Content note: This article discusses acts of sexual violence.
The fact that sexual violence is often experienced alongside racism for many people of color is almost always glossed over in discussions about sexual assault and rape. When it’s mentioned at all, it’s mentioned quickly, and everyone nods their head in agreement. During these conversations, most white people contribute to this head-nodding circle while looking at their shoelaces, heads down to avoid eye contact, because they don’t know what this means and are unable to admit it.
I think that most of the reason this topic gets so little attention in circles discussing sexual violence is because those circles often center white experiences. In almost every sexual violence discussion I’ve been a part of, just mentioning that people of color’s experiences exist seems to be enough for most white people.
However, this is never enough. And yet it’s all we get.
In addition, I’ve only ever heard this topic described using the “neutral” word racialized. I think this is also because of the strong presence of white supremacy and white domination in sexual violence awareness movements. Let’s be clear: my experiences weren’t “racialized”; they were racist.
It’s time to start calling things as they are, regardless of how uncomfortable they make others.
I am not going to try and explain every aspect or instance of these experiences. Instead I’m going to share with you my personal experience of racist sexual violence. I’m finally able to articulate some of what I’ve experienced in a way that explains how racism influenced my experience with sexual violence.
I’m writing this piece because I want others to have more information on this topic, and because writing and sharing are healing activities. With that said, a person’s story of sexual violence is theirs, and it should never be expected that they share it with you or anyone else.
My Introduction to Racist Sexual Violence
During my freshman year of college, I spent a lot of my time with people in one specific fraternity. I didn’t know anyone at this new school and was struggling to make friends. I was nervous, shy, and these were the only people I could get to talk to me without going so far outside my comfort zone.
Without getting into too much detail, by the end of my first two months of college, I had been sexually assaulted twice and raped once. These acts of violence were committed by different members of the same fraternity.
This sexual violence was partnered with substitutions of my name that included “Asian Goddess,” “Geisha Doll,” and “Japanese Princess,” contributing to my dehumanization. But it went deeper than that.
One week into October, almost everyone I knew on campus began suggesting I dress as a geisha for Halloween. They told me I would be “perfect,” that I would be everyone’s dream Asian girl.
Pretty soon, these suggestions started to become threats, and people had specific demands. They would debate with each other in front of me whether it would be “hotter” for me to dress in a “traditional” kimono or in an appropriated “sexy” kimono costume. Of course, this wasn’t the language they used, but I won’t get into that here.
At the root of it, they were debating which was more attractive to them: the docile, submissive stereotypes of Asian women or the angry, hypersexualized stereotypes of Asian women.
It went deeper than a man raping me and using the defense that it was “just too hard to pass up the opportunity to have his own little Asian girl, even if it was only for a night.”
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Halloween was getting closer and closer. My anxiety was increasing every day. I didn’t have the money for a kimono costume, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t show up and be desirable the way they wanted me to be, drenched in the blood of my heritage, heart soaked in my Japanese grandmother’s tears.
I had a last-minute idea.
A week before Halloween weekend, I went home and dug through my closet. I pulled out the kimono my aunt had given me before a summer festival in Ichikawa about seven years prior. It was bright red, with an intricate flower pattern, and made of beautiful silk. This kimono was one of the few things that has validated my Japanese identity despite being raised in the US and not being fluent in Japanese.
I tried it on, and as to be expected, it was too small for me. But it would look fine for the boys who were only looking for a dressed-up, soy sauce-marinated piece of meat to please themselves with.
The only problem was, despite being too small, I knew it still wasn’t short enough for what they wanted from me. I put it back in its box. After my mom had fallen asleep that night, I went into my room, pulled the beautiful piece out of its box and cut six inches off the bottom.
I cut more and more off until it was what I thought they wanted. I finally stood up, pulled it over my shoulders, walked to stand in front of my mirror, and immediately began sobbing.
I destroyed the object that held me closest to my family in Japan. I remember telling myself in that moment that I had just proved right every Japanese person who ever said I wasn’t really Japanese. What would my aunts and cousins in Japan say if they saw this?
I thought doing this, wearing this, was the only thing that would keep me safe, that would make me accepted.
The men who hurt me had been quickly teaching me to think that pleasing them was my main value in the world, and that it would keep me safe. I used to feel humiliated admitting that I let myself think this for an entire year. But this wasn’t my fault.
It was a futile attempt at safety and acceptance; but I am not responsible for the ways white supremacy and sexism harmed me.
I didn’t end up wearing my cut-up kimono that weekend. Instead, I went out dressed in a flapper costume. Someone raped me while I was wearing it. But this wasn’t because I hadn’t worn what that fraternity collectively decided they wanted from me. They were disappointed, but this would have happened whether I dressed as their “perfect geisha doll” or not.
The thing is, to them, it didn’t really matter.
They had already dehumanized me.
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My needs, pain, comfort, and boundaries already meant nothing, not because of what I was wearing, but because of my racial identity.
I was born with what had been categorized in a way that took my humanity away under white supremacy. These men were going to hurt me because they wanted to.
This is my experience of what racist sexual violence looks like. It’s gaslighting, manipulative, and traumatic. It enforces patriarchy, strengthens white supremacy, and dehumanizes non-white bodies.
This isn’t something that can just be mentioned and moved on from. It’s not something to ever have an excuse not to engage with while discussing sexual violence. Conversations on sexual violence must be intersectional, must account for my voice, my story. And we must call it what it is.
[Feature Image: Photo of an Asian woman inside an underground metro station from the shoulders up. She is wearing a black and white patterned sweater and is turning to look at the camera with a serious expression on her face. A lock of dark hair lays blown across one eye.]