Using profile pictures with Asian pagodas and temples in the background. Listing sushi as a favorite food or displaying an intense snobbery about ramen. Bragging about speaking Asian languages. Noting dream vacation destinations in Asia. Going on about a love of anime.
When surfing dating apps, many Asian and Asian American women say they generally recognize the red flags of men who might fetishize Asian women. But still, sometimes they get through. It won’t take long after that for the comments to reveal that a potential date is specifically looking for an Asian woman based on stereotypes regarding looks and behavior that can be demeaning, expecting them to be hypersexual or subservient — or both.
In the four years that Kami Rieck, 21, has been on dating apps, mostly Tinder and Bumble, she says she’s had a crash course.
She says she’s been thrown insulting comments and questions like, “Where are you really from?” or “I’m really into Asians.” Plus, comments that include conjecture about her genitalia.
Rieck, an adoptee from China, was raised by White parents in the Midwest in what she describes as a very White area. She found herself unprepared for such comments on dating apps, even though she says she was constantly bullied for being Chinese American growing up. She says she was raised in a very Christian home, and the explicit comments she faced shocked her, she says.
“We didn’t talk openly about sex and dating. It’s a thing where White men have yellow fever and fetishize Asian women. That was never talked about, I had to experience it,” the Boston University student said.
But after the Atlanta-area spa shootings on March 16, during which eight people were killed, including six Asian women, many Asian American women are on heightened alert in their everyday lives, and in regards to the people they encounter on dating apps.
Attributing stereotypes to women of Asian descent is hardly new, said Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.” It’s long been used for political purposes and associated with misogyny, she added.
“Asian women are more likely to be fetishized and harassed due to the long-standing stereotype of the exotic Asian woman who is simultaneously docile and hypersexual,” she said. “These images come from U.S. law — the Page Act of 1875 that banned Chinese women on the fabricated premise that they are all prostitutes — U.S. military occupation and access to sex workers in Asia, and popular cultural representations of Asian women as sexual objects.”
Filmmaker Kyoko Takenaka chronicled some of the more familiar microaggressions into a short film by using audio clips of real pickup lines that men have used on her in bars in the past seven years, kicking it off with a man telling her, “Your face is very beautiful, very Oriental.” In the background, you can catch glimpses of some of the crasser messages she has received on her phone.
But for Rieck, that long history is new context and, especially after the shootings, has made her even more wary of potential matches.
“I had never made that connection … before people started talking about it,” she said. “I’m going to be very cautious going forward. You’re always going to be questioning people’s motives on why they’re pursuing you.”
“Shouldn’t [dating] feel good?” she said. “You have to remind yourself it’s not you that they’re into. It’s an idea of an object. They’re really not into you. It’s purely them looking at you as not a human.”
T-Kay Sangwand, a Thai and Japanese librarian in Los Angeles, has been dating online since 2005, and has cycled through most of the dating apps: OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, the League, Tinder, Bumble, Hinge.
She was most recently on Hinge before taking a break, and now, after the killings in Atlanta and the surge in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, she doesn’t want to go back on.
“Definitely would not consider going back on dating apps in the current circumstance because it seems too exhausting to be on an even heightened guard,” the 37-year old said.
Dating app companies don’t have a uniform approach for dealing with harassment, even when users do report others. Bumble, which distinguishes itself by having women initiate exchanges, introduced real-time moderating with certain “stop words” — including those related to race — in 2017. The company does not collect racial data on its users, a company representative said.
Bumble would only disclose the number of reports by users in 2020, citing its recent change in status to a publicly traded company. That year, users reported approximately 880,000 incidents of behavior for review on the app. (This includes for their offshoots designed to find friendship and networking opportunities, but dating is the largest use case on the app by far.) Being reported may result in a warning, a block or permanent ban.
Match Group, which owns Tinder, Match, Hinge, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish, did not respond to a request for the number of reports regarding race or harassment. A statement from the company reads: “Hate has no place on our apps. We ban all content that promotes racism or violence as well as any accounts associated with that kind of activity. All of our brands have in-app reporting tools that make it easy to report offensive messages, and we encourage all users to report any unacceptable behavior so that our team can investigate and take appropriate action.”
Rachel Leyco, a 28-year-old filmmaker and actor in Los Angeles, said recent events have turned her off dating platforms.
“I’ve definitely changed my behavior on the apps recently after Atlanta. I’m not using it as often. I’m definitely not engaging or swiping right on a lot of White people,” Leyco, who is Filipina American, said.
Leyco, who dates men and women, says she has also heard from women who fetishize her.
“There was a girl I matched with and the first thing she messaged me was, ‘I have a thing for Asians,’ ” Leyco said “At the time, I kind of shrugged it off but of course it bothered me. Not the first time I’ve heard that, but I heard it from mainly men. So hearing it from a woman was something new to me.”
The experience left her disappointed and disheartened.
“Just being a woman and assuming we have this common experience with misogyny made me expect better.”