A week ago, InSight, the only Asian-American women’s organization on campus, gathered for a weekly dinner meeting, and the topic of conversation turned to the prevalence of the “Asian fetish” in American culture. We discussed the social significance of this obsessive sexual fixation on Asian women in a larger context, including the stereotyped portrayal of Asian women in the media and its relation to the growing mail-order bride industry.
What we didn’t realize at the time of the discussion was the disgusting form that this fetish had taken on a nearby college campus. Recently, Princeton graduate student Michael Lohman admitted to police that he had been silently terrorizing more than 50 Asian women on campus by clipping snippets of their hair, spraying them with his urine and pouring his semen or urine in their drinks at university dining halls when they weren’t looking. After three years of these repulsive acts, investigators finally caught up with and arrested Lohman last week. They searched his campus apartment and found stolen underwear and women’s hair stuffed into mittens that he had been using for sexual self-gratification.
Many might discredit this news as an isolated incident of perversity, but the fact is that there is a pattern in which Asian women are targeted for sexual fetishes, harassment and assaults, even on college campuses. For example, in 2000, two Japanese college women were abducted, raped, videotaped and told that if they told anybody what had happened, the videotapes would be sent to their fathers. The three white assailants admitted targeting Asian women precisely because they had a sexual fetish for “submissive” Asian women, but also because they believed that this same submissiveness and cultural shame would prevent the women from reporting the assaults. In 2002, N.C. State University student Lili Wang was stalked and murdered by Richard Borrelli Anderson, a white classmate who was infatuated with her and had admitted to a colleague that he had an Asian fetish.
Though it may be difficult to identify the exact origins of violence targeted at Asian women, there is no denying that media portrayal of this minority population has had an effect on building preconceived notions and shaping stereotypes of Asian women as passive, exotic and more easily dominated. Images of the Japanese Geisha girl, the South Asian seductress and the China doll pervade American culture and add to the misconception of Asian women. This has had disturbing results. For instance, in 2002, Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne conducted a content-analysis study of 31 pornographic Web sites that advertised scenes depicting the rape or torture of women, and found that nearly half of the sites used depictions of Asian women as the rape victim.
Not only are Asian women disproportionately targeted in sex crimes, but they are also the least likely to report such incidents. Sex crimes are already grossly underreported, with only an estimated 26 percent of rape victims coming forward, but the percentage of Asian women who do so is even lower, at a mere 8 percent. Police hope that the Asian women will come forward about their harassment in the Princeton incident; however, the statistics tell us that it is not likely.
It is important not to lose sight of the 50-plus victims at Princeton. All of us have stories that we hear about, know about or have lived through. It is important for us to go beyond simply being outraged at such incidents and make sure we do something concrete, particularly in a way that establishes a support structure for victims. We need to be victim-centered in our approach, focusing on building community support for victims. Part of the reason why Asian women are not likely to come forward about their victimization in sex crimes is that many Asian cultures put the blame for such crimes on the women. They feel a sense of shame for having been the target of such attacks and feel that they might have done something wrong to invite the attack. It is these ideas and this culture that we must fight and abolish. The stigmatization of rape victims must end.
It may be easy to disregard the widespread existence of an Asian fetish as an “annoying” but essentially benign phenomenon that does not need to be taken seriously. But, as the Princeton episode demonstrates, we need to be aware of the violent and perverse forms it can take and its serious ramifications.
Sallie Kim is a senior in Calhoun College. Shannon Stockdale is a junior in Silliman College. They are co-chairs of InSight, the Yale chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.