When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, it was billionaire names like his that made headlines. But the more significant story is that of the women whose names we may never know, Chinese immigrants who police believe were lured to America with the promise of jobs, but instead found themselves in “sexual servitude.”
The Orchids of Asia Day Spa is one of 10 shut down in Florida this month with links to Chinese sex trafficking and one of more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the United States, according to Polaris, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The vast majority of women reported to have been trafficked into these contemporary brothels are from China, with the next highest group from South Korea, and others from Thailand and Vietnam, all countries with high rates of gender disparity.
“Economics are a huge contributor to how Asian women are victimized and also how they are deceived and coerced into exploitative situations,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium and an expert witness in criminal and civil court cases related to human trafficking. “With that being said, Asian women are highly sought after because they are perceived by American men as being more submissive. In my interviews with commercial sex consumers, and through research into the forums where many of them post about these Asian massage parlors, they talk about their dislike of American women, who they perceive as more opinionated and more recalcitrant to their sexual and social demands.”
Gender inequality is worse in Asia
A 2018 report from the State Department ranks China among the worst offenders of human trafficking. Experts say women in countries with high rates of gender inequality — where women’s education is undervalued, women’s political power is weak and the economic gap is wide — are more vulnerable to sex trafficking. According to a 2018 report by the World Economic Forum, China ranks 103rd out of 149 countries for gender parity. It ranks 111th in educational attainment and 122nd in terms of female representation among legislators, senior officials and managers. It ranks last in terms of female health and survival.
Women who are already victims of domestic violence, sexual violence or other types of abuse are also seen by traffickers as easy prey, said Polaris CEO Bradley Myles. In South Korea, ranked 115th in gender equality, nearly 80 percent of South Korean men had physically or psychologically abused a girlfriend, according to a survey by the Korean Institute of Criminology.
A study from the UN’s International Labour Organization estimated 3.8 million adults and 1 million children were victims of forced sexual exploitation in 2016 and that more than seven in 10 victims were exploited in the Asia and the Pacific region.
“There are substantial numbers of women and girls trafficked from east Asian countries around the world into two primary sectors,” said Siddharth Kara, a senior fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health who wrote an opinion column for USA TODAY on modern slavery. “One is forced prostitution and the second one is domestic work. These women are looking for income, they’re looking to migrate, they’re looking for money to send back to their families.”
US troops and sex tourism
Trafficking experts say racial and sexual stereotypes of Asian women have origins in military sex tourism. Asian women sexually served US troops during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
This became the primary source of stereotypes framing Asian women as “fragile, docile, but sexually available,” said Katharine Moon, a political science professor and Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College. “Those three wars shaped the sexual imagination of American men.”
After Japan surrendered during World War II, the country set up a brothel system for American GIs, which American authorities allowed to operate despite reports women were being forced into prostitution, a 2007 Associated Press review of historical documents found. During the Korean War, the US military frequently used South Korean prostitutes. Last year, a South Korean court ruled the government had illegally detained prostitutes who serviced American troops in the 1960s and ’70s and forced them to undergo treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
In a 2008 paper, White Sexual Imperialsm: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence, Sunny Woan wrote that “white sexual imperialism, through rape and war, created the hyper-sexualized stereotype of the Asian woman. This stereotype in turn fostered the overprevalence of Asian women in pornography, the mail-order bride phenomenon, the Asian fetish syndrome, and worst of all, sexual violence against Asian women.”
‘They want to see if the stereotypes are true’
Sam Louie, a psychotherapist with an emphasis on multicultural issues and behavioral addictions, said these stereotypes have led to the cheapening and objectification of Asian women around the globe.
“I’m an Asian American, first generation Chinese, and growing up in my home women definitely had a certain role where they were homeworkers for the most part and men were head of the household, but there was an internal cultural understanding. When you take that out of context, someone from another culture looking in, then they may begin to fetishize it — ‘I want to date them because they don’t talk back, they’re subservient.’ Maybe they think they will cater to you, and that’s reinforced through imagery in movies and music.”
One of the most notable examples is Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket, about American soldiers during the Vietnam War, portraying Asian women as fully submissive through the famous phrase from a Vietnamese prostitute: “Me so horny. Me love you long time. Me sucky sucky.”
In 2013, the Los Angeles band Day Above Ground released the song Asian Girlz, which included lyrics, such as: “I love your sticky rice … I love your creamy yellow thighs / Ooh your slanted eyes / It’s the Year of the Dragon.”
In August, the film “Crazy Rich Asians” was widely lauded as a win for Asian representation and a rejection of Hollywood stereotypes (broken English, submissiveness, hyper-sexuality, villainous and domineering “dragon ladies”). In an interview for Variety in December, “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu said, “It’s very much about being seen for who you are … You want to be valued.”
Sexual stereotypes, Louie said, can make Asian women feel less like humans and more like tokens.
“Say you are Jenny and you are Asian. Does someone want to date you because you’re Jenny? Or because you’re an Asian female and they want to see if the stereotypes are true?” Louie says.
These dangerous fetishizations play out for Asian women across a variety of backgrounds. Moon says Kraft’s arrest is as much a part of #MeToo as Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. Their crimes are different, but their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, she says, is not.
“I think the trafficking of women and sexual abuse of them should not be separated from the larger phenomenon of sexual violence against women and harassment of women,” Moon said. “It shouldn’t matter what color their skin is or what language they speak, whether it’s mild harassment, or rape or sex slavery, it’s all part of a continuum, and the message we’ve sent is that women’s lives do not matter nearly as much as most men’s.”
If you’ve seen what could be human trafficking or if you need help, the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 is confidential, toll-free and available 24/7 in more than 200 languages. Text: “BeFree” (233733). Chat: humantraffickinghotline.org.
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