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What Is Exotic Beauty? Part II: The Case of the Asian Fetish

Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder. But what about racism and sexism?

Many of us have heard of the Asian fetish. But I just learned about this concept a few months ago. One of my best friends is a researcher on Asian American mental health. When she finished explaining the idea, complete with relevant examples, my response was captured in a singular exclamation, "Whaaat?!"

For those of you also in the dark ages: In a nutshell, the Asian fetish is commonly ascribed to White males who serial date Asian women. Why Asian women? This is where things get complicated. Few researchers have ever tread that bumpy terrain. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and racially conscious. We have inter-racial relationships, marriages, and the number of biracial and multi-ethnic children are growing at exponential rates. We have even elected a Black president. Then what is the problem?

In my previous post, I explored the idea of racial microaggressions, and how the notion of an exotic beauty is an example of this. Yet when the research moves into examining racial microaggressions toward specific ethnic minority populations, the landscape becomes complex. The notion of exoticization enters the picture, and in some cases specific groups such as Asian women may become targets.

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Harvard researcher Mahzarin Banaji's research on implicit associations indicates that explicit and implicit racial attitudes are often not congruent (Devos & Banaji, 2005). In other words, just because you say you are not racist, this does not mean that when tested on implicit racism, you won't come up with biases and prejudicial attitudes. Which brings us back to the issue of the Asian fetish. If a man has an Asian fetish, does this make him appreciative of diversity, or quite possibly racist?

In my review of the literature, I was only able to locate two studies explicitly examining the Asian fetish. In the first study, an economist examined dating preferences of Columbia University students and found no evidence for such a phenomenon. Instead, East Asian women were discriminating against Black and Hispanic men, but not White men, hence accounting for a possible increase in the number of White male-Asian female pairings. But multicultural researchers have suggested that to get to the real heart of the matter, qualitative research approaches may yield more descriptive data.

The second study was in fact a qualitative analysis. Conducted by Korean-American Bitna Kim, who had witnessed the common pairing of White males and Asian females among family and friends, she set out to understand the phenomenon. In her interviews with non-Asian males, she found many held positive stereotypes of Asian women (though they were still stereotypes nonetheless). These women are intelligent, educated, successful, family-oriented, and beautiful. Some males had a loving and fulfilling previous relationship with an Asian woman that they hoped to recapture by finding another Asian female.

However, Kim (2011) noted, "Almost all of those interviewees started with a sentence that negates Asian women as submissive, but, nevertheless, they all mentioned, in one way or another, that Asian women are submissive: ‘Women serve the men; they do things for him that the western culture has long forgotten. It's hard to pinpoint, and I'm not saying that western women don't take care of their men, it's just the way Asian women go about it. The presence, the mannerism, the movement of their bodies that are attractive to some of us. And again these things I am speaking of don't pertain to all Asian females, but this is the general belief or idea, I think that ... we men want a princess in public and a whore in the bedroom. Simple as that....'" (p. 237)

In her analysis, Kim notes that the interviewees were making broad sweeping statements about Asian women based on a handful of experiences. And the most shocking realization was the fascination of non-Asian men with Asian women fetishes and fantasies. She writes, "That Asian women are submissive in the bed, I think, is a misconception, and I do not think the misconceptions are limited to this issue. It is pervasive: Asian females think westerners are superior to Asians. Asian women are intelligent. They are family-oriented. They enjoy kinky sex." (p. 238)

In her initial quest for participants, Kim came across one male who explained Asian women are commonly paired with unattractive White males who cannot acquire beautiful White women. Hence, Asian women are implicated to be substitutes. The man used this analogy: "If you don't have enough money to buy BMW or Mercedes, you buy Lexus or Toyota" (p. 235). Further, he explained that Asian women go for White men because they symbolize power and dominance.

For those who may argue this was a singular study and sample, acclaimed multicultural researcher Derald Wing Sue also found evidence for the Asian fetish. In a study headed by Sue, researchers found multiple instances where Asian women were being exoticized and sexualized (Sue et al., 2007). Women spoke of White men approaching them and explicitly communicating their "fetishes" of subservience and sexual pleasing. The researchers noted, "Nearly all members of the focus groups interpreted these microaggressions as: Asian women are only needed for the physical needs of White men and nothing more" (p. 76).

As a multicultural researcher, I am not entirely surprised by these findings, nor am I surprised that we are inclined to sweep them under the rug. We are all prone to flawed thinking, biases, stereotypes, and prejudices. But we are also inclined toward questioning. In fact, in Kim's (2011) study, one male asked why it is okay to be attracted to blonde women, without a "blonde fetish" label. This is a fair question. Yet she explains that one of the primary issues with the Asian fetish is the objectification of women, and devaluation that occurs as a result.

So does this mean that we can't appreciate or be attracted to something that is different from ourselves? Am I positing that true love does not occur bi-racially? Of course not. It simply means that that complacency with the status quo can be potentially harmful. Not questioning why such a term as an Asian fetish even has a place in our society is problematic. Or for that matter why Jersey Shore is still on despite its obvious misrepresentation of Italian-American youth. But let's just leave our discussion of Jersey Shore for another time.

Devos, T. & Banaji, M.R. (2005). American = White? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,88, 447-466.

Kim, B. (2011). Asian female and Caucasian male couples: Exploring the attraction. Pastoral Psychology, 60, 233-244.

Sue, D.W., Bucceri, J., Lin, A.I., Nadal, K.L., & Torino, G.C. (2007a). Racial microaggressions and the Asian American experience. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13, 72-81.

Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D., received her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

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