Sex Trafficking Panic and Victim Blaming Follow Atlanta Massage Parlor Murders
Rhetoric around the shootings risks putting massage workers everywhere in more danger.
A week has passed since gunman Robert Aaron Long killed eight people in a shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Early reports that the shootings were motivated primarily by pandemic-related animosity toward Asians have proved false; the killer's motives seem to involve a more complex mix of biases and bigotry.
Long allegedly told police he had been a customer of at least two of the businesses, that he was addicted to sex, and that he wanted to eradicate his temptation. People close to Long filled in gaps, portraying him as a self-professed Christian who had thoroughly absorbed sex-negative religious messages but still frequented massage parlor sex workers, all while feeling intense guilt about it.
"For now, we do not know whether the massage parlor workers who were killed would have considered themselves sex workers, and we may never know," wrote May Jeong in a New York Times op-ed. "But the answer is less relevant to their deaths than their murderer's answer: Does it matter how one identifies oneself if a mass killer conflates any Asian woman in a massage parlor with a sex worker?"
But Long is far from the only one making that mistake. A lot of publications (including the Times in other pieces) have conflated all Asian massage work with prostitution and, often, forced prostitution (a.k.a. sex trafficking) while simultaneously suggesting that this is at least partially responsible for the shootings. In doing so, mainstream new outlets are adopting the same logic as countless serial killers and mass shooters, while also minimizing the agency and culpability of these murderers.
Blaming women for male lust is an old and all-too-common trope among those who commit or excuse violence against women. And it's a trope thoroughly rooted in common cultural messages about sexuality. To this day, schools still teach girls to cover up lest their bare shoulders and legs prove distracting to men, while many fundamentalist religious groups say modesty and chastity are women's duties to avoid driving men to sin. We may have come a long way from the assumption that all sexy women are "asking for it," but holding women responsible for men's sexual urges and actions is still far from a fringe attitude. And again and again, we see the milder version of this distorted by the minds of self-loathing psychopaths to hold that women deserve to pay for the desire men feel toward them.
Sex workers are particularly vulnerable to this type of misogyny. Which is why it's especially clueless and crass for certain media to be blaming sex work in the wake of the Atlanta massage parlor shootings.
Take, for instance, this story from ABC News, which randomly cites information from a report about sex workers at massage parlors in New York and Los Angeles to suggest that the Atlanta women targeted by the shooter were probably engaged in prostitution, contra the claims of Atlanta's mayor that these businesses had not been on vice cops' radar. As further evidence, the same article cites prostitution arrests made at these businesses prior to 2013.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also ran with guilt by association, weaving laments about "massage businesses that hypersexualize and commodify women" and quotes about commercial sex from the spokeswoman of a Christian morals group with information about the Atlanta shootings.
The assumption that all Asian massage parlor staff are sex workers isn't merely racist; it's also dangerous, since it can lead to unrealistic expectations among clients, who might not always react well when told otherwise. It may also disincentivize massage staff who do experience harassment, fraud, stalking, and violence from coming forward to police, for fear that they won't be believed.
This is compounded by the criminalization of prostitution, which puts sex workers (and those stereotyped as sex workers) in danger by forcing their work underground, disallowing them from receiving normal worker protections, and putting them at the mercy of police officers.
"Due to sexist racialized perceptions of Asian women, especially those engaged in vulnerable, low-wage work, Asian massage workers are harmed by the criminalization of sex work, regardless of whether they engage in it themselves," the massage worker rights group Red Canary Song wrote in a statement about the Atlanta shootings. "Policing has never kept sex workers or massage workers or immigrants safe. The criminalization and demonization of sex work has hurt and killed countless people—many at the hands of the police both directly and indirectly."
Some coverage of the shootings—like this piece from USA Today, which suggests the businesses targeted by the shooter "may not have been entirely above-board, leaving the women working there particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence"—link sites of criminalized work with increased risk while failing to correctly identify the source of this vulnerability. It's not sex per se—or precarious immigration status, or working without a massage license, or any of the things that tend to get massage businesses termed "illicit"—that makes workers in these situations more vulnerable. It's the criminalization aspect. Criminalization gives any potential vectors of violence or exploitation—customers, cops, bosses, random religious zealots, etc.—something to use against them.
Even when authorities do believe sex workers and/or immigrant massage workers who report crimes, they may still target those reporting for future criminal enforcement.
In one recent case in Kansas City, massage business owner Chunqiu Wu and several women who worked for her were stalked and vandalized by Robert J. Gross, a man who had been on police radar for decades and was suspected in multiple homicides (including the murder of two massage workers, one in 1979 and one in 2016). Gross had evaded local law enforcement for years, but—despite his defense lawyer's insistence that Wu and her employees were sex workers and thus couldn't be trusted—the feds were able to put him away after these women testified against him in court.
Authorities repaid the women for this service by targeting their workplaces for prostitution stings, putting Wu under FBI surveillance, and setting up an elaborate scheme to entrap her on federal charges. Posing as an out-of-state massage worker who claimed to know one of Wu's employees, the FBI decoy reached out to Wu seeking work. The informant casually mentioned that she had sex with clients at her current job; Wu told her absolutely not—but suggested that "hand jobs, add-on services, just simple things like that" would be OK if she was discreet.
Wu agreed to pick up the woman from the airport when she arrived, where the FBI was waiting to arrest her. Wu was charged with violating the Mann Act of 1910, a law—passed in the grips of America's first sex trafficking panic—that criminalizes bringing someone across state lines for prostitution purposes. Before long, prosecutors were smearing Wu as a human trafficker who earned a living "from the sexual exploitation of women."
This sort of chicanery is common in law enforcement and the media. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the most egregious examples come from The New York Times, which chose—a few days after massage parlor staff were viciously slaughtered by a madman—to run an article titled "The killings targeted an industry with a history of concerns about sex trafficking."
Despite there being no indication that the Atlanta shootings had anything to do with sex trafficking, the Times took tragedy striking Asian massage parlors as one more opportunity to spread fear and lies about them.
"There are more than 9,000 such businesses in the United States that are fronts for prostitution, and that many of the women working there are being exploited," the Times states, attributing this alleged fact to "experts."
The source is in fact a report from an anti-sex-worker nonprofit called Polaris Project, which essentially drew the figure out of thin air. To reach the number 9,000, Polaris Project read Rubmaps reviews in some cities, trusted that anonymous customers claiming sexual activity was offered were never lying, and then multiplied the number of reviews it read by some unstated quantity to extrapolate across the country. It also simply declared that sex acts meant sex trafficking was taking place, sans any evidence at all.
This sort of baseless insistence that most Asian massage parlors are human trafficking dens is not only a gross and racist act of victim blaming, but it can even put massage workers at more risk.
In recent years, federal law enforcement and local prosecutors have have become obsessed with nabbing "human traffickers" at Asian massage parlors—even if they have to create them (as in Wu's case) or outright lie, like in the 2019 Florida massage parlor stings that drew national attention for ensnaring New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft or the nonexistent "sex trafficking ring" that Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) claims to have busted up.
Myths about Asian massage parlor sex trafficking are used by cops to justify elaborate investigations and sting operations. But the only ones such antics seem to be helping are the cops who get paid to get massages (and more), the police departments and city governments who get to seize cash, cars, and homes from massage parlor owners and workers (asset forfeiture is a near universal feature of these cases), and the prosecutors who get to play hero to the press about it all.
Even when the police aren't directly chasing women to their deaths or extorting sexual activity from them, these sorts of stings further strain the relationship between massage staff and/or sex workers and law enforcement and drive the industry further underground, making it even harder for those who really do need help to get it.
Meanwhile, anti-prostitution groups claim to be "helping victims" by lobbying for stricter laws surrounding massage businesses more generally—laws that could wind up putting more massage workers at more risk of violence from psycho customers and folks with racist or sexist agendas.
As I pointed out in my 2020 story on massage parlor panic, one of the Polaris Project's main campaigns in recent years has been targeting massage parlor prostitution from what they described as a "code enforcement perspective" with "a massive grassroots campaign to get these restrictions passed in as many jurisdictions as possible."
The restrictions that so-called anti-trafficking advocates want include things like tougher occupational licensing law requirements for people becoming massage workers (which would push the most marginalized populations out of legal businesses) and rules barring things like keeping front doors locked during business hours, using a buzzer to let clients in, or having obscured windows.
Their rationale is that taking away said options will somehow discourage forced prostitution since cops and code inspectors would be able to more easily keep tabs on these businesses and enter at any time. But in actuality, these regulations would just make it harder for staff to protect themselves from people like the Atlanta shooter.