Growing up as the child of a Filipina mother who lived in poverty in the Philippines and an estranged white American father who is now engaged to another Filipina who is the same age as I am, the topic of racial fetishization is something that is very personal to me. If you live in a western country and regularly consume media, it’s likely that you are no stranger to the notion of the “submissive Asian female” trope, or the concept of “yellow fever.” The eroticization of Asian women (for example, Filipina women) is a phenomenon that has created an international industry that trafficks women from the Third World to men in the First World, and is driven by a complex web of gender, class, and ethnic subordination.

White men’s fascination with Asian women stems from early nineteenth century Western imperialism. The United States and other western countries flooded Asia with military forces in order to colonize these nations and extract as much wealth and resources as they could from them. Inevitably, prostitution centers in these countries began to prop up in order to serve the abundance of white servicemen. Shortly after World War II, the Japanese government provided "comfort girls" for American occupying forces. Vietnamese women served as prostitutes for American soldiers, as the Americans began to replace the French colonizers in Indochina. Thai and Laotian women served American troops during the Vietnam War. During this time, American soldiers also had access to Filipina prostitutes at Subic Bay. The only encounters that these white servicemen had with Asian women were in the context of prostitution, which resulted in the notion that Asian women were hypersexual, submissive by nature, and always eager to comply with white men’s demands. It furthered the dehumanization of Asian women and their depiction as sexual objects [1].

To sustain this increased interest, the Asian sex tourism industry developed. One of the hotspots for this industry is my mother’s home country of the Philippines. Sex tourism is an industry consisting of foreign men who visit a country specifically to seek out sexual encounters. Most of the workers in this trade are teens or young women who were trafficked by wealthy men, or were pushed into the trade by family pressure or economic desperation [2]. In the Philippines, the sex tourism industry flourishes as poverty continues to decimate the people. Rodrigo Duterte, the current President of the Philippines, has done little to battle the trafficking of women in the country, choosing instead to focus on extra-judicial killings of those suspected to be involved in the drug trade, as well as activists who criticize the government. In fact, Duterte publicly invited foreign men to the country by suggesting that young, virginal women were waiting for them on the beaches. Even worse is the fact that the most vulnerable populations, including indigenous people, transgender people, and children are highly susceptible to being trafficked into the Philippine sex tourism industry. Some of the main destinations for sex tourism in the Philippines include Angeles City and Subic Bay, both home to U.S. military bases as recently as the 1990’s. Although the respective bases in these cities are now closed, the legacy of military presence created the booming commercial sex industry that continues to persist on the backs of poverty-stricken women and children.

One of the more specific ways the legacy of U.S. imperialism directly translates to violence against Philippine women is the United States Visiting Forces Agreement. The agreement states that the United States government has the privilege to maintain jurisdiction of U.S. military personnel who commit crimes in the Philippines. Unless the crimes are “of particular importance to the Philippines,” the U.S. can either refuse to detain their accused personnel, or prosecute them under U.S. jurisdiction. The agreement also allows privileges such as unrestricted movement of U.S. vessels and aircraft in the Philippines, among other things [3]. The agreement is a neo-colonialist one, as it grants immunity to U.S. personnel for no justifiable reason, treating Filipinos as second class citizens in their own country. There are at least two cases of the U.S. using the VFA to shield U.S. military personnel within their own jurisdiction.

In December 2005, charges were filed against Lance Corporal Daniel Smith for raping Suzette “Nicole” Nicolas, a Filipina woman, inside a moving van as other soldiers were supposedly cheering him on. During the course of trial, he stayed at the U.S. embassy in Manila instead of being sent to a Philippine jail as per the judge's orders. This is due to the Visiting Forces Agreement allowing special treatment of U.S. personnel. After a series of court hearings that lasted a year, he was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Shortly thereafter, the case went to the Court of Appeals, partly due to Nicole’s withdrawal of her testimony. Filipino activists and legal officials believe the withdrawal of her testimony may have been due to bribery or intimidation by the U.S. military. In April 2009, the Court of Appeals acquitted Smith and ordered his immediate release. Less than 24 hours after his release, he left the country a free man [4].

Another example is the murder of Jennifer Laude, which occurred in October 2014, when the 26-year-old Filipina trans woman was killed by U.S. marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. Laude and her murderer met at a disco bar in Olongapo. According to police and witnesses, they subsequently went to a nearby motel. Hotel staff later found the hotel room door ajar and Jennifer’s dead body inside the room. Pemberton had strangled and drowned her after discovering that she was transgender. Instead of being charged with murder, Pemberton was charged with “homicide”, which carried a lesser sentence of only 6 to 10 years in prison [5]. According to Filipino activists who followed the case, the U.S. military did everything in their power to protect the murderer, from intimidating the Philippines' courts to bribing Jennifer’s family. They also tried to delay court proceedings long enough so the jurisdiction would pass onto American courts under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement. Unfortunately, Pemberton was recently released early from his sentence, granted an absolute pardon by President Duterte in order to “cut matters short” [6]. This sends the message that when a U.S. soldier murders a transgender Filipina, he is jailed for a minimal amount of time, kept in a comfortable facility, and is ultimately granted impunity for his crimes.

The effects of Western imperialism and the fetishization of Asian women are not just confined to the borders of those countries. It’s not surprising that the very places with a heavy United States military presence are also heavy exporters of mail-order-brides, as the boom in demand for Asian mail-order-brides correlates with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s [1]. Although my mother was not a mail-order-bride, in the sense of being purchased through a marriage broker, the systemic issues which led her to marry an American man were the same as thousands of Filipinas', who are forced to migrate overseas, facing exploitation and abuse, just to survive and provide for their families. According to estimates, there are anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Filipinas listed on internet sites marketing them for marriage. 70% of Southeast Asian women listed on these sites are from the Philippines, making it a hotspot for mail-order-brides [7].

It’s not surprising that Filipinas are in high demand, as they are eroticized in media and advertisements as ideal brides for a number of reasons. Websites that promote Filipina women emphasize their “traditional values” and “eagerness to serve.” The websites commodify these women, projecting the stereotypical image of a Filipina woman being “sweet, submissive, traditional, virginal, Christian, and familiar with the English language.” Filipina women are also praised in the eyes of men for their reluctance to divorce, which is likely due to the fact that, "apart from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country without legal divorce." [8] Essentially, the cultural factors and material conditions that make Filipina women so popular as mail-order-brides are the same cultural factors and material conditions that are the result of centuries of colonization.

The plain facts of poverty and lack of options that permeate the everyday lives of Filipinas are mainly what push them to enter the sex tourism industry or to become mail-order-brides. In an interview, Zarah Vinola of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns stated,

“The issue of mail order brides represents the dire poverty, landlessness, and horrific economic conditions that plague Filipino people daily. Such conditions are the result of constant economic plundering in the Philippines and unfair trade agreements from various foreign corporations, including those based here in the United States. The mail order bride industry involves the buying of people, and the buying of people is slavery!” [9]

Economic oppression is not the only factor at play. Social and other cultural factors also work in conjunction with economic factors to oppress women. For instance, we cannot underestimate the devastating effect that hundreds of years of colonization has on the minds of a people. According to Ashley Decena, “Colonial mentality is defined as the perception of ethnic and cultural inferiority and a form of internalized racial oppression. It is deemed a direct consequence of the Philippines' long history of colonialism.” [10] It has, unfortunately, resulted in a trend of self-hatred and a worship of whiteness, which is especially insidious in conjunction with patriarchal attitudes. Because of this, men like my father are able to use their position as white, (relatively) wealthy men to take advantage of the colonial mentality of Filipina women — especially  those who are in dire situations. These men also tend to be much older than the women they exploit, and many of them resent the women's liberation movement in their home countries.

One could argue that there is nothing wrong with logging onto one of these sites to find an Asian bride, as they believe that this is no different from meeting a partner on a dating site such as OkCupid or PlentyofFish. This is far from the truth. Setting aside the abhorrent notion that women can be a product to be sold, purchased, and exported, it’s also important to analyze why seeking out a partner on a racially fetishized basis is despicable in itself. No reasonable person should oppose interracial relationships or marriages, so long as said marriages are formed on legitimate bases. However, when one purposefully seeks out a partner due to existing stereotypes of a race or ethnic group they find attractive, they are already throwing away their potential partner’s individuality and autonomy, thus forcing them into a box based on false expectations. With this understanding in mind, it shouldn’t be  surprising that white supremacists have a history of fetishizing Asian women.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across a huge list of white supremacists, alt-rightists, and neo-nazis who had Asian wives, half-Asian children, openly fetishized Asian women, or were half-Asian themselves with a white father, on Reddit [11]. The list is seemingly endless. This is disturbing, to be sure, but it is no coincidence. Men who fetishize Asian women play on a number of stereotypes in order to reconcile their fetish with their white supremacist beliefs, such as the “submissive” trope and “model minority” myth. Remember this when men tell you they have a “preference” for Asian women, as beneath that “preference” is an expression of white supremacy and deep-seated misogyny.

It’s also important to consider the consequences that occur far too often when a young woman arrives in the United States or any other developed country to marry someone she has met online. Due to their immigration status and other oppressive factors, mail-order-brides are highly vulnerable to abuse once they arrive in their new country. It is not uncommon for mail-order-brides to suffer emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and in some cases, murder. One example is the 1995 case of Susana Blackwell, who was a Filipina mail-order-bride in Washington state. Susana had fled from her husband after suffering physical abuse after less than two weeks of marriage. In retaliation, he filed for an annulment, which meant Susana would be deported from the United States. Susana then filed for divorce under the “battered wife exception” which would have allowed her to stay in the country. Susana was eight months pregnant by the time the closing arguments were ready for her divorce case. As Susana and two of her Filipina friends were waiting in the courthouse, her estranged husband walked up to the women and shot each of them point blank in the head. He is currently serving a life sentence for each woman’s murder and the manslaughter of Susana’s unborn child [8].

Another example out of many is the story of Emilita Villa, who immigrated to Arlington, Texas from the Philippines as an impoverished 18-year-old to be married to a man 30 years older, Jack Reeves, who saw her in a mail-order-bride magazine and chose her to be his wife. Emelita suffered physical and sexual abuse at Reeves' hands and became extremely concerned for her safety. She began to express her desire to divorce him to her friends; she went missing soon after. Her remains were discovered near Lake Whitney in Colorado in 1992. It was later discovered in the course of investigations that Jack Reeves had three previous mail-order-brides, two of whom died of “mysterious causes” and one who disappeared [12].

The prevalence of abuse against mail-order-brides has led to the passing of acts such as the Federal International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, which requires background checks for Americans seeking to sponsor an international spouse, and also puts a limit on serial visa application. It is also important to note that it took them 10 years after Susana Blackwell’s murder to pass this act. Since then, United States policy has done almost nothing to either stop trafficking of mail-order-brides or to protect them from abuse. In 2012, a revision of the Violence Against Women Act, which would have helped abused mail-order-brides by allowing them to apply for protected immigration status, was blocked by House Republicans, as they were pressured in part by the president of a mail-order-bride company [8]. This is just another example showing us that the issues that women face globally cannot be solved through the bourgeois legal system.

Mail-order-brides and workers in the sex tourism industry are both disenfranchised under the law. Just as laws criminalizing prostitution generally are enforced against prostitutes instead of pimps or customers, mail-order-brides solely bear the legal risk of engaging in the interaction, whereas the bridal agency and the male consumer escape scrutiny altogether. Both the mail-order-bride industry and the sex tourism industry in Asia are driven by a web of subordination rooted in gender, class, and ethnicity. Eroticization is not just the result of an Asian woman’s gender or class or ethnicity, but rather the imbalance of power created by her gender, class, and ethnicity. It is also the dynamic created by a colonial mentality that makes seeking out/purchasing Asian women so appealing. So what can be done? It may seem like a daunting task, but these very issues offer a starting point and a framework for what is to be done.

First:

Work to end the racial fetishization of Asian women and lessen the demand for their sexual labor. This demands that we abandon archaic notions of racialized and gendered subordination, and that we work to liberate those who are mentally chained. It demands education to end colonial mentality, which encourages even to this day the worship of whiteness and wealth, and allows these abusive, sex tourist men to flourish. My father is not the only one. These men are our bosses, our fathers, our teachers, and our politicians. They are the ones we look up to. The capitalist, white supremacist system produces and reinforces this behavior, and we must bring an end to its normalization.

Second:

Improve economic conditions for women in the Third World so that they do not have to face sexual exploitation in order to survive or provide a livelihood. This issue is not just a concern for feminist, antiracist movements, or anticolonialist and anticapitalist movements, but for all of these movements put together. It is a concern not just for activists in colonized countries, but also in the imperial core. It requires a movement which builds coalitions across gender, class, ethnic, cultural, and national divides. Women’s rights, trans rights, sex workers’ rights, etc. are human rights, and their lives cannot be discounted.  We have to uplift the voices of those that are most oppressed, always.


Citations

[1] Meng, Eddy. “Mail-Order Brides: Gilded Prostitution and the Legal Response.” University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 28 (1994). https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1617&context=mjlr.

[2] Woan, Sunny. “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence.” Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice 14, no. 2 (March 1, 2008). https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1243&context=crsj.

[3] “RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.” Chan Robles Virtual Law Library. ChanRobles Group, July 19, 1998. https://www.chanrobles.com/visitingforcesagreement1.htm.

[4] “Subic Rape Case Timeline.” GMA News Online, March 17, 2009. https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/content/153081/subic-rape-case-timeline/story/.

[5] Call Her Ganda, 2020. http://www.callherganda.com/watch-now/.

[6] Cabato, Regine. “Philippines' Duterte Pardons U.S. Marine Convicted of Murdering Transgender Woman.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 7, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/philippines-duterte-pardons-us-marine-convicted-of-murdering-transgender-woman/2020/09/07/db0934ee-f0f2-11ea-8025-5d3489768ac8_story.html.

[7] “The Fight Against Violence on Women in the Philippines: The Gabriela Experience.” Women Watch. United Nations Women. https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/vaw/ngocontribute/Gabriela.pdf.

[8] Soliven, Marivi. “The Mail Order Bride Industry Is Anything But Funny.” The Establishment. Medium, July 22, 2017. https://medium.com/the-establishment/the-mail-order-bride-industry-is-anything-but-funny-d2711beb4403.

[9] Carothers, Cole. “Filipinas Are NOT for Sale! End Human Trafficking and Violence Against Women!” GABRIELA New York, October 30, 2016. https://gabrielanewyork.org/2016/10/08/904/.

[10] Decena, Ashley M. “Identity, Colonial Mentality, and Decolonizing the Mind : Exploring Narratives and Examining Mental Health Implications for Filipino Americans.” Theses, Dissertations, and Projects, 2014. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1846&context=theses.

[11] “2018 List of White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Conspiracy Theorists, White Nationalists and White Priders with Asian Fetishes, Asian Wives or Asian Girlfriends (Mostly Foreign Born).” Web log. r/Hapas. Reddit, 2018. https://www.reddit.com/r/hapas/comments/8t0fiz/2018_list_of_white_supremacists_neonazis/.

[12] Prodis, Julia. “Man Leaves Trail of Dead Wives.” South Coast Today, January 10, 2011. https://www.southcoasttoday.com/article/19960107/news/301079992.