Experiences of Asian fetish and what one Psychology Masters student is doing about it
It’s a Friday night. You’re lying on the bed, mindlessly scrolling by the hundredth person on Bumble. Left, left, left, then right! Suddenly you get a match. You’re wide-eyed and feeling a quick flutter of anticipation in your stomach. You message them something on the fly, maybe a reference to a joke on their profile just to let them know that yes you read it, that you’re not just here to get down and dirty for their looks. Suddenly their reply comes:
“Haha yeah, what kind of Asian are you btw” or “I love Asian women because they’re so smart.” Or the classic pun: “just Chi-na get to know you here ;).”
Shit. Your heart sinks. But really, I should have expected this.
To all my fellow Asians who have had similar experiences, I feel you.
Sadly it’s not uncommon. And with the pervasiveness of this attitude towards Asians, and Asian women in particular, it’s easy to internalise it, and to normalise it.
Asian fetish (the romantic or sexual preference for individuals of Asian descent by those who are non-Asian) is no compliment. It is reductive, demeaning, and at times downright terrifying. Particularly, stereotypes around Asian women means that we are often viewed as exotic, childlike, hyperfeminine, promiscuous, “easier to obtain” than women of other ethnicities, and always submissive to men. This form of racism often leads to the consent of Asian women being seen as an expectation rather than a question, further ‘justifying’ acts of sexual violence perpetrated against them.
Fetishisation of Asian women can be psychologically damaging too. Many victims report navigating doubt, insecurity, and low self-esteem. For example, I spent much of my 23 years feeling as though my Asian-ness was a big plus to some of the people around me. I even remember nervously asking my first boyfriend: “do you just like me because I’m Asian?” Yikes. While he didn’t (thank God), this questioning of intent exemplifies how one can get used to being seen exclusively for your ethnicity rather than your personhood.
Throughout my (very long and very pricey) uni journey, I’ve had the privilege to discuss all of the above with other students. Naturally, all this grumbling did was to piss me off to the point where I decided that I wanted to try to address Asian fetish and just how twisted it is. And what better way to do it than in a Masters thesis? From there, the whole thing spiralled out of control to become something bigger than I ever imagined.
The topic of how to design “sexual violence prevention campaigns to meet the needs of East and South-East Asian students” is no glamorous task. Its background reading was bleak as fuck. I spent hours poring over the history of colonisation and exploitation of Asian bodies by the West; the 20th Century ban on Asian women immigrating to Western countries like New Zealand because of fears that the Chinese would “breed like rabbits” and that “Chinese women would spread STIs to White men who would then spread them to their White wives”. I also read about the sexual targeting of Asian women (particularly students) because they were “nice…softly spoken…less likely to report…a temptation” and so on and on.
But if we’re talking pros vs cons: it’s been one worthwhile, wild ride. Through my Masters, I learned just how complex it is to address taboos around sex, sexuality, and sexual violence in most Asian communities within Aotearoa. Quick sidenote: I haven’t officially submitted the thesis yet, so a teaser is all that’s gonna happen right now, sorry. But sneak peek! Turns out that the Asian students I interviewed are highly concerned about the power of family reputation, gender and social stereotypes, Asian and Kiwi cultural differences, and the limits of bilingual prevention campaigns when it comes to representing diverse identities and experiences.
The insight of my participants has shaped this research; I hope in turn this research will inform policy in uni and other settings. This research stems from the need for culturally sensitive campaigns to tackle the persistent issue of sexual violence on our campuses. Because we can do without swapping stories like they’re gifts on Christmas morning (except this time it’s all year-round). I don’t need to relate to other Asian women about being sexually harassed and/or assaulted because our ethnicity apparently equals this treatment. We’re all so tired of it too.
I still sometimes apologise for bringing up the link between ‘Asian fetish’ and sexual violence even though it first inspired my Masters. I dislike upsetting those around me because this isn’t exactly a hot party topic—it is exposing, sensitive, and sometimes people would rather not talk about it. But on one occasion, I remember one of my supervisors reassuring me: “You don’t have to say sorry. You’re the one who has to experience it.”
Because my research is not just on paper. It is lived and breathed for many Asians in Aotearoa every day. It’s not fun talking to someone new and wondering if they only like you because you’re Asian or in spite of it. Nobody wants to hear ‘jokes’ about someone “ordering you like a mail bride from Vietnam” (how about no). And it’s not fun to be grabbed in public because some guy has decided your consent doesn’t matter, or never could.
We never wanted to be ‘special’ or singled out. We just want to be safe.
And I think that is why I’m not doing something about Asian fetish—we all are.
Everyone who has shown any kind of support—whether it’s signing up to participate, agreeing to informal Zoom interviews, jumping on board the research team, or even sharing the many words of encouragement from friends (old and new alike). Everyone who’s had to experience Asian fetish, or shared their experiences, and everyone who’s listening and learning.
Ngā mihi—this research belongs to all of us.
Disclaimer: all the personal anecdotes shared here are my own unless stated otherwise
1 Bitna Kim, “Asian Female and Caucasian Male Couples: Exploring the Attraction,” Pastoral Psychology 60 no. 2 (2011): 233-244, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11089-010-0312-9.
2 Robin Zheng, “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes.” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 2 no. 3 (2016): 400-419, https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2016.25.
3 Sunny Woan,. “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence,” Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice Law, no. 14 (2008): 275-301, http://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1243&context=crsj
4 See Ng (1959) and Shimizu (2021)
5 See Chow (2002), Elliot (2000), Glen (2002), Mascabasco (2005), Murphy (2002), Stevens & Abusaid (2021), Tizon (2011) and Zacharias (2002) for some examples