Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Yen Le Espiritu

excerpts from “We Don’t Sleep Around Like White Girls Do”: Family, Culture, and Gender in Fillipina-American Lives

Sexuality, as a core aspect of social identity, is fundamental to the structuring of gender inequality (Millett 1970). Sexuality is also a salient marker of otherness and has figured prominently in racist and imperialist ideologies (Gilman 1985; Stoler 1991). Historically, the sexuality of subordinate groups – particularly that of racialized women – has been systematically stereotyped by the dominant groups. At stake in these stereotypes in the construction of women of color as morally lacking in the areas of sexual restraint and traditional morality. Asian women – both in Asia and in the United States – have been racialized as sexually immoral, and the “Orient” – and its women – has long serves as a site of European male-power fantasies, replete with lurid images of sexual license, gynecological aberrations, and general perversion (Gilman 1985). […]

Filipinas – both in the Philippines and in the United States – have been marked as desirable but dangerous “prostitutes” and/or submissive “mail-order brides” (Halualani 1995; Egan 1996). These stereotypes emerged out of the colonial process, especially the extensive U.S. Military presence in the Philippines. […] Cognizant of the pervasive hypersexualization of Filipina women, my respondents, especially women who grew up near military bases, were quick to denounce prostitution, to condemn sex laborers, and to declare (unasked) that they themselves did not frequent “that part of town.”

Many of my respondents also distanced themselves culturally from the Filipinas who serviced U.S. soldiers by branding them “more Americanized” and “more Westernized.” In other words, these women were sexually promiscuous because they had assumed the sexual mores of white women. This characterization allows my respondents to symbolically disown the Filipina “bad girl” and, in so doing, to uphold the narrative of Filipina sexual virtuosity and white female sexual promiscuity.


I do not wish to suggest that immigrant communities are the only ones in which parents regulate their daughters’ mobility and sexuality. Feminist scholars have long documented the construction, containment, and exploitation of women’s sexuality in various societies (Maglin and Perry 1996). We also know that the cultural anxiety over unbounded female sexuality is most apparent with regard to adolescent girls (Tolman and Higgins 1996, 206). The difference is in the ways immigrant and nonimmigrant families sanction girls’ sexuality. To control sexually assertive girls nonimmigrant parents rely on the gender-based good girl/bad girl dichotomy in which “good girls” are passive, threatened sexual agents (Tolman and Higgins 1996). As Dasgupta and DasGupta write, “the two most pervasive images of women across cultures are the goddess and whore, the good and bad women” (1996, 236). This good girl/bad girl cultural story conflates femininity with sexuality, increases women’s vulnerability to sexual coercion, and justifies women’s containment in the domestic sphere.

Immigrant families, though, have an additional strategy: they can discipline their daughters as racial/national subjects as well as gendered ones. That is, as self-appointed guardians of “authentic” cultural memory, immigrant parents can attempt to regulate their daughters’ independent choices by linking them to cultural ignorance or betrayal.


Because the policing of women’s bodies is one of the main means of asserting moral superiority, young women face numerous restrictions on their autonomy, mobility, and personal decision making. This practice of cultural (re)construction reveals how deeply the conduct of private life can be tied to larger social structures.

The construction of white Americans as the “other” and American culture as deviant serves a dual purpose: It allows immigrant communities both to reinforce patriarchy through the sanctioning of women’s (mis)behavior and to present an unblemished, if not morally superior, public face to the dominant society. Strong in family values, heterosexual morality, and a hierarchical family structure, this public face erases the Filipina “bad girl” and ignores competing (im)moral practices in the Filipino communities. Through the oppression of Filipina women and the denunciation of white women’s morality, the immigrant community attempts to exert its moral superiority over the dominant Western culture and to reaffirm to itself its self-worth in the face of economic, social, political, and legal subordination. In other words, the immigrant community uses restrictions on women’s lives as one form of resistance to racism. This form of cultural resistance, however, severely restricts the lives of women, particularly those of the second generation, and it casts the family as a potential site of intense conflict and oppressive demands in immigrant lives.

Yen Espiritu received her Ph.D. from UC Los Angeles in 1990. She is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UCSD. Focusing on Asian America, her research has sought to challenge the homogeneous descriptions of communities of color and the narrowness of mutually exclusive binaries by attending to generational, ethnic, class, and gender variations within constructed racial categories. In particular, her work has called attention to the ways in which racialized ethnicity is relational rather than atomized and discrete and the ways in which group identities necessarily form through interaction with other groups "through complicated experiences of conflict and cooperation" and in structural contexts of power.

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