Asian Fetishism, Consent, and Adoption

by Midnite Martini

Protestors against anti-Asian violence
Photo credit Jason Leung on Unsplash

“It’s only a preference.”

“You should be flattered!”

“It’s not racist, I love Asian women!”

I’ve heard these all before. Perhaps you have too? Maybe you know someone who only dates Asians but they aren't racist . . . right? Maybe you’ve never heard of an Asian fetish, but I bet it affects you and the “AAPI” (Asian American Pacific Islander) in your life.

So let’s unpack Asian fetishism. Let’s get uncomfortable and dig into the pain fetishism causes. And let me share my story showing we all have learned these harmful biases.

"To opt out of these difficult conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. You can’t do that. You’ve got to lean in. It’s painful work, but that's no excuse to ignore it.” - Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead

Who am I?

I’m a Korean adoptee who, like many transracial adoptees, grew up in a White family and community through the lens of “colorblindness.” I’m Burlesque Hall of Fame’s Queen of Burlesque 2014 who’s taught the art of striptease around the world. I’m a long time psychotherapy client who will be pursuing a masters in Counseling this fall. All to say, I have a lifetime of navigating identity, belonging, race, and sex.

In 2019, I co-presented a workshop on Asian Fetishization in the Western World at the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network conference and later for Korean Adoptees of Chicago. (Thanks to co-presenters Bazuka Joe and Chris Detrych who represented the Asian queer male and Asian straight male perspective on this topic.)

I come from an Eastern Asian cis-female perspective typically relating to a White hetero- cis-male gaze. But I am not alone. Fetishism affects all AAPI and BIPOC folx and everyone’s voices are needed in this greater conversation.

What is Asian Fetishism?

“Asian Fetishism” is the objectification, sexualization and dehumanization of Asian people without their consent. I love this description from Yale Daily News:

“It’s taking away the agency of that individual and her ability to control how she’s perceived and treated and acted upon. . . [it’s] when someone doesn’t have a say in what’s happening anymore and when someone’s exoticized — or eroticized — without consent.”

It’s higher interest rates in Asian women on dating apps and more porn sites devoted to Asian women than any other fetish. It’s someone proclaiming they have “yellow fever” or shouting “me so horny.” It’s strangers asking if my feet are bound or vagina is slanted. It’s when I feel unseen as an individual and powerless in how I’m treated.

It’s All About Consent

Consent is key. Your narrative of who I am likely misaligns with how I want to be seen and treated. Consent is a voluntary, enthusiastic and clear agreement between participants at a specific moment in time. Consent changes and is never assumed or owed, something I wish I knew growing up.

Unfortunately, I thought consenting to be fetishized was always expected. I could either go along or pay the consequences. So why resist? Especially when it seemed to promise love, belonging and worthiness (all triggering desires for my young adoptee self).

Fetishism through an Adoptee Lens

I’ve spent most of my life and career wrestling between: 1.) playing into harmful fetishism for safety and belonging; and 2.) reclaiming my sexuality and giving wholehearted consent.

Being an adoptee complicated this further. I feared displeasing White people; otherwise I’d be given up again. I desired pleasing White people; to belong and be loved. I never identified as Asian; the “colorblindness” White washed me to deny it. Yet I was treated as Asian; bullies making fun of my “flat face” and “ching chun” eyes.

So first learning about Asian fetishes actually excited me. I dreamt of being Blonde and blue-eyed growing up. That was true American beauty. Seeing escort services and strip clubs promoting “Blondes & Asians” was like my dream come true. Could I be as beautiful as a White person?

Quick pause: We can’t shame sex workers when we have these conversations. We can’t explain behaviors and violence “because he thought I was a sex worker,” as if that makes it okay or acceptable. Transferring the country’s anti-Asian prejudice to anti-sex worker prejudice is unhelpful. Sex workers deserve consent, safety and dignity like everyone and I urge us to stand together and combat the anti-sex worker stereotypes that harm us all.

Asian fetishism was the perfect storm to exploit my dream. Without it I was bullied, with it I was eroticized. The transition from social pariah to romantic fantasy was overwhelming. My White family and friends had no idea what I was going through. I had no idea what I was going through.

In an attempt to gain control I bought in. I internalized self worth as attractiveness, my ability to fulfill other’s fantasies, and my compliance to suppress any pain caused in doing so. In return I thought I’d be safe, happy and loved. Needless to say that dream was short lived.

Dating & Relationships

I often wondered if my partners’ interests were in me or in my stereotype. I accepted harmful behaviors in an attempt to fulfill the “Asian woman experience.” This stifled my own sexual development and disabled my ability to give real consent. When I internalized fetishizing myself, I internalized dehumanizing myself.