A Year Later: How the Atlanta Spa Shootings Draw Attention to the Hypersexualization of Asian Women

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — A year has passed on Wednesday since a white gunman opened fire on three spas in the Atlanta area, killing eight women, six of whom were Asian. Investigators said the killer described his actions as a result of his sex addiction, drawing attention to the ongoing issues Asian American women face around fetishization and hypersexualization.

“It is sad and disgusting that Asian women have been beaten, spat on, pushed onto subways and assaulted. But by the time six women died, people realized this was a problem. It’s like the Black Lives Matter movement. It took someone (George Floyd) horribly dying in front of our eyes for people to believe,” said Stephanie Chen.

Although the shootings took place in Georgia, their impact was felt across the country. For Chau Nguyen, addressing violence against women is something she does every day in her work at the Houston Area Women’s Center. But the events of March 16, 2021 touched her personally.

“I have two Asian-American daughters. I was like, ‘What kind of world are they living in that isn’t safe?'” she said. “Asian women shouldn’t have to watch their backs or fear for their lives. This is a real crisis that we need to address and look at.”

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

“I felt this clenching, sick feeling in your chest where it just hurts. It feels like someone punched you in the stomach,” Chen said. “I had a friend who was spat on because she was Chinese. My sister was once choked by a white man in broad daylight.

“I remember being horrified. These women did nothing wrong. They were just working,” said Kimberly Nguyen. “I have many friends in the salon and massage industry. It was pretty sobering to realize that this could have happened to any of them.”

Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office faced backlash when he said Robert Aaron Long was having a “really bad day” at a press conference following his arrest. Investigators said Long confessed to the murders but denied his actions were racially motivated. Victims’ families and prosecutors disagree, saying they would pursue the death penalty, escalating Long’s conviction to hate crime levels.

“That (Cpt. Baker’s testimony) in and of itself should tell us that we still make excuses for men committing violence against Asian women,” Chau Nguyen said.

She said this senseless act of violence was an example of how hypersexualization and fetishization can manifest with deadly consequences. It comes from harmful stereotypes that Asian women are docile, submissive, or exotic. Proponents said these concepts are not a new issue and have existed since the first group of Asian women immigrated to that country in the late 19th century.

“Hypersexualization dehumanizes and views Asian women as mere sex objects rather than whole human beings,” Chau Nguyen said. “There were laws that excluded East Asian women. In the history of our country there is this tale of when men came back from war and went to Asian prostitution shops.”

Chen and Kimberly Nguyen recalled instances of being fetishized or hypersexualized.

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

“A guy came up to me at the gas station. He said, ‘I can fill up for you. Where do you come from? You’re beautiful. Let’s go to dinner’” Chen said. “Another time I was walking through the anime department at Barnes and Noble and this white guy looked up at me and was very 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. Of those reports, 63 percent consisted of verbal harassment and 16.2 percent consisted of physical attacks. When the data is broken down by gender, women made up 61.8 percent of the reports.

Experts said what contributes to the continued existence of hatred and violence against Asians is the myth of the exemplary minority. Chau Nguyen said the serious problems Asian Americans face are often downplayed because they are perceived as the most thriving minority group, not experiencing or causing problems.

“When people think of us, they think that we are all doctors, lawyers and engineers. We do what we’re told and we’re happy,” she said. “It can harm us.”

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

“We ask people to take a real look inside themselves and look at their prejudices. There are many Asian American women who have experienced these aggressions, whether they are microaggressions or overt aggressions,” Chau Nguyen said. “We are real women living in this country. We are Americans. We have careers.

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

“We must now fear reprisals. We fear that if we reject someone who thinks they have complimented us, they may hit, shoot, or kill us. We’re afraid to say no because we don’t want to die,” Chen said. “When you realize that this should have happened to all of us, we just buried our trauma, what can we do to talk about it and bring it out .It is the initial phase of healing.”

“I think people are very surprised when women, especially Asian women, take a stand because they think that in our culture we should just eat whatever comes our way. But no, you don’t have to,” said Kimbely Nguyen.

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

President Biden released a statement on Wednesday condemning the killings and acknowledging the pain and trauma the shootings have inflicted on the Asian-American community, and came at a time when anti-Asian hatred was already rising during the COVID-19 Pandemic skyrocketed.

“It was a stark reminder that anti-Asian violence and discrimination runs deep within our nation, with Asian American women suffering the increased harm when they are targeted because of their race and gender,” the White House statement said .

Last May, the President signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which he says will use new tools and resources in government and law enforcement to prevent, prosecute and respond to hate crimes. Biden highlighted the executive actions his administration has taken to reduce gun violence and called on Congress to take action on gun reform.

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

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. A Year Later: How the Atlanta Spa Shootings Draw Attention to the Hypersexualization of Asian Women

Dais Johnston

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