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How the history of spas and sex work fits into the conversation about the Atlanta shootings

Racism, misogyny, and anti-sex work stigma all intersect in the shootings that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent.

A message of support is left outside a spa where four people were shot and killed in Acworth, Georgia, on Tuesday evening.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, a 21-year-old white man killed eight people at three metro Atlanta-area spas across a 30-mile radius. Six of the victims were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The suspect claimed the murders were not racially motivated but an attack on places to eliminate his temptation around porn and sexual addiction. In the minutes and hours after this horrific attack took place, a debate emerged across the nation: Was this a racially motivated hate crime? A random act of violence, like a mass shooting? Or was this an attack on sex workers?

The responses to the attack have been swift: In his tweet responding to the events, former President Barack Obama highlighted the need for greater gun safety laws and called for an end to an alarming rise in anti-Asian violence in the US. Others highlight the events as an attack on sex work, relying on assumptions — themselves stemming from problematic stereotypes — that the women at the spas were necessarily offering illicit services. Discourse broke out throughout the media around whether the attacks were motivated by either gender or race, ignoring that they were fueled by both at once.

This was a mass shooting, an act of gendered racial violence fueled by misogyny, xenophobia, and modern-day “yellow peril,” or fear of Asia as a threat to the Western world. We must address the fact that gun violence, race, and gender all intersect here. Asian American women both in the sex industry and outside it frequently experience sexualized racism. As my fellow sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen tweeted, “addiction and fetishism can absolutely be racial.”

There’s no doubt that the “yellow peril” myth is alive and well in America today: Hate amplified by former President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric around Covid-19 stoked these fires, with the past few years seeing an alarming spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans across the nation. It comes on the heels of American anxieties regarding the rapid economic rise of China and the declining dominance of the United States worldwide, providing a convenient scapegoat for many Americans’ frustrations.

But digging deeper, there is a need to unpack the discrimination faced by Asian American women, and especially by Asian American sex workers. Anti-Asian immigrant sentiment is at the core of American xenophobia, and for Asian women, it’s long been rooted in associations with sex work. The first federal immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, targeted for exclusion Asian women, who were feared for engaging in prostitution and polygamy. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers.

Numerous studies exist on the sex industry in the United States today, an industry that spans multiple cities, from Las Vegas and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. According to a massive 2014 study by the Urban Institute, Atlanta is home to the largest underground sex trade. Asian American women make up a big part of that business as high-end escorts, call girls, and workers in bars and karaoke lounges, in massage parlors, and on the streets. In fact, in Atlanta, the underground sex economy is bigger than both the guns and drug economy.

Narratives around Asian sex workers can bump uncomfortably up against sexualized stereotypes. In an effort to overcome discrimination in the United States, some Asian Americans espouse a fraught “model minority” stereotype as polite, law-abiding, and hardworking citizens. For Asian American women, stereotypes portray them as submissive, docile, quiet, and invisible on one hand, and as sexual objects on the other. The idea of an “Asian fetish” has long been discussed as an unfortunate symptom of the racism and misogyny that many Asian American women face. But these stereotypes don’t erase that Asian sex workers are among the most vulnerable in the United States, eking out a living in the sex industry with virtually no legal protections for their work.

As Asian Americans come to thrive in the United States as entrepreneurs in the service sector, as owners of small businesses like dry cleaners, nail salons, spas, and massage parlors, it is important not to conflate all massage parlors or spa work as sites of sex work. These stereotypes have real-world consequences: Massage parlors have increasingly become a target of law enforcement officers and of human trafficking advocacy organizations as sites of prostitution or sex trafficking disguised as legitimate businesses. This impacts Asian-owned businesses whether or not they are involved with sex work.

In fact, there is much debate about the plight of Asian immigrant women working in the underground sex industry. Those who study it from the outside tend to cast this work in a human trafficking frame, while advocates for the rights of sex workers describe it as a profession that deserves respect, protection, and human rights. Without legal status, sex workers are caught between a rock in a hard place, seen either as “victims” of human trafficking or as “criminals” engaged in illegal prostitution. This stigmatizes the labor of women who are trying to make a living as sex workers and vilifies them as temptresses. The industry offers sex workers virtually no legal protections to safely go about their work and drives them further into America’s underbelly.

As we mourn the lives of all of those lost in this horrific tragedy, we must remember that just because the suspect claims he has a sexual addiction, it does not mean that all the women he targeted were working as sex workers in disguised massage parlors. (In fact, it seems several may have been customers.) But if they were, would that mean their lives mattered less? The answer is a resounding no.

We must also remember that these women are people’s daughters, mothers, sisters, and friends. Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and the women yet to be named all deserved to be remembered as important people whose lives were cut short by this violence.

Kimberly Kay Hoang is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the author of Dealing in Desire.

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