Atlanta Shootings Reflect Discrimination of Massage Parlor Workers, Re-enact Imperial Violence

Atlanta Shootings Reflect Discrimination of Massage Parlor Workers, Re-enact Imperial Violence
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

A gunman killed eight people in the Atlanta area Tuesday night, seeming to target Asian American women and sex workers. This incident echoes imperial violence and ongoing struggles of the Asian American migrant worker community.

On Tuesday night, a gunman attacked three spas in the Atlanta area. Eight people were killed, seven of whom were women, and six of whom were identified as Asian women. The gunman was reportedly heading to Florida to continue his streak, citing a “sex addiction” and “issue with porn.” These attacks are the latest incidents in a pattern of violence against Asian Americans and massage parlor and sex workers.

Among the killed were Delaina Ashley Yaun (33), Paul Andre Michels (54), Xiaojie Yan (49), and Daoyou Feng (44). Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was injured. The perpetrator, Robert Aaron Long, has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault.

Yaun was reportedly a customer at Young’s Asian Massage. She was on a date with her husband, who survived the attack by hiding in a side room while Ms. Yaun was killed. One of four siblings who grew up in Acworth, she had a thirteen year old son and eight month old daughter. Her family and community grieves her loss.

The Asian American victims join the thousands of Asian Americans who have faced racial prejudice, harassment, and violence since Covid-19 began to spread in the United States. A newly-released report by Stop AAPI Hate tallied 3,795 incidents in the past year, with women reporting incidents 2.3 times more than men and businesses as the most frequent site of discrimination.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
People leave flowers outside Young’s Asian Massage following the deadly shootings in Acworth, Georgia, U.S. March 17, 2021.

Massage parlors and sex work

In a news conference on Wednesday, Cherokee County sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker reported that the Long saw the spas as “a temptation ... that he wanted to eliminate.” Regardless of whether the victims were engaged in sex work, sexual motivations are attributed to the perpetrator’s attacks as Asian massage parlors and spas have long been linked to sex work and characterized as sites of vice and exploitation.

Citing these concerns of exploitation, law enforcement agencies across the country have targeted Asian-owned massage parlors. In adopting a human trafficking intervention model, police have engaged in brutal operations and have exposed migrant workers to ICE agents. “At the same time as the judges and other court staff tell women they are victims, they continue to criminalize them,” writes Melissa Gira Grant. Staying silent in fear of persecution, employees of massage parlors face precarity and a lack of protection in their workplace.

Many have likened the attacks to the death of Yang Song, a Flushing-based massage parlor worker who fell to her death during a police raid. Twitter user @danachewy tweeted “missing Yang Song heavy tonight. whose 2017 murder by police as a massage worker continually reminds us that state violence against communities of care goads individual violence and hate. we have to resist the impulse for a compassionless state to step in.”

Legacy of imperial violence

These shootings reflect a history of imperial violence inflicted upon Asian women in the sex trade. The murder of Yun Geum-i and the Okinawa rape and abduction are both incidents of extreme sex-based violence inflicted by American soldiers on Asian women. Sexual exploitation was enacted in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines and Vietnam, and persists in the sex tourism industry. These associations that arose from imperial power dynamics persist today and are applied to Asian American women, who are objectified and cast as perpetual foreigners.

“This is how it’s specific to Asian women—we are sexualized, regardless. We are fetishized, regardless,” said Esther Kao, who is a consultant with the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project and an organizer with Red Canary Song, reflecting on how Asian women are subject to harmful assumptions whether they are engaged in sex work or not. The massage parlor workers and victims of Tuesday’s attacks faced the standing legacy of objectification of Asian women, becoming emblems of and targets for sexual violence.

Community resources

There are many organizations who are dedicated to supporting the Asian American and massage parlor worker communities. New York-based Red Canary Song, Toronto-based Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, and Vancouver-based SWAN are all organizations that aim to serve massage parlor and sex workers in the Asian diaspora. Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Asian American Advocacy Fund, and Asian American Resource Center are all Georgia-based organizations which offer support and resources for Asian Americans.

The objectification of Asian women compounded with the precarity of massage parlor work made some victims of Tuesday’s shootings especially vulnerable targets. In the wake of innumerable losses, calls to stop anti-Asian hate, decriminalize sex work, and protect precarious migrants abound. The work of communities towards a safer and more equitable society continues.

READ NEXT: Anti-Asian Attacks in US Repeat History, Motivate Community Action

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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