Origins of sexualized racism against Asian women can be traced back to 19th century America

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Women of Asian descent were six of the eight victims killed in the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas earlier this week. Their killings increased fear among Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community members, who were already targeted for an increasing number of hate incidents since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago. 

Soon after the Georgia shootings, law enforcement downplayed racism as the gunman’s motive, and instead tied his actions to a sex addiction. That claim has been sparking big conversations about how racism and sexism often intersect in cases of violence against Asian women. 

Women made up two-thirds of the attacks against Asian Americans in the last year, according to a report released this week from the group Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate.

Ellen Wu, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington, says recent tragedies are a collision of multiple factors impacting AAPI communities. 

“We cannot divorce this case from the larger anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, and what a lot of people have identified and named as a general culture and enabling system of white supremacy at this moment.”

Wu says that the earliest federal immigration laws targeted women from Asia traveling to the U.S.,  and led to decades of Asian female sexualization. The Page Act of 1875 restricted Asian women from immigrating here — under the guise of preventing lewd behavior in the U.S. She says these women were often seen as sex workers and sources of temptation for the majority-male workforce in and around gold-rich areas. 

“Among those women,  yes, some of them were sex workers, and some of them were coerced into doing that work. But this was alarming enough. You can think of it as a justification for assuming that Asian women as a whole enable this problematic sexuality,” she explains.

War and violence in the South Pacific

Wu points out that anti-Asian violence didn’t just happen on U.S. soil, but during the wars in Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, and Korea. In turn, millions of men’s first encounters with Asian women were in militarized contexts.

“For women in these local places who were simply trying to survive these horrible conditions, often their best options were to do what we might think of as service work,” Wu says. “And sometimes that service work entailed companionship with American men, sometimes romance, oftentimes sex. And within that context, sexual violence was common.”

She says when examining the history and context of anti-Asian violence, incidents like the shooting in Atlanta aren’t unexpected. 

“For many Asian Americans, and I’d say other people of color who have been really on edge for so long, this type of horrific violence we've seen this week is not surprising,” Wu says. “It is just [a] daily, ongoing worry and now that has all been ratcheted up even more.”



  • Ellen Wu - director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington