What the Atlanta shootings expose about purity culture and Asian fetishization

Rebecca Park

In a week already filled with personal grief and loss, I was shocked to hear the news about the shootings in Atlanta on March 16. Eight people were killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Four were Korean. 

As a Korean American who lived in the suburbs of Atlanta for part of my childhood, I was initially numb. Then I was angry. To have the capacity for this kind of violence seemed evil and unimaginable. It was another reminder of the anti-Asian hate in this country, fueled by xenophobic attitudes exposed by the pandemic. Yet as the news updated day by day, revealing more about the victims’ stories and the shooter’s identity, I realized that this shooting stirred up something very specific for me as an Asian American Christian woman: the double objectification of Asian women through purity culture and Asian fetishization.

Purity culture is a term associated with an evangelical movement in the 1990s that attempted to promote a Biblical understanding of purity and sexual ethics within the American public. In purity culture, sex before marriage is morally wrong. Women are taught that their bodies cannot be trusted and that they are responsible for managing men’s sexual desires by what they wear or how they act, reinforcing gender roles that require female submission to male authority. Purity culture manifests itself through the lack of sexual education taught at public schools and the sexist enforcement of dress codes, through purity rings, purity balls, and Domino’s Pizza deals for students who agree to abstain from sex until marriage (yes, this is actually a thing).

The shooting last Tuesday is another manifestation of this same culture. While both religious and secular critics have spoken up against this movement in recent years, purity culture is still very present in American spaces today. The Atlanta shooter, Robert Aaron Long, was a regular attendee of Crabapple First Baptist Church, a conservative evangelical church that strictly prohibits sex before marriage. He had a self-described sexual addiction and was fixated on the guilt he felt because of premarital sex and pornography. According to a former roommate, Long frequented massage parlors for sex. Through Long’s eyes, the women inside the massage parlors intensified his sexual desires, and purity culture held them responsible for his sin and shame. 

We cannot separate this materialization of purity culture from the problem of Asian fetishization. Last week’s shootings were an act of racialized misogyny and hate. Long was previously a customer at the places he targeted, and as a white man, he took advantage of Asian women. He exoticized Asian women as objects of sexual pleasure and temptation, and then he killed them. While Long’s church blames the shootings on his “sinful heart and a depraved mind,” the problem is not individual sin. The problem is that for decades, the American evangelical church has actively advocated for purity culture and has ignored the ways it causes emotional, physical, and spiritual harm. The problem is that for centuries, the American evangelical church has been complicit and complacent in white supremacy, serving the interests of white men.

The Atlanta shootings were not an isolated act of violence against the Asian American community. Since the start of COVID-19 in March, there have been nearly 3,800 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate and violence, much of which has gone unacknowledged by the media and the general public. Yet the College seems to believe that the words of one email, sent over a year after the pandemic’s start, are enough to address the emotional harm and lack of belonging that Asians feel in this country and on this campus. The administration is quick to organize a panel series on Asian American violence for the semester, when the Asian American Studies program that students have been demanding for the past 30 years still doesn’t exist. 

Long is 21 years old, the same age as many students studying at Williams College. He is my age. Perhaps this is why I cannot seem to separate this specific incident from my time on campus, when Asian fetishization also exists here and I am an Asian American woman. We cannot continue normalizing violence against the Asian American community or the objectification of Asian women. Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Paul Andre Michels should not have died. Their lives matter, and their deaths matter. Yet it is unclear if their deaths will compel critical reflection of church stances on purity culture, race, and gender roles. It is unclear if their deaths will prompt more than a short email by Maud sent out a year too late. 

Rebecca Park ’22 is a political science and economics major from Seoul, South Korea.