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Sick of Yellow Fever: the Sexualization of Asian Women

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

TW // mention of rape

The steam of the shower envelops your body in a warm embrace. You close your eyes, allowing the droplets to cascade down your face. Lathering shampoo into your scalp is normally a therapeutic process, but this time, something is off. You look at—but don’t quite see—the stream of water taking the dirt and grime from the day down the drain. A dense fog has engulfed your mind, clouding any remnants of rational thought. You twist the shower handle shut and grab a towel from the hook. Stepping out onto the bath mat, you stare into your mirror. Although the steam has fogged over the glass, you can still make out the frown etched onto your face.

You moisturize your skin, brush your hair, and clean your teeth, all while staring at your reflection. Like always, you’re tired after a long day, but the hunch of your shoulders seems a touch more pronounced, the bags under your eyes a dash more evident. Finally, you collapse onto your bed, where you decide to check your phone one last time. The time on your lock screen reads 11:27, but your eyes are drawn to your wallpaper. You had set it a couple of weeks ago to a picture of you and your boyfriend—your dark locks, pale countenance, and brown eyes in stark contrast to his blonde waves, sun-tanned skin, and baby blues. Immediately, the frown returns. Just that morning, that picture had brought you joy, but now, all you can focus on is the clenching of your stomach and the shiver running throughout your body. Yes, you just showered, but you still feel dirty.

That night, you lie still underneath the covers, willing yourself to drift off into dreamland, but your mind refuses to rest. As the soft moonlight seeps through your windowpane in fragmented beams, you can’t help but wonder: Is he attracted to me because of who I am as a person, or because I’m Asian? Staring up at the ceiling, you mentally run over various scenarios, each one unearthing a plethora of questions and uncertainties.

Number One. All of his past girlfriends have your exact features—the same inky hair, creamy skin, and almond eyes.

Number Two. When you had called him, voice shaking as you recounted being catcalled by a group of older men sporting identical beards speckled with gray (“I’ve never been with an

Asian before, can you be the first?”), he had insisted that you were overreacting.

Number Three. That very afternoon, when you had been intimate for the first time, he had focused only on his wants and needs, paying no regard to those of your own.

Your mind keeps circling back to Number Three, and you’re transported back into that very moment, reliving a memory you want nothing more than to forget. You remember the hair raised down your arm, every cell in your body screaming in discomfort. You remember being reduced to nothing more than an object. You remember feeling used, feeling dirty. Now, in the middle of the night, you realize: yellow fever has struck once more, and you’re its latest victim.

Another pandemic is ravaging the world. It’s one that has existed long before the coronavirus, so long ago it’s seen as normal. It’s a disease that’s hundreds of years in the making, one that’s bled into the very framework of society. Yellow fever, paraphrased from an article published by Cambridge University in 2016, is a person’s exclusive or near-exclusive preference for sexual intimacy with Asians, predominantly Asian women. Yellow fever, born from a twisted and complex history, has caused unspeakable horrors and unparalleled pain for millions (particularly for women) over the course of history. Its effects are still very much real and very much damaging for the Asian women of the modern-day, in numerous ways. Something so pervasive, so normalized, and so glorified will never be good, no matter which way the misogynistic narrative attempts to spin it.

. The origins of yellow fever can be traced back to the late 1800s, when Victorian men, upon visiting port cities in Japan, became enraptured by geishas, highly-respected hostesses whose duties were to entertain men, most typically with conversation, dance, and song. These men, captivated by the sensuality of these “exotic” women, returned to the Western world and immortalized the geisha through a one-dimensional perspective. This respected role, rooted in rich cultural tradition, was perverted by the view that the Asian woman—seductive, yet docile—had one sole purpose: to pleasure and entertain men through sexual gratification.

Hollywood and the American media’s false representation of East Asian individuals cemented the misconceptions Victorian men had initially perpetuated about the sexual nature of Asian women. Through what is known as “physical, social, and psychological distancing,” these corporations presented the idea of a mythological “Other” to enforce Western imperial dominance. Through their surface-level understanding of Asian women solely providing sex and service, Hollywood and the American media established the archetype of the “China Doll:” both infantile and hypersexual, with a primary role of indulging in the colonial fantasies of fragile and diminutive Asian women. This docile characterization portrays a “dominant/submissive” power play between the white man and Asian woman. Moreover, as Japan rose in economic power during the 1980s, the media—fuelled by xenophobic attitudes—introduced the idea of the “Dragon Lady:” domineering and impersonal, yet still promiscuous in nature. By creating this archetype, these corporations capitalized off of “yellow peril,” finding creative liberty from the public’s fear of the threatening, taking over, invading, or “Asianizing” of society and culture. Ultimately, this binary representation instills a subconscious expectation for Asian women to embody a one-dimensional standard.

Throughout history, sexual violence against women has routinely been weaponized in militaristic scenarios. During World War II, Japan captured approximately 200,000 Asian women, including those of Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, and Filipino descent. Forcefully exploited as sex slaves, these controversially-named “comfort women” were the victims of the largest human trafficking case in the twentieth century. Even after Japan surrendered to the United States, the system continued under a network of Japanese brothels. Young girls were raped up to multiple times a day, unwillingly fulfilling the idea that the role of the Asian woman was to serve a man through sexual means. This idea extends even further through the rise of “war brides;” during the Cold War, American GIs (military personnel) brought home Asian women they met while stationed in Japan and Korea. During this time, the Western public distinguished between white European women and East Asian women: while the former was typically seen as marriage material, the latter were predominantly viewed as sexual partners. The Victorian man’s initial perception of Asian women had now expanded to all of the modern Western world.

This superficial characterization of Asian women has only been reinforced and exacerbated by the rise of mass media. The sexualization of Asian women is evident in anime, manga, video games, and even pornography—in 2016, “Japanese” and “Asian” were among the top 20-most searched items on Pornhub. Moreover, the sexual perception of Asian women even transcends to an act as innocent as eating. Take a look at the sensationalized mukbang (“broadcast eating”), which originated in South Korea as a way to facilitate “digital commensality” amongst individuals eating alone. As the practice has become popularized in Western culture, so has the sexualization of Asian female mukbangers. As Donnar (2017) relates, overweight male individuals (the predominant demographic of viewers) eroticize these women, turning the collective hungry gaze upon eating—an innocent act yet relatively vulnerable state of being. For the Asian woman, unsolicited fetishization seeps into every aspect of daily life.

Additionally, this sexualization has become both amplified and normalized by the actions of celebrities. In June 2019, Kim Kardashian donned the brand name Kimono for her new underwear line. In November 2013, Katy Perry dressed up as a geisha for her performance at the American Music Awards. It’s even seen in fast fashion: an individual searching the web for a new qipao will find themselves bombarded by sexified, inaccurate variations. Universally, fashion is a means through which an individual can choose the way they want others to perceive them. However, for people of Eastern cultures, it’s also a way to honor their heritage. When sensationalized media stars tonelessly don Asian apparel, they’re disrespecting tangible symbols of culture, and they’re worsening the public’s association of Asian women with a sexual nature. Everyone must remember that there’s a thin line between appreciation and appropriation.

Every single one of these factors contributes to the fetishization of women in this day and age, and it’s most prevalent in the dating realm. Historical stereotyping has caused Asians to be recognized as shy, soft-spoken, and submissive, leading to the “gendering” of the Asian race as feminine. While this degrades the sexual capita of Asian men—as evidenced by the rarity of relationships between Asian men and white women—this produces what is known as the “double feminization” of Asian women, and thus the widespread nature of yellow fever. Many people claim that this inclination to be attracted to Asian women is “just a preference.” They say that their attraction for certain sexual phenotypes (such as hair color, eye shape, etc.) is purely superficial and non-racialized, and thus morally sound. Yet this isn’t true.

It’s the twenty-first century. Society doesn’t remember a time before the “China Doll” and the “Dragon Lady” were popularized through film media. People can claim that we live in a post-racial world. They can declare that we live in an era where color doesn’t matter—but they are blind to the truth. All of us, when looking upon an individual for the very first time, hold implicit biases based on our first impression. Sure, we eventually get to know them as people—removed from their outward appearances—but in that first split second, we take in their physical characteristics: their hair, their skin, their eyes, their nose. Our initial subconscious perception of others is shaped by our lifelong exposure to racial stereotypes—and in the case of Asian women, the normalization of their fetishization.

While yellow fever doesn’t afflict every white man, this demographic is frequently affected. However, the real victims are all of the Asian women objectified by these aforementioned men. Exotic. Foreign. Whether subjugation to crude language on dating apps, the reception of unsolicited catcalls while walking down the street, and even unwarranted comments from acquaintances, the ramifications of collective fetishization seep into every facet of life. Through such characterizations, Western society as a whole has alienated and otherized Asian women from the rest of the world, allowing misogynistic attitudes to prevail.

Every person is born as a blank slate, shaped by the environment surrounding them. From day one, Western society is force-fed a narrative fueled by the centuries-old xenophobia of the Victorian colonizer. We grow up with depthless notions about our race and our gender, notions that have shaped both our interactions with others and how we perceive ourselves. There’s no quick fix, no sudden cure to a disease with primarily psychological side effects, but there’s hope. Change starts today. We’re sick of yellow fever. We have all of the tools we need to get rid of it: our knowledge, our community, and our voice. The fight is far from over, but together, we can eliminate this pandemic for good.

We can’t erase the past. We can’t gloss over the role yellow fever has played in our lives, and the lives of our mothers, and their mothers. But we can learn. Reversing a narrative that has been perpetuated for centuries will not happen overnight, but every day, we take a step in the right direction. With each person speaking out against yellow fever, with every individual supporting those who have personally been affected by this perilous disease, we’re slowly but surely writing a new story—fighting for a world that is long overdue. I hope for a society that’s free from objectification, sexualization, and fetishization. I wish for a day when an Asian woman finally lives without perverse, outdated expectations clouding wherever she goes. I believe in a time when my children, and their children, and all generations to come are free from yellow fever. The future is uncertain, but it’s not set in stone. The actions of today determine the world of tomorrow.

- Justine Torres



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