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Opinion: Male violence against Asian women is an ever-present reality

Insight from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter
A massage parlour in Richmond felt it necessary in 2018 to post a "No Sex Service" sign on its front door after being inundated by prospective Johns

It took a white man murdering six Asian women in a massage parlor in Atlanta to instigate the public conversation on the racism and misogynist violence that Asian women face in North America. The COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an explanation for recent aggressive and violent expressions of racism against Asian people, but the harassment, exploitation, hyper-sexualization, and violence that Asian women endure is an ever-present reality. 

A review of 500 cases of Asian women who called us in the last couple of years shows that: 230 women called us because their current, or ex, male intimate partner raped or had beaten them; 103 women called us because a man that they knew superficially (through a social circumstance like a party, or mutual friends, or as a service provider like a taxi driver, doctor, or sales person) had sexually assaulted them; 68 women called us because their father or other adult male family members/family friends raped them when they were girls; 36 women called us because their male supervisor or co-worker sexually assaulted them; and another 36 women called us because a man who was a complete stranger assaulted them. The Asian women victim’s relationship to their attackers is consistent with what we see of how all men get access to women, regardless of race. 

A closer look into what Asian women tell us reveals a particularly racist element to the male violence that they experience. Asian women tell us that their abusive male partners make pornographic films of them, playing up the misogynist stereotype of Asian women as sexually submissive. Asian women tell us that they were brought to Canada on a promise of decent work and when they arrive, they’re instead confined to servitude through exploitive jobs.

Asian women tell us that they, and other female workers, are repetitively harassed in Asian restaurants but that they don’t dare to complain for fear of being fired. Asian immigrants sponsored by violent husbands tell us that the men threaten them by saying that they’ll be sent back if she reports the violence. Women from the Philippines employed as domestic workers and care givers in Canada tell us they’re being sexually harassed and assaulted by their employers, but if they leave those jobs, they’ll lose their ability to stay in Canada. 

Many of the Asian women who call us don’t speak English. They did not find out about us through an internet search or seeing an interview with us in the media. Somehow, they got our phone number from someone who knew that we could help them. Regardless of the reason they call us, Asian women often tell us that they’re constantly propositioned to have sex for money by men that they know, as well as men who are strangers to them.

And there are the women who do not call us. There are the Asian women trapped in brothels disguised as massage parlours all over the Lower Mainland, with no English or alternatives to earn an income. We don’t know how many women are in these “massage parlours” but a superficial Google search yielded dozens of advertisements in Vancouver of places offering “Exotic Asian massage.” The number of hidden, unadvertised places is likely much greater.

As the Asian Women for Equality group wrote in its statement on the Georgia shooting, “Asian women are fetishized as being submissive, exotic, and sexually available. Our bodies are used, commodified and trafficked for profit and men’s sexual pleasure. Arising, in part, from a history of exploitation, war, and imperialism, these harmful stereotypes of Asian women are embedded in the expectations and beliefs of white male sex buyers.” 

We must respond to the plight of Asian women. Anti-racism campaigns like the one that the BC government has just launched with the message “we can’t tackle racism if we can’t talk about it” are not going to cut it. We need concrete actions. 

Upon entry, women who arrive in Canada from other countries must be provided with written information, in their own language, regarding their right to be safe and free from violence and exploitation, along with contact information for local anti-violence women’s organizations.

Men who batter, rape, buy, or pimp women must be criminally charged, and their women victims must be granted the ability to stay in Canada if they don't already have citizenship.

And last, the economic vulnerability of women that keeps them captive in exploitive jobs, abusive marriage, and prostitution, must be addressed with the provision of guaranteed livable income.

Hilla Kerner is a Collective Member of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter