One year later: How the Atlanta spa shootings call attention to hypersexualization of Asian women

ByRosie Nguyen via KTRK logo
Thursday, March 17, 2022
Calling attention to hypersexualization of Asian women
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"Asian women should not be watching their backs or having to fear for their lives. This is a real crisis that we must address and look at."

HOUSTON, Texas -- Wednesday marked one year since a white gunman opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, killing eight women, six of whom were Asian. Investigators said the killer described his actions as being the result of his sex addiction, calling attention back to the on-going issues that Asian American women face of fetishization and hypersexualization.

"What's sad and disgusting is Asian women have been getting beat up, spit on, pushed into subways, and attacked. But until six women died, did people realize that this was an issue. It's like the Black Lives Matter movement. It took someone (George Floyd) to die horrifically in front of our eyes for people to believe it," said Stephanie Chen.

Even though the shootings took place in Georgia, its impact could be felt throughout the country. For Chau Nguyen, addressing violence against women is something she does everyday in her line of work at the Houston Area Women's Center. But the events of March 16, 2021 struck a personal chord with her.

"I have two Asian American daughters. I asked myself, 'What kind of world do they live in that's not safe?'" she said. "Asian women should not be watching their backs or having to fear for their lives. This is a real crisis that we must address and look at."

Chen and Kimberly Nguyen experienced similar emotions and feelings that day too.

"I felt that clenching sick feeling in your chest, where it just hurts. It feels like someone punched you in the gut," said Chen. "I've had a friend who was spit on because she was Chinese. My sister has been choked in broad daylight before by a white man. I became very anxious about going out."

"I remember being horrified. These women didn't do anything wrong. They were just working," said Kimberly Nguyen. "I have a lot of friends in the salon and massage industry. It was pretty sobering to realize that this could have happened to any one of them."

Cpt. Jay Baker with the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office faced backlash when saying that Robert Aaron Long had a "really bad day" at a press conference after his arrest. Investigators said Long confessed to the murders, but denied that his actions were racially motivated. The victims' families and prosecutors disagree, saying they would be pursuing the death penalty and enhancing Long's sentencing to the level of a hate crime.

"That (Cpt. Baker's statement) in and of itself should show us that we still give excuses for men who perpetrate violence onto Asian women," said Chau Nguyen.

She said this senseless act of violence is an example of how hypersexualization and fetishization can manifest itself into deadly outcomes. It comes from harmful stereotypes of Asian women being docile, submissive, or exotic. Advocates said these concepts are not a new issue and have existed since the first group of Asian women immigrated to this country in the late 1800s.

"Hypersexualization dehumanizes and looks at Asian women as mere sex objects and not as human holistic beings," said Chau Nguyen. "There were laws that excluded East Asian women. There's this narrative in the history of our country of when men came back from war and went to Asian prostitution shops."

Chen and Kimberly Nguyen recalled experiencing instances where they were fetishized or hypersexualized.

"I was a bartender back in college and some random drunk guy will say, 'I've always wanted to sleep with an Asian girl.' Even with my patients now, they'll say things like, 'I love Asian women. They are so obedient,'" said Kimberly Nguyen. "People think that because the stereotypes don't affect us negatively because it's supposed to be a 'positive' thing to be seen as attractive, desirable, or sexual."

"A guy came up to me at the gas station. He said, 'I can pump your gas for you. Where are you from? You're beautiful. Let's go to dinner,'" said Chen. "Another time I was walking through the anime section at Barnes and Noble and this white guy looked up at me, got really excited, and asked if I was Japanese."

According to Stop AAPI Hate, they have received a total of 10,905 hate incidents since March 19, 2020. Out of those reports, 63 percent consisted of verbal harassment and 16.2 percent contained physical assault. When the data is broken down by gender, women made up 61.8 percent of the reports.

Experts said what contributes to the on-going existence of anti-Asian hate and violence is the Model Minority myth. Chau Nguyen said the severe issues facing Asian Americans are often minimized, because they are perceived as the most flourishing minority group that do not experience or cause any trouble.

"When people think of us, they think we're all doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We do as we're told and we're pleasers," she said. "That can have a damaging effect on us."

So what can be done to help combat this issue? She said it starts with raw, vulnerable, and uncomfortable conversations.

"We're asking people to take a real look within themselves and look at their biases. There are a lot of Asian American women who experienced these aggressions, whether they be microaggressions or blatant aggressions," said Chau Nguyen. "We are real women who live in this country. We are Americans. We have careers.

Since the tragedy, Chen started the Get Raw Podcast to provide a platform for Asian American women to share their stories and the unique issues they're facing. Kimberly Nguyen partnered with Houston Self Defense Academy to offer classes to Asian American women in the area.

"We have to fear retaliation now. We have to fear that if we turn someone down who believes they were giving us a compliment, that they could punch us, shoot us, or kill us. We're afraid to say no, because we don't want to die," said Chen. "When you realize, this should've happened to all of us, we've just buried our trauma, what can we do to talk about it and get it out there. It's the beginning stages of healing."

"I think people are very taken aback when women, esp. Asian women take a stand because they think in our culture, we're just supposed to eat everything that comes at us. But no, you do not have to," said Kimbely Nguyen.

Houston joined the list of cities that held rallies across the country to mark the grim one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings. The Asian American Bar Association hosted the event in downtown Houston at Discovery Green, with dozens in attendance for a program of speakers and performances. Organizers said they wanted the space to be a place of healing for the community, who are still suffering from pain and trauma. They also issued a call to action to end hate and violence against Asian Americans.

President Biden released a statement Wednesday condemning the murders, acknowledging the pain and trauma that the shootings inflicted onto the Asian American community, and came during a time when anti-Asian hate was already skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was a stark reminder that anti-Asian violence and discrimination have deep roots in our nation, with Asian American women experiencing the compounded harms of being targeted on account of their race as well as their gender," according to the White House statement.

Last May, the President signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law, which he said dedicated new tools and resources across government and law enforcement to help prevent, track, and respond to acts of hate. Biden noted the executive actions his administration has taken to reduce gun violence and called on Congress to act on gun reform.

For stories on Houston's diverse communities, follow Rosie Nguyen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.