by Midnite Martini
“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.
I’ve seen partners explicitly tout their Asian fetish like a badge of honor (congratulations, you’re my 3rd Asian girlfriend). I’ve seen partners who “don’t have a fetish” but expect certain sexual behaviors or make jokes about shooting ping pongs out your vagina to their friends. Either way, the fantasy turns into resentment, insecurities, microaggressions and ends up being a disservice to both sides. My inability to give authentic consent and their inability to de-fetishize makes real intimacy impossible.
After working to have healthier relationships, we still had the judgments of everyone else. I’d get certain glances and remarks only when with a White partner. They are the same glances and remarks Asian adoptees get with their White siblings or parents - making family outings awkward and triggering. Society sees a younger Asian body with a White body as a trophy or a kink.
We all have been told to see Asians a certain way and our country has a long history of entitling people to use Asian bodies without consent (as seen in the timeline).
Fetishism & Violence
So is it really surprising when events like the Atlanta Spa shooting occur? If someone feels entitled to use my Asian body for sex, the butt of a joke, or their fantasy then they feel entitled to use it for rage, aggression and violence. If someone assumes my consent, or doesn't think I’m worthy to give consent to begin with, they don’t truly see me as human.
Dehumanization breeds violence. We saw it in Atlanta. We’re seeing it in the rise of anti-Asian attacks. We see it when Asian women report more physical/sexual violence by intimate partners than any other ethnic group. And we’re going to keep seeing it until it’s acknowledged, held accountable and healed.
What can we do to help dismantle White Supremacy and anti-Asian stereotypes that fuel Asian fetishism?
If you have an Asian adoptee in your life, do you understand the complexities and can you empathize? What biases have you been taught? How do those relate to how you see the adoptee’s identity? What is your own relationship to consent?
To understand what we’re going through, learn about the history, listen to AAPI voices, and proactively search for AAPI perspectives to educate yourself. (I highly recommend reading Kimberly McKee’s open letter to adoptive families.) Talk to us. Our experience will most likely be different than your own; acknowledge that, validate it, and still awkwardly walk with us down the unfamiliar path. Ask us what we need. Everyone is different and needs different support.
If you have an Asian fetish or preference, why is that? If you joke about Asian bodies, where does that come from? Does it seem harmless anymore? Do you ask for consent? If you don’t understand why the Atlanta shootings triggered a conversation like this, will you learn about white supremacy and all the ways it manifests? We’ll give space for repair, but we ask you to meet us and unlearn some harmful behaviors and beliefs.
If you’re an Asian adoptee, you’re allowed to have conversations about this with your partners, families and friends. You’re allowed to grieve if those people fall short to see your struggle or acknowledge your pain. You’re allowed to give wholehearted consent. You’re allowed to feel safe. You’re allowed to speak your truth and unlearn your own hurtful biases. You don’t need all the answers and you are not alone. Seek support and give yourself grace while navigating these things.
I hope these conversations propel us to more healing and better loving. We can’t do it alone, will you do your work to stand with us?
For article and timeline references go to https://tinyurl.com/timelinereferences
Midnite Townsend (she/her) is a Korean Adoptee currently living in Chicago, IL. She has over 15 years of burlesque and aerial dance performance and instruction, using movement to form community and connection, heal souls and reclaim bodies. Midnite won Queen of Burlesque from the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2014 and has been invited across the globe to headline festivals and events. In 2016 she reunited with her birth family and this fall she will start her masters in somatic counseling and dance therapy. Midnite strives to empower people, advocate for adoptees and BIPOC performers and preach self love. You can dance, sweat and move with Midnite on her youtube channel - youtube.com/c/movewithmidnite