Last week, following the attacks on three Asian massage parlors in Atlanta, anti-sex work organization Polaris Project deleted multiple pages that made claims about massage parlors as dens of sex trafficking.
On Tuesday evening, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, allegedly went on a killing spree at Atlanta-area massage parlors, killing eight people. Six of them were Asian women working at the parlors. Long said he was motivated to "eliminate the temptation" these women represented, and was on his way to continue his crimes at a business "tied to the porn industry" when he was apprehended, according to authorities.
As spotted by Justin Case and Mary Moody on Twitter, Polaris removed its page for "human trafficking in illicit massage businesses" following the attacks. Polaris is an anti sex trafficking nonprofit that lobbies against decriminalizing sex work.
Polaris' site has dozens of pages devoted specifically to massage parlors, and encourages people to identify what might be "massage parlor trafficking" and contact legislators to shut massage parlors down.
According to an archived snapshot of the site, the massage parlor page was up as of March 18, two days after the attacks in Atlanta. By the next day (and as of writing), the page returned a "not found" error. The page that was removed featured a series of grainy images of massage parlors overlaid with titles like "Massage parlor trafficking networks and organized crime," and "Your role in ending massage parlor trafficking." A link to a PDF "toolkit" for a documentary about human trafficking Polaris promoted called "Save My Seoul" is also broken.
A spokesperson for Polaris told Motherboard that they removed the page that contained the massage parlor report “in an abundance of caution on the off chance some white supremacist extremist might find a way to twist it into an excuse for violence.” They said that this reflects a “more holistic approach” to the organization’s sex trafficking reduction strategy, “that does not include a focus on the massage industry in particular (although it may wind up as part of the strategy in localities where it is particularly prevalent),” they wrote in an email.
As of Monday afternoon, the rest of Polaris Project’s articles about massage parlors remain up.
On Thursday, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, "The killings targeted an industry with a history of concerns about sex trafficking." The article claims that "experts say" more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operate in the United States. The article doesn't cite or link to a specific source for that claim, but it's the same number listed in the Polaris page about massage businesses that was removed from its site.
"Our research shows that more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IMBs) are open for business in the United States," the removed Polaris page said. "Evidence suggests that many of the thousands of women engaging in prostitution in IMBs are victims of human trafficking."
The Polaris website still features blog posts about massage parlors with headlines like "Is Your Local News Protecting Massage Parlor Trafficking Victims?" and "Is There Massage Parlor Trafficking in my Community?”
In the past, Polaris has partnered with the FBI to stop sex trafficking at the Super Bowl (despite increases in trafficking during the annual event being proven a myth) and has received $3.5 million in funding through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its National Human Trafficking Hotline. Over the years, it has continually pushed a narrative about massage parlors as being sites of trafficking and abuse, despite evidence that this gives police an excuse to raid more parlors and abuse the women working there, who are often migrants or undocumented. Even though sex work advocates and human rights organizations say that decriminalization of sex work, not more raids, arrests, and incarceration of workers, will keep them safer from violence, Polaris is strongly against full decriminalization, and instead pushes for the "end demand" model that criminalizes clients—and which studies show doesn't help workers.
Perhaps the most insidious harm Polaris does in advancing its stance against decriminalization of sex work and biases against massage parlors is that it's just mainstream enough to get its beliefs cited by major news outlets without question. In addition to Polaris, the New York Times story uncritically cites two other anti-trafficking organizations, the faith-based Street Grace, and ECPAT-USA, which supported the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, as reliable sources on the topic of sex work and sex trafficking. Each of these organizations shares the view that the sex industry should be eliminated, and their websites have sections about how individuals can "take action" against trafficking themselves.
Several anti-trafficking organizations published their responses to Tuesday's tragedy on their websites, using the opportunity to further their missions against sex work. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, an anti-sex work NGO formed in the late 80s that's lobbied for states to acknowledge that "a person could never consent to prostitution," wrote that "CATW cannot consider this tragedy an isolated attack, but sees it as possibly linked to the global sex trade, whose underpinning relies on systemic racism and misogyny and which is fueled by sex buyers." CATW supports the end-demand or Nordic model of sex work—it helped bring it to multiple countries—despite human rights organizations and sex workers themselves saying that this model is harmful, and full decriminalization of sex work is the only legislation that can protect workers from violence effectively.
Police violence accounts for much of the harm done to sex workers, and in undercover stings of massage parlors, officers often go "undercover" as clients, receiving services from the women first, and then arresting them. The parlors targeted by Long last week had been the site of such stings in the past; at two of those parlors, 10 workers were arrested on prostitution charges prior to 2013, and almost all of the arrests were these types of stings.
This piece was updated on 3/22 to include comment from Polaris.