The Problem With Policing Massage Workers After the Atlanta Shooting

Cops often swoop into massage businesses in what’s known as a “raid and rescue.” That could imperil workers.
March 24, 2021, 3:12pm
Law enforcement personnel are seen outside a massage business where a person was shot and killed on March 16, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Law enforcement personnel are seen outside a massage business where a person was shot and killed on March 16, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

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When police said they caught Patriots owner Robert Kraft on camera paying for sex acts at a Florida massage parlor in 2019, he beat the charges against him. The women who worked there, however, were slapped with prostitution charges that destroyed their lives.

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Now, in the wake of the shootings at three Atlanta-area massage businesses last week, advocates for sex and massage workers worry that history will repeat itself: Police will crackdown on these businesses under the guise of curbing sex trafficking, but end up imperiling workers.

Cops often swoop into massage businesses in what’s known as a “raid and rescue.” After a flurry of arrests, they connect the trafficking victims that they supposedly find to social services (after, in many cases, charging them). Accounts of these raids don’t often question law enforcement’s side of the story, forcing massage workers into two narrow categories: victim or criminal.

It’s a savior narrative, advocates say, that just doesn’t work. It ignores the nuances of massage workers’ lives in favor of sexist, racist stereotypes that portray Asian-owned massage businesses as lairs of sex trafficking. And beyond spreading the inaccurate idea that “happy endings” are bought and sold at all these spas, these stereotypes conflate sex trafficking and sex work, which are not the same. While sex work is consensual, sex trafficking is not.

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“Unless we’re kind of able as a society or as a system to come up with alternatives for the women for gainful employment, it just doesn’t make any sense to engage in the ‘raid and rescue’ process because it traumatizes the women, puts them more at risk, and then they end up going back to massage parlors anyway,” said John Chin, a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York who co-authored a study that surveyed massage workers in New York City and Los Angeles County.

That 2019 study, which surveyed 116 women who’d worked at “illicit massage parlors”—that is, spas that do sell some kind of sexual services—in New York and Los Angeles County, found that many started working there by choice and after the encouragement of friends. But language barriers, immigration status, and a lack of available job training can limit their job options. These obstacles can make them vulnerable to exploitation, but, like everybody else, they need to eke out a living.

“There is actually quite a bit of violence that they experience in the course of doing their work, but a lot of the women will say they entered the work and they stay in the work voluntarily,” Chin said. “Despite the violence they experience from customers, they actually seem to be more afraid of the police.”

Of the eight people killed in the shootings last week, six were Asian women. It’s unclear if any of the victims were sex workers. But sex worker advocates have told VICE News that’s besides the point: They were put in danger because of racism, sexism, and whorephobia.

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Those killed in Tuesday’s shooting include Yong Ae Yue, 63, Suncha Kim, 69, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Soon Chung Park, 74, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Daoyou Feng, 44, and Xiaojie Tan, 49. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was also injured.

“The work in massage parlors is not considered work, and that’s a problem.”

For undocumented workers whose jobs and immigration status are criminalized, reporting crimes to the police is just not an option, according to the study Chin co-authored. One participant told researchers, “I keep having a nightmare of being arrested from police. I woke up in a pool of sweat in the middle of the night. It’s so bad.”

Spa workers can be arrested outside of raids; they may be targeted by an undercover police officer. But however it happens, the arrest is usually deeply traumatic. It’s sudden, stigmatizing, and, thanks to the likely criminal case, throws someone’s livelihood and immigration status into question. Last year, sex workers in Canada told VICE News that police often use “anti-trafficking raids” as a means to target migrant and undocumented workers. 

“For Asian massage parlors specifically, the reason why they’re particularly targeted by ‘raids and rescues’ is, I think built into stereotypes about Asian communities, anti-Asian racism and sexism, as well as discrimination towards immigrants and low-wage workers,” Jamison Liang, campaigns consultant for Freedom United, an anti-trafficking organization that, unlike most groups in that sphere, supports the decriminalization of sex work. Liang has written extensively about the hazards built into the “raid and rescue” model.

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These arrests can be dangerous. In 2017, Yang Song, a massage worker in Queens, fell four stories to her death during a New York Police Department raid. (Prior to the raid, she had reportedly been sexually assaulted by a man who said he was a police officer, then pressured to become a police informant.) 

The case against Kraft captures how law enforcement can easily turn on the massage  workers they claim they’re helping. In the initial wake of the arrests, the local Florida sheriff said he’d “never consider them prostitutes.” But when the women wouldn’t say they were trafficking victims, they instead reached plea deals with prosecutors that included hefty fines—and guilty pleas to prostitution charges.

“They go in and arrest people for prostitution,” said Sabrina Talukder, a staff attorney at the the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project in New York City. About half of Talukder’s caseload, she said, includes people who worked at massage businesses and have been arrested. “They do not come out wrapping blankets around trafficking survivors. They come out with people in handcuffs, arrested for deportable offenses.”

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None of the experts who spoke to VICE News know how common “raid and rescues” are nationwide, although they appear to be dwindling in New York City. That may be due to the pandemic, as well as to a recent NYPD initative to arrest people who buy sex, rather than those who sell it. Sex workers say that this type of policing is still deeply harmful. (A ProPublica investigation also uncovered that almost everyone arrested by the NYPD for these crimes is nonwhite, which experts said is not reflective of reality.)

Amy Hsieh, deputy director of Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative, a New York City-based organization that supports decriminalization of sex work, told VICE News that getting arrested can connect message workers in states like New York, which has specialized courts for potential trafficking victims, to social and legal services.

“The arrest experience is very difficult, oftentimes traumatizing for our clients,” she said. “But some have also said that if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met you.”

The U.S. is also currently grappling with a devastating surge of anti-Asian violence. In the largest cities in the U.S., reports of anti-Asian hate crimes spiked by nearly 150 percent in 2020 from the year before. Between February 2020 and March 2021, the organization Stop AAPI Hate received nearly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents.

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But instead of increased policing, some experts told VICE News that the U.S. needs to decriminalize sex work and reform the immigration system to better protect people who work at spas.

“Fundamentally, we should be backing up and saying these women should be able to access social services before any kind of police raid. These social services need to be immigrant friendly, as well as well-versed in understanding the challenges that Asian massage workers face,” Liang said. “There’s still a lot of stigma—even within social services—shame or stigma attached to sex work.”

The overwhelming focus on ending the sale of sex can also blind law enforcement to the fact that massage workers can be trafficked or exploited for non-sexual labor. Talukder’s clients, she said, are asked questions about sex, not about whether they’re in the business due to force, fraud, or coercion, or about any other exploitative, unsafe labor conditions.

“All of my clients who have been trafficked, they are never just sex-trafficking survivors. They’re sex- and labor-trafficking survivors, because there’s so much physical work involved in being part of a massage parlor,” Talukder said. “Even if a person hasn’t been trafficked or subjected to sex work, that doesn’t mean that they’re being paid fairly.”

“The work in massage parlors is not considered work, and that’s a problem.”

For her clients, what happened last week “was really the manifestation of their worst fears,” Talukder said. And she wasn’t just talking about the shootings: One police officer, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, described the deadly rampage as the result of the accused gunman having a “bad day.” (In an apparent attempt at an apology, police later suggested that Baker was also having a bad day.)

“It emphasizes something that they already know,” Talukder said, “which is that law enforcement is not there to protect them, even in death.”