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Just hours after shootings at multiple Georgia massage parlors left eight people dead, six of them Asian women, local police failed to acknowledge the role racism and anti-sex work discrimination played—all while the U.S. battles staggering levels of anti-Asian violence.
Capt. Jay Baker, of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters Wednesday the accused gunman, Robert Aaron Long, was having a “bad day” on Tuesday when he allegedly opened fire at three Atlanta-area massage parlors over the course of an hour.
“He was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did,” Baker said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. According to Baker, Long, who is white, said he had a sex addiction and described the massage parlors as a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.”
Despite Long and the police’s comments, it’s not yet clear whether any of the victims were sex workers. It’s also not yet clear what their nationalities were, although four of the women killed were ethnic Koreans, according to the South Korean consulate in Atlanta.
“This is how it’s specific to Asian women—we are sexualized, regardless. We are fetishized, regardless,” said Esther Kao, communications consultant with the Sex Worker Project and an organizer with Red Canary Song, a grassroots worker coalition for Chinese massage parlor workers. “They may just be workers, and they’re now pinning it on the sex addiction.”
Authorities have released the names of four killed victims: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was injured. Long has now been charged with four counts of murder and one count of assault in connection to the attacks on one of the massage parlors.
Massage parlors, particularly those staffed by Asian and migrant women, are often generalized as places where clients can find “happy endings.” It’s a stereotype Long nodded at and police are now perpetuating, even as they claim that the shooting was not “racially motivated” because that’s what the suspect told them.
“This ends up being a sex worker issue because they’re seen as sex workers,” Kao said.
For sex worker advocates, the police response to the Georgia shootings proves law enforcement is incapable of keeping migrants of color and sex workers safe.
Hate crimes targeting Asians have skyrocketed across North America during the pandemic. One study found anti-Asian hate crimes rose by more than 150 percent between 2019 and 2020, while on Wednesday, Stop AAPI Hate reported that it had received nearly 4,000 reports of hate incidents in the U.S. between March 2020 and February 2021. Eleven percent of incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate involved physical assaults. Women reported hate incidents 2.3 times more than men.
Advocates told VICE News they fear that police and anti-trafficking groups will use the massacre as an excuse to clamp down on massage parlors and their staff. Parlor raids are already routinely portrayed as efforts to curb sex trafficking—a framing that, sex workers told VICE News last year, gives police officers an excuse to target migrants and undocumented sex workers.
In El Paso, Texas, federal and state agents stormed at least two massage parlors in September. Officials claimed the evidence they recovered “supports the offenses of human trafficking (and) prostitution,” conflating forced and consensual sex work. Another three parlors were raided in Bend, Oregon, a month later. Just last month, police in Orem, Utah, arrested six people after raiding four establishments.
Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, an advocacy group run for Asian and migrant sex workers by Asian and migrant sex workers, is bracing for a rise in raids.
“We really fear that (the shooting) is being used by law enforcement to justify more policing and shut down massage parlors,” Lam said. “Unfortunately, we often see more people take the opportunity to reinforce the anti-sex worker agenda and increase policing. We fear this will happen again.”
Stereotyping Asian women as victims is part of the problem, Lam said. “We deal with oppression—that Asian women are being seen as weak, vulnerable, and that they cannot speak for themselves,” Lam said. “This is not true.”
The way forward, she said, is to decriminalize sex work—a call to action that sex workers have been repeating over and over for years, with little action from lawmakers.
Because sex work is effectively illegal, sex workers rarely reach out to police when experiencing violence. The distrust is even greater among migrant sex workers afraid of deportation—in part because it’s illegal for migrants to enter the U.S. with the intention of engaging in sex work—and sex workers of color. By decriminalizing the industry, sex workers would no longer be forced underground.
Instead, current anti-sex work and anti-immigration policies, as well as systemic racism and sexism among police ranks and other law enforcement agencies, make sex workers more vulnerable—and police are ill-equipped to enforce justice adequately.
“Police are not well-informed on sex industry,” said Alison Clancey, executive director for SWAN, a nonprofit advocacy group for Asian and migrant sex workers. “They are called upon to enforce prostitution and anti-trafficking laws, but they don’t know the difference between sex work and trafficking.”
That’s why Clancey said she wasn’t surprised that an officer would use such “flippant language” during Wednesday's news conference.
“The reasons why police do not aggressively pursue some of these predators is because they resemble police officers so much,” Clancey said. “Much of the violence that happens to immigrant and migrant sex workers is at the hands of law enforcement, so it doesn’t surprise me that a police officer would see this unspeakable act of violence as nothing more than a ‘bad day.’”
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A previous version of this story quoted a police release that incorrectly spelled Xiaojie Tan's name.