(Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

The Atlanta spa shooter was not a victim of temptation

Madeleine Armstrong reveals how Asian-American women have been blamed for sexual immorality since the Gold Rush

Artillery Row

When Robert Long was asked to explain why he had murdered eight people at massage parlours in Atlanta, six of whom were women of Asian descent, he claimed it was due to a “sexual addiction” and a desire to eliminate “temptation”. The FBI Director Robert Wray, and critics of the #stopasianhate movement, took this to mean that the crime was likely not racially motivated. What they failed to see was that sexual obsession and racial hatred are, in this case, inseparable: Long targeted those women because he imagined they were “temptations” by the very nature of their race. According to some Korean-American newspapers, Long hellishly shouted he was going to “kill all the Asians” before he began firing. The horrific shootings in Atlanta reflect a long history in which Asian-American women have been the scapegoats for sexual guilt and shame.

Long targeted those women because he imagined they were “temptations” by the very nature of their race

The hyper-sexualisation of Asian women in America began in the California Gold Rush, soon after the first generation of Chinese immigrants arrived on the west coast. The vast majority of these immigrants were men: in 1890, women made up less than 4 percent of the Chinese population in America. This was not merely because it was expensive for male labourers to bring female relatives with them to America: according to the historian Sucheng Chan, the US government actively prohibited Chinese women from entering the country on the suspicion that they were mostly sex workers. There had a been a profitable trade in human trafficking and prostitution in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, most conspicuously in, though certainly not limited to China Town. This led the authorities, and the public at large, to associate the very few Chinese women who were in California with prostitution (Sucheng Chan, ‘The Exclusion of Chinese Women, 1870-1943’, p. 94).

California passed a series of Acts in the late-nineteenth century in order to prevent the importation of Chinese and Japanese women for “demoralising purposes,” which not only failed to put an end to human trafficking, but also reinforced the existing prejudice against Chinese women. In August 1874, when a steamship brought eighty-nine Chinese women to San Francisco, a state commissioner boarded the vessel, decided that twenty-two of them were there for “immoral purposes,” and detained them on the ship. The women insisted that they had come to America with good intentions, and Ah Lung, a Chinese man in San Francisco, appealed to the district court on their behalf, arguing that they had been illegally deprived of their liberty. But the district attorney of San Francisco declared that the State had the right to protect itself against “pestilential immorality,” and the Judge ordered that the women be “returned to whence they came” (Sucheng Chan, p. 100).

In the last century, the American perception of Asian women has been distorted by military conflicts in which Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese women have been forced to play both the enemy and the companion. In the aftermath of World War II, the Japanese government offered “comfort women” to the occupying American forces to placate them (Toshiyuki Tanaka and Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and US Occupation, p. 135). According to Katharine Moon, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, the Korean and American governments also sponsored and regulated prostitution for the U.S. military in Korea in order to advance the “friendly relations” of both countries (Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, p. 2). In 1972, the New York Times reported that the U.S. Army in Vietnam was allowing soldiers to bring Vietnamese prostitutes into their camps, in order to “keep peace within the increasingly disgruntled ranks of Americans still left in Vietnam”. Hollywood portrayals of Asian women as both ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ played upon this tension between distrust and desire (See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era).

The cultural undercurrent of pornography has also had a profoundly negative influence on the modern perception of sex and race. Long himself claims that his addiction to pornography was partly what motivated his terrible crime. Violence against women in pornography is ubiquitous, targeting women of all races. But according to a study in Archives of Sexual Behavior, the ‘Asian’ category on such sites is the most violent when the absence of consent is taken into account. What makes this sordid corner of the internet particularly awful, according to the study, is the way that it objectifies and dehumanises the women involved.

Men throughout history have externalised their sexual shame by demonising women as temptresses

When a fellow resident at Maverick Recovery, a 12 step base recovery residence in Georgia, asked Robert Long why he frequented massage parlours rather than paying for a prostitute, Long explained that it was “safer”. Given what we know of Long’s tormented relationship with fundamentalist religion, it is likely that he was referring to a kind of moral safety. Whatever happened at the spas, it didn’t quite seem to count. But the shooter later claimed that the women there were “temptations” so dangerous to society that they had to be eliminated. This extreme contradiction is undoubtedly the result of a deeply disturbed mind; however, it also reflects the problem at the centre of the hyper-sexualised image of Asian women: they are imagined to be dangerously seductive, yet somehow above the negative connotations of sex. Asian women are frequently objectified and mythologised by this absurd contrast.

Racism and misogyny have this in common: they rely upon the dehumanisation of their victims, born of a need to offload internal anguish and frustration. Men throughout history have externalised their sexual shame by demonising women as temptresses. When such men target women of a different race, they are able not only to externalise, but also to export sexual immorality. Think again of the district attorney of California during the Gold Rush, blaming the rise of prostitution in San Francisco on the “pestilential immorality” of Chinese women, and sending them away. Sexual immorality was not an American problem, he insisted, but an Asian one. Robert Long acted on the same compulsion to point to a foreign enemy rather than acknowledge his own desire and shame. The women who were murdered in Atlanta were prey to a malicious lie told since the very beginning of Asian immigration in America: that the men who abuse Asian women are somehow victims of a seductive plot, rather than predators taking advantage of a vulnerable minority. 

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