As details emerge about Robert Aaron Long, the man accused of killing eight people in the Atlanta area — six of them Asian women — discussions have reignited around the ways women of Asian descent are vulnerable to violence.
Authorities said Long told investigators that he was motivated by "sexual addiction" and denied having racial motivations in the shootings at three spas. Police claimed that Long said the spas were "a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."
While it's unclear whether the businesses had any ties to sex work, experts and activists said it was nearly impossible to divorce race from the discourse — regardless of whether Long will be charged with a hate crime — given the historical fetishization of Asian women, which has made them uniquely susceptible to sexual and physical violence.
Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said that to disregard race in the acts of violence would erase the harassment and violence Asian women have faced for more than a century, since they first came to the country.
"Saying that this violence is not racially motivated is part of a related history of the denial of racism in the Asian American experience," Choy said. "Racism and white supremacy have been and tragically continue to be part of the Asian American experience."
Although most violence toward Asian American women doesn't get elevated to the national spotlight, experts say it's not an uncommon occurrence, and it has been amplified during the coronavirus pandemic. A report on hate incidents released Tuesday by the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate revealed that among 3,800 incidents were reported over the course of about a year during the pandemic, 68 percent of respondents were women. A far lower share, 29 percent, were men.
Even apart from the pandemic, research shows that 21 percent to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report having experienced intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetimes, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence. The range is based on a compilation of studies of disaggregated samples of Asian ethnicities in local communities. About a third of women in the general U.S. population experience sexual violence.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, said what's often lost in the discussion is how Asian women experience a very specific form of sexism, which she said shouldn't be conflated with the misogyny that other groups, like white women, may confront.
"Asian American women, our experiences, are very particular because of our race and gender," she said. "White women don't understand why my experience of sexism and sexual harassment is different than their experience of sexual harassment."
Choimorrow said many of the attacks and much of the sexual misconduct can be traced in part to the rampant perpetuation of stereotypes around Asian women as exotic, hypersexualized and submissive. Such stereotypes create a perception that Asian Americans are therefore less of a threat and easier to take advantage of and that they aren't going to fight back. Echoes of other archaic beliefs can be found in statements authorities attributed to Long, Choy said.
"Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man's temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian and Asian American women as variations of the Asian temptress, the dragon ladies and the lotus blossoms, whose value is only in relation to men's fantasies and desires," she said. "This is horrifying. Stop fetishizing us."
Such ideas are particularly dangerous, experts said, as they put the onus on women to avoid violence, further fueling society's "misogynistic mentality about women," Choimorrow said.
"It's akin to 'I raped her because her skirt was too short.' No — you raped her because society has told you you're entitled to women," she said. "It absolutely gaslights Asian women, and [it] does play into how hypersexualized we are by society."
The beliefs have been shaped by legal code, America's history of imperialism and the prevailing culture, said historian Ellen Wu, the author of "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority." One factor that helps explain the toxic environment for Asian women is the type of labor they were relegated to in the U.S. beginning in the 19th century, she said.
The Gold Rush ushered in a new age of immigration, with many people from China coming to work in the American West, Wu said. The majority were men; however, a small number were women, including sex workers. By the late 1860s, white Americans had begun to form opinions or impressions about Asian or Chinese women, in particular, and legislators sought to banish or regulate their entry into the U.S. Wu said one of the first exclusionary policies was the Page Act of 1875, which banned importing women "for the purpose of prostitution."
According to research published in The Modern American, the legislation may have been intended to mitigate prostitution, but immigration officers often weaponized it to keep any Asian woman from entering the country, granting them the authority to determine whether a woman was of "high moral character."
"Fast-forward, then, through the 20th century. These associations that Americans already have of Asian women being engaged in this 'lewd and immoral' type of behavior gets amplified as the United States begins a series of imperial excursions, essentially, or wars in the Asia Pacific region," Wu said.
As the U.S. indulged in its imperial ambitions and fought wars in the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, local communities bore the brunt of the devastation, and women suffered heavy losses, Wu said. To deal with U.S. militarization and the havoc wreaked by war, some women resorted to sex work, as many think of it in the traditional sense, in exchange for money, but they also cohabitated with American GI boyfriends, for example.
"Really, by that time, really all the capital they have is their bodies," Wu said.
Popular culture continued to confirm many dehumanizing perceptions of Asian women, Wu said. Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film, "Full Metal Jacket," perpetuates the stereotype of women as sexual deviants with a scene featuring a Vietnamese sex worker exclaiming, "Me so horny." And jokes like "me love you long time" persist to this day, giving the impression that Asian women are "just good for those certain things."
"Maybe because we know this history, it's hard not to connect it to this other pattern, which is the United States' fighting these terrible wars in the Asia Pacific and really treating Asian lives as if they're completely disposable," Wu said, saying the gunman in Georgia "considered these women, these people's lives disposable."
Phi Nguyen, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta, said the hypersexualization of Asian women, which has been normalized, in part helped create the conditions for white supremacy, aggression and violence.
Advocates are calling for public safety nets and support for families in such situations, as well as for more public leaders to speak out against violence, particularly in Georgia.
"People living in that community and, frankly, American women across the country are living this trauma in some ways. There's the idea that 'this could have been me,'" Choimorrow said.
For now, Nguyen said, Atlanta's Asian American community is feeling the grief and anger tied to the shootings. But many are also in "rapid response mode" to make sure they can assess what the victims' families and the community need.