Yellow Fever, Asian Fetishes, and Sexual Violence

“Hey sexy mama!”

“Hey baby girl, give us a smile!”

“Nice rack!”

Ask any woman, and there is a good chance she has heard some of these phrases at some point in her life. Catcalling is a well-known tatic men who attempt to exert dominance over women often use. When targeting Asian women, the attack can take on an even more direct and vulgar tone.

“I’ve never been with an Asian before, I need my yellow fever cured…”

“My last 3 girlfriends were Asian.”

“I heard Asian pussies are tighter. Can I test yours out?”

The term “Yellow Fever” has been making the news recently with Whole Foods hosting a restaurant named Yellow Fever in one of its stores. The restaurant owners claim to be reappropriating the term and using it tongue-in-cheek for humor. Nicki Minaj’s music video “Chun-Li” further perpetuates the tired hypersexual Asian woman trope. Yellow fever dehumanizes Asian women and contributes to a culture where sexual violence against Asian women is normalized. This term should not be used for humor or re-appropriated. There can be no self-empowerment in this concept that is so clearly misogynistic.

Original artwork from @ziibiing

Asians and Asian Americans are often portrayed as being docile, submissive, and subservient. They’re popularly perceived as a people who won’t speak up when wronged and will follow orders without protest. They are often thought to lack agency in a culture where a community (or a man that purchases you as a bride) controls your body and sexuality.

Conversely there is the stereotype of Asian women as hypersexual and exotic. Rumors of Asian women’s vaginas being slanted or sideways have existed since the 1800s along with the opera, Madame Butterfly. Movies like Sayonara and The World of Suzie Wong reinforced these hypersexual stereotypes in the 1950s. Proliferation of video games, manga, and anime have further promoted the fetishization of Asian culture, and particularly Asian female images. The aforementioned Nicki Minaj video is a perfect example of the imagery from a thirty year old video game that now manifests itself in a video from a current pop star with hypersexual Asian clothing. This affinity for Asian pop culture has spread to human bodies in the form of “yellow fever” for Asian women and “rice queens” for queer men who fetishize Asian men.

The fetishization of Asian women yields a dangerous combination of sexist and racist stereotypes. Asian women’s bodies are perceived as available for sex without resistance. We are currently experiencing a moment where “Asian” and “Hentai” are entire sections in most pornography sites. Yellow fever” and a self-proclaimed attraction to “Asian Women Only” on dating sites are accepted norms.

This fetishization dehumanizes Asian women into old, racist tropes. Men aren’t interested in their partners beyond their Asian woman stereotypes. This dehumanization manifests itself all along the sexual violence continuum — from men who only date Asian women to American soldiers in the Vietnam and Korean wars who used their power to take advantage of local Asian women. We can see these fetishes play out in the numerous studies showing a preference for Asian women on dating apps, and in the high rate of sexual violence committed against Asian women.

The fact that a guy can proudly announce that he dehumanizes Asian women on a regular basis and face little to no repercussions is an indication of a culture that is willing to excuse sexual violence. “Yellow fever” “Asian fetishes” and “rice queens” are not compliments; they are gross examples of the normalization of violence against Asian women and queer Asian men. In a culture where Asian-specific dating websites, ads for sex tourism in Asia, and other dehumanizing fetishizing platforms exist using seemingly light-hearted monikers like yellow fever serve only to further normalize this behavior and make it acceptable.

Sexual violence is preventable, and it starts with people who are willing to create a culture where sexual violence is unacceptable. Asian fetishization adds one more layer to the dynamic of sexual violence against women. The next time you hear someone catcalling, proclaiming their Asian fetish, or demonstrating any other action that leads to sexual violence, be an active bystander and show them that you will not stand for it. Model what respecting people’s personal and emotional boundaries looks like and make safety for all a shared responsibility.

Some additional sources of information regarding fetishization of Asian women.

Japanese American Citizens League

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Sharing the legacy of Japanese Americans through advocacy and education since 1929.