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OPINION: #StopAsianHate and International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

by Amanda Ong

Content Warning (CW): Slurs, harassment

When I was 13, some teenage boys left me a racist, sexist voicemail saying they wanted to know what it was like to have sex with an Asian girl. “Are you submissive?” they asked in the recording. “Can we fuck you with a shoe? Will you love us long time? Ching chong, ching chong.” The muffled laughter of pubescent boys rang in the background.

Presumably, they were middle school classmates and found my home phone number in our school directory. My parents had to listen to the voicemail before I did, and solemnly sat me down to play the message aloud. At the time, my barely teenage self was unable to comprehend the gravity of the message, concerned more with what it implied about my popularity than anything else. The school did nothing. Not that it matters, but I looked like this:

A vintage school photograph depicting Amanda Ong wearing her middle school uniform.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Ong.

The incident was the first time I had been explicitly, violently targeted as an Asian American girl. I have known the sexual violence and fetishization that Asian women face better than I would like ever since. But this year was the first time in my life I saw that violence manifest as mass murder.

On March 17, 2021, we witnessed the murder of six Asian American women at a series of shootings in Atlanta-area massage parlors. The women’s names were Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng and their murders were tied up in months of hate crimes against Asian Americans during the pandemic that propelled the #StopAsianHate movement. But more significantly, the women’s murders had deep roots in the long-standing fetishization and sexualization of Asian women; history of rape and sexual violence towards Asian women by Western nations; stereotyping of Asian massage parlor workers as always being sex workers; and general discrimination and violence against all sex workers.

Today, Dec. 17, exactly nine months after the Atlanta massage parlor shootings, is the annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. First observed in 2003, the day was founded by the Sex Workers Outreach Project. It was actually first observed in light of crimes against sex workers here in Seattle, as a memorial and vigil to honor the sex workers murdered across Washington State by the Green River Killer over the 20 years prior. 

Violent crimes against sex workers regularly go underreported and unpunished. Every year, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers serves to remind us of the discrimination against sex workers, of those lost, and that we cannot end the marginalization and victimization of all sex workers without also fighting transphobia, racism, stigma and criminalization of drug use, and xenophobia. 

That crimes in Seattle are the origin of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers underscores how important it is for us to be cognizant of the meaning and implications of this day. There is a history of prejudice and violence towards sex workers in our city. But the fight against violence also has roots here, and it must continue here. We must also acknowledge how such crimes are fueled and made worse by rape culture, transphobia, colonial sexual violence, and the criminalization of sex work. 

I cannot think about protecting sex workers this year without thinking about the six Asian women killed in Atlanta this March, and with that, about my own experiences as an Asian American woman. Asian women are constantly made to feel like we should feel grateful to be fetishized and desired. In a world where a woman’s worth is derived from how dominant culture measures her attractiveness, this is deemed a good thing. Asian women are told that our “ability” to capture the white male gaze is a compliment. We are told this by Asian men and by white people. No one takes seriously that the consequence of being fixated upon by the gaze of powerful men is too often rape and violence; that Asian women’s fetishization is rooted in a history of imperialism that has ultimately made us suffer more than anything else.

When we remember to #StopAsianHate, we cannot forget the histories and stereotypes that lead to the murder of six Asian women this year. We cannot forget because the reality is inescapable. Throughout the 20th century, narratives of Asian women coveted and exploited by white men, particularly white soldiers in Asian countries, have been ubiquitous; from Miss Saigon to The World of Suzie Wong. Asian women are desired, exploited, and then frequently discarded. We are expendable in the same way as our nations. Requests for “happy endings” and remarks of “me love you long time” have long polluted Western books, stages, and screens. 

These women, sex workers, massage parlor workers, immigrants, are some of the most marginalized members of the Asian American community. 

This March, many East Asians experienced a real fear of going out into their neighborhoods for a daily walk without being violated, assaulted, or even killed, perhaps some for the first time. And yet, many still struggle to understand that this is the kind of violence and fear that the Black community is forced to reckon with much more frequently. But then again, I cannot help but think how for all of the divides sewn between BIPOC, we should not wait to be brought together by murder and violence. 

Violence, racism, queerness, and sex work are inextricably interwined with each other in ways I wish I wasn’t so intimately familiar with. Native women and Black women experience higher rates of sexual violence than other racial groups. Almost 50% of the trans community report sexual assault in their lifetimes. LGBTQIA youth, especially Black and Latina trans women, are more likely both to become houseless and to become sex workers. Sex workers experience sexual violence at much higher rates. Sex workers are often arrested simply for reporting violence. The average street-sex worker is physically attacked once a month. The death rate for sex work is one of the highest of any profession. 

The good news is violence against sex workers decreases with decreased stigma and criminalization, and access to health care and social services can help fight violence against sex workers. We can address our own internalized biases, and we can mobilize. 

But sometimes it is even simpler than that. Sometimes change comes from mourning six women, murdered at the hands of gendered and colonial violence. Sometimes it comes when we realize we should not wait to be brought together by murder and violence. Sometimes it comes from remembering me at 13 years old, hurt and confused. Sometimes it comes when I remind myself who I fight for: for anyone who has the sharp blade of colonial violence at their throat, for the community formed in spite of that, for love of humanity. 

And so today, I will grieve and rest and remember.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Jakmac/Shutterstock.com

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