rooted in the violence of white colonialism and commodified as sexual stereotypes

Karina Chan never knew what to expect when it came to dating.

Having come from an Asian-American bubble in the San Francisco Bay Area, she never understood how frightening a prospective, non-Asian date could be – until she began seeing a man about three years ago.

He seemed to be her dream guy: affable, sharp, intelligent. He possessed a natural charm that lured her in, and she was overjoyed when he expressed romantic interest.

That excitement dissipated into confusion and concern when he insisted she speak to him in a different language during sex because he “was kind of into that”.

Fetishisation is a tactic to portray Asian women as objects and strip them of individuality, sociologists say. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the moment, all she could do was laugh. The demand sounded ridiculous; she didn’t even know any “sexy” words in Chinese. But, looking back at the encounter, Chan realised it was more than just “weird”. It was humiliating and demeaning, and she felt dehumanised by someone who seemingly cared about her.

“I had never felt so much like I was just a body before, a literal bag of water and cellular matter,” Chan, now 23, says. “He just wanted to have sex with an exotic woman that would make sexy noises he didn’t understand.”

For centuries, Asian-American women have faced a lose-lose situation when it comes to desirability: they’re either not living up to Eurocentric beauty standards or gaslit into believing that fetishisation is flattery. But, like racial violence and discrimination, the sexualisation of Asian women can lead to dangerous – even deadly – consequences.

“The idea that Asian women are desirable and exotic and passive isn’t just an innocent stereotype or a desirable trait to envy,” says Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.

Everyday sexism is rife and even worse for Asian women

“The shadowed side of that is they then become targets of hate, sexual violence and physical violence when they aren’t perceived as fully human and deserving of rights to be safe.”

Thanks to the rising popularity of Asian pop culture in America (think Pixar’s Turning Red and Netflix’s Squid Game), people are more open-minded and appreciative to other cultures – but not everyone has good intentions.

“In my experience, the people who give these comments [fixated on race] aren’t actually interested in [me],” Chan says. “They just want to flirt with an Asian woman. It’s the feeling that you’re being treated like a body to be conquered that makes this kind of attention so repulsive.”

A still from Disney and Pixar’s Turning Red. Photo: Pixar

What’s so complex about fetishisation is it’s often mistaken for appreciation or attraction. But the fundamental difference is that fetishisation is objectification. It’s oversimplification. It’s a tactic to portray Asian women as objects and strip them of individuality, sociologists say.


“Appreciation for a culture should not mean you assume that someone fits into your ideas of that culture, or that someone will share your passion for the culture because they’re that race,” Yuen says.

If people go around saying they have a preference for Asians but not other races, the logic suggests there’s something different about Asians
Robin Zheng, political philosophy lecturer

Asian fetishisation comes in many forms. It can manifest as generalised beliefs that Asian women are experts in anime simply due to their appearance. Or it may involve hyper-sexualised stereotypes about their anatomy.


“These ‘positive’ stereotypes of Asian women as exotic and beautiful and different is an institutional issue and contributes to the idea that there are distinct, racial categories who deserve different kinds of treatment,” says Robin Zheng, a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland.

“If people go around saying they have a preference for Asians but not other races, the logic suggests there’s something different about Asians. That kind of mindset is what leads to them being viewed as inferior.”

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Experts say the dehumanisation of Asian women dates back centuries, rooted in the violence of white colonialism. Asian women were historically commodified as either the “Dragon Lady”, who is sexy, exotic and dominant, or the “Lotus Blossom”, who is contrastingly domesticated, docile and sexually subservient to white men.


Though the stereotypes are contradictory, what they share in common is “the theme of hyper-sexualisation, where Asian women are sexualised to fit into a male-driven fantasy”, Yuen says. These tropes still exist, as shown by popular films like Madame Butterfly (1995), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003).

“The idea of desirability quickly became the idea of disease and temptation, and the exoticisation was still a form of othering, or this idea that Asian women were not fully integratable, but rather some form of ‘other’ that couldn’t possibly live in the same realm as white folks,” Yuen explains.

A poster for Madame Butterfly.

As a result of these stereotypes, Asian women have long endured harassment for dating outside their race – specifically white men – and have been ridiculed as “self-hating” or “whitewashed” Asians.


Actress Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) opened up about the anger she received from Asian men for dating a white man in 2018. Similarly, Lana Condor (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) responded to backlash that her character, Lara Jean, didn’t have an Asian love interest.

“There are times when people online will say, ‘Of course she’s with a white guy.’ Oh, so Asian people can only love Asian people? I can only be with my race?” Condor said in a 2018 interview with The Cut.

Constance Wu attends the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 11th Annual Governors Awards in 2019 in Hollywood. She has previously opened up about the anger she received from Asian men for dating a white man in 2018. Photo: WireImage

Policing who Asian women should and shouldn’t date is yet another example of the intersection of racism and misogyny, in what experts call “racialised slut shaming”.

“When Asian women date outside their race, the assumption from some Asian men is, ‘You should be dating me, not these others,’” says Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the non-profit organisation National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “But where does this sense of entitlement come from?”

These attitudes often stem from racism and a misguided standard of masculinity: while Asian women are often hyper-sexualised, Asian men face the opposite stereotype of being more feminine, unattractive, not sexual and therefore “undesirable”.

Mourners pay respect to the Asian community after a man in Atlanta attacked three spas killing eight people, six of whom were Asian. Photo: Getty Images

“Because there’s so much emphasis on white men and Asian women, Asian men can sometimes feel like they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to standard, conventional views of sexual appeal,” Zheng explains.

However, Choimorrow says it’s not only burdensome, but also misogynistic that Asian women are expected to provide comfort and reassurance.

“We perpetuate this culture of prioritising men and how women need to be supportive, but we’re not responsible for that. Asian women are not the ones emasculating Asian men … so why is it always the burden of women to accommodate men?”

Experts in Asian media representation say the stereotypes surrounding Asian-Americans are intentionally complicated. Assumptions that all Asian women are sexual or that all Asian-Americans are maths geniuses appear flattering enough to exempt them from racism. However, it reduces diverse AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islander) communities to a monolith.
We need to start seeing Asian women as subjects, not objects
Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist

For instance, when all Asian women are stereotyped as either obedient or dominant, it implies they can’t be good leaders. A recent media analysis gathered from 88 companies found that only 1 in every 96 Asian men and 1 in every 124 Asian women held a top job – a stark contrast from the 1 in every 45 white men and 1 in every 60 white women who are executives.

And this doesn’t only undercut Asian-Americans in their careers, but also in romantic relationships and Hollywood representation. Zheng says these “degrading” generalisations lead to the justification of sexual assault and violence in the minds of the fetisher, as shown by the Atlanta spa shootings in the US in 2021.

“Even before the pandemic, Asian women were particularly vulnerable to various kinds of sexual violence,” Zheng says. “As women, they’ve been viewed as ‘fair game’ for men to prey on, but also the fact that they’re Asian leads to views of them being more passive and docile, making them more vulnerable as victims.”

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Though it may seem inconsequential compared to acts of physical violence, experts say AAPI hate and racism cannot be solved without first addressing implicit, prejudiced attitudes toward Asian women.

“Ultimately, we need to dismantle the entire system of racial taxonomy, which requires transforming basic social institutions like the way law enforcement and education works,” Zheng says.

But in addition to these changes, “a more symbolic thing needs to be done, and that is rectifying the way Asian women are represented in the media, in Hollywood, in any kind of stories we tell”.

As an expert in race and racism in Hollywood, Yuen nods to films like Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once, which avoid crude, limiting stereotypes and display the complexity of Asian-Americans.

“We need more Asian women, creators, storytellers to be empowered to present alternative, counter-stereotypical narratives that show the full humanity of Asians,” Yuen says. “We need to start seeing Asian women as subjects, not objects.”