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Saying Never Again to the Violence in Atlanta Means Saying No to More Policing

Massage workers and sex workers know how to fight the kind of extraordinary violence we saw last week. It’s time we listened.

Activists protest in Washington, DC in response to the Atlanta spa shooting
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The confessed Atlanta mass shooter, according to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office, described his targets as “an outlet.” As police put it in a statement, he told them the crimes were “not racially motivated,” that he “blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.”

Compare that to groups like Street Grace, a Georgia-based “demand reduction” group that has been cited as an expert on massage businesses after the shootings. The group’s CEO described its values in congressional testimony as “Christ-centered” and “demand centric”—using its Christian values to combat men’s demand for commercial sex. It tries to “intercept” men who are looking to buy sex, according to one of its outreach training manuals, and offer them, among other things, resources to address sex addiction to “aid them in taking the first step in receiving help.” Other such anti-trafficking groups have claimed explicitly that sex addiction drives men to buy sex. As part of their work to end “commercial sexual exploitation,” then, Street Grace and groups like them seek to eliminate massage businesses.

This is the uncomfortable truth yet to be faced after the shootings: Massage businesses have long been subject to eliminationist sentiments, which manifest in community vigilantism, in police raids, and in airless policy debates disconnected from the reality of the women who do massage work. The extraordinary violence of last week, which took eight lives, including women workers’, is continuous with that status quo, one that would rather eradicate massage businesses than regard the workers there as worthy of rights, of dignity, of belonging.

And that mindset—that shared politics of elimination—is a product of the anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that communities are now mobilizing against across the United States. But their work can only ever get part of the way there in confronting those interlocking oppressions if that work does not also confront the oppression of people who engage in, or are believed to engage in, sex work and massage work, and repair the ways they have historically been excluded from community responses to violence. Sometimes they have even been blamed. This time may point to a new way.

There is no one cause here, just as there is no one reason someone may work at or be a customer at a massage business like those that the confessed shooter reportedly told investigators he targeted. If we take at face value that his motives are what law enforcement report, where did he get the idea that massage businesses were to blame for his “sex addiction,” a phrase with no consistent meaning? It’s an idea that could have come from his faith community or the evangelical “treatment” center he turned to. It could have come from self-described anti-trafficking groups like Street Grace. It could have come from growing up in a country that has long regarded all Asian immigrant women as sexual temptations for men, a racist idea woven into American anti-immigration law, into popular culture, and that has now been reinforced in statements shared by police.

Police are now, as they always are, being turned to for safety—and it is massage workers themselves who are among the loudest voices to challenge that, to demand something more. “We want people to step up,” Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant massage workers, told me a few days after the shootings. They are one of the very few groups in the U.S. that provide outreach and mutual aid to massage workers, and in which massage workers are organizing for their own safety and rights. The violence in Atlanta put them in the national spotlight. If we want to address and prevent such violence, Red Canary Song members said in a statement, we cannot look to the police. “We understand the pain that motivates our Asian and Asian-American community members’ call for increased policing, but we nevertheless stand against it.”

Asian migrant massage workers are already policed, by officers who want to raid their workplaces or pose undercover as customers in order to arrest them—including having sexual contact with them under false pretenses. Red Canary Song formed in response to such abuse. In December 2017, sex workers and massage workers came together for a protest and vigil after a New York Police Department raid in which a massage worker, Yang Song, fell or jumped to her death from the window of a massage business in Queens. Around that time, vice raids targeting massage workers had spiked in New York, like those on 40th Road in Flushing, a historically Chinese immigrant neighborhood, where Song had worked. Arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society. The unlicensed massage charge can be a felony, meaning Asian massage workers are more criminalized and face more punishment than others charged merely with prostitution-related offenses. It amounts to another form of racialized policing against Asian migrant women.

The alternative, Tong Nguyen told me, begins with looking to massage workers themselves.

“We keep us safe,” she said. “But it can’t just be the 10 people in Red Canary Song.”

Massage workers in Seattle who are also organizing against violence echo Red Canary Song. Emi, a member of the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, or MPOP, told me that they visited women working in massage businesses in their city after the shootings. “Needless to say, women were afraid,” wrote Emi on behalf of the collective. “We talked to them about how they keep themselves safe, and they said that they rely on each other and some said on their boyfriend. None of them mentioned police. In fact, none of them has called 911 when they experienced violence in the past.” Still, while there is “fear and uncertainty,” she wrote, there’s also “a lot of community coming together to support each other.”

Policing that targets massage businesses helped sow that fear and uncertainty. Even before the shootings in Atlanta, Emi wrote, their work to create a network of support with massage workers can be disrupted by police raids, like a coordinated raid at 11 massage parlors across Seattle in 2019, along with two smaller ones in the last month alone, they report. “No more raids, because they are harmful to the workers and have no benefits whatsoever,” they wrote. “Media narratives about massage parlor raids frame them as ‘rescue’ operations, but that is not what actually happened to the women.”

Such narratives, driven by anti-trafficking groups and police alike, amplified often uncritically in the media, claim that these businesses should be pushed out because they are fronts for abuse, exploitation, and violence. The message the neighbors of massage businesses and the broader community get is that if they want to help the women working in massage businesses, the answer is to shut these businesses down. In turn, police are presented as the ones to call, even when the consequences could be humiliating arrests and traumatizing—or deadly—raids.

Massage businesses become “targets of anti-trafficking movements,” said Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, a group based in Canada, formed in part by sex workers, and which provides support to and advocates for the rights of Asian and migrant sex workers. “Typically many workers are Asian, so they are able to use racist ideas about Asian women” in their campaigns and messaging—“that they are too ignorant, they are too naïve, that they cannot recognize they are victims.” Those are powerful assumptions, she said, and they can encourage anti-trafficking investigations.

Perhaps the most prominent anti-human trafficking organization in the U.S. is Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline and has been supported, in part, by millions of dollars in federal funding since it began nearly 20 years ago. In the last few years, Polaris has begun focusing on what it calls “illicit massage businesses,” releasing a report in 2018 and a national campaign aimed at giving communities tools to identify, investigate, and close these businesses. Polaris is opposed to the decriminalization of sex work, which Red Canary Song and other massage workers’ groups support. Polaris has additionally supported actions like the Department of Justice’s seizure of Backpage and the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, which led many other websites sex workers relied on for advertising to shut down. Polaris is frequently cited as experts on massage businesses, as was seen in coverage of the shootings in the Atlanta area over the last week in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In the 2018 Polaris report, the group claimed there were more than 9,000 “illicit massage businesses.” However, when my reporting partner, Emma Whitford, and I attempted to substantiate the figure at the time, it was unclear which massage businesses Polaris was referring to. The group used it variously to refer to massage businesses where sex was sold, or where labor law violations may be present, or where human trafficking had occurred, according to reports Polaris had gathered from hotline calls, massage business review sites, and other sources. Years later, the number still circulates widely in connection to efforts to eradicate massage businesses: In 2020, it was cited in a Missouri news story about an attorney general’s campaign to shut down parlors, along with stories about closing massage businesses in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; in Austin, Texas; and in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio; as well as a story about a proposed anti–sex work law in Richmond, Virginia, among others.

“This tragedy is piled atop the ongoing tragedies taking place every day behind the walls of some of these businesses,” wrote Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris, in an email sent Monday to its supporters and donors, after the shootings. “This life, in these businesses, was no one’s version of the American dream. We all mourn the victims of the Atlanta shootings together, and pledge to continue working towards a world where sexual violence, including sex trafficking, is no longer normal or normalized.” When I asked about the group’s support for closing massage businesses, Chen wrote in a statement, “We believe that survivor-centered, trauma informed law enforcement are a vital part of the comprehensive response to trafficking,” and added, “We believe that the massage businesses that are trafficking people should be shut down.”

Massage workers and those organizing alongside them have offered their own solutions to labor abuses and violence, though they do not get the same access to lawmakers as a group like Polaris. Their solutions reject using police to identify labor abuses and instead center on regarding massage workers as workers, who are both the most accurate and most direct source of knowledge about working conditions. “We need to protect workers’ right to fair treatment, [and] freedom from violence and exploitation,” wrote Emi with MPOP. Massage workers are so often treated as workers in need of intervention, not workers who can organize together on their own behalf. They shouldn’t be considered an exception based on the work they do, when we already have policy models that would be helpful; like, as Emi wrote, “local ordinances and laws protecting other workers that share the demographic backgrounds or vulnerabilities of massage workers such as hotel workers, domestic workers, exotic dancers (strippers), and others, that can help inform what policies could protect massage workers.”

Something about the shooting seems to have pushed Polaris to distance itself, or at least appear to distance itself, from its massage business work. Within days of the shootings, Polaris had begun reportedly removing some pages about massage businesses from its website, including the report’s page, which now redirects to a “typologies of modern slavery” page. Still, it has not backed away altogether. Instead, it has used the shooting to talk about alleged trafficking in massage businesses, though there is no indication, from law enforcement sources or otherwise, that any of the three massage businesses where people were shot and killed on Tuesday were involved in human trafficking.

It’s that conflation that has helped make massage businesses into targets for groups like Street Grace, which installed cameras and monitored massage businesses in the Atlanta area. It surveilled online message boards, as Polaris had, where men allegedly discussed buying sex at massage businesses. It issued a report based on all this—much like the one Polaris appears to have pulled offline this week—which was just cited by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Such groups have long pointed to massage businesses and demanded they must be eradicated because, they say, they are places where men can pay for sex with women. (That’s what they mean when they call what they do “demand reduction.”) Police dutifully follow these calls to eliminate massage businesses; the businesses where women were killed had been subject to past undercover stings, in which women workers were arrested, followed by more pressure to shut the businesses down for good. And the confessed shooter in the Atlanta killings believes, or at least the police want us to believe, that he is on a similar mission.

“So much of what we’ve been trying to push against has been the stigma in the community and the way that neighbors and others in the area around massage businesses treat the workers,” Yves Tong Nguyen from Red Canary Song told me. “If we don’t want police to be in the neighborhood and harming people, then neighbors have to step in, and they have to step in in supportive ways … not call the cops on you.”

The calls for more police and more patrols are extremely worrying to Butterfly, as well. “They are not the solution, they are the problem,” Lam told me last week. When neighbors and the broader community turn their back on massage workers, it leads to more discrimination against and isolation of those workers. “It’s affecting their power for them to advocate for themselves.”

This discrimination and exclusion is woven into laws and policies regulating massage businesses, as Buttefly has documented and as Lam detailed to me—workers can be prohibited from locking the doors in the rooms where they work, for example, and licensing bylaws may restrict massage business to industrial areas, or not permit more than one business to operate within a certain radius. “We cannot change the safety of the community,” Lam concluded, “without structural and legal change.” This is the thing they have to confront now, to challenge “the racism and the anti–sex worker discrimination” in these laws and reinforced by them.

Whether or not the confessed shooter believes his killings at massage businesses were racially motivated, those businesses themselves are racialized, and the women who work in them face anti-Asian racism. Those businesses are also associated with sex work, whether or not sex work happens in them, and by extension, the women workers face anti–sex work discrimination, too. All the groups of massage workers I spoke to in the week after the shooting underscored this point—the focus on whether the women who were killed were sex workers is evidence of those multiple oppressions, which are inseparable. They also obscure the actionable point that matters more: how to support those women workers.

Some may do sex work, and may not identify as sex workers. Some may not consider the sexual services they provide to be sex work. “For us, it’s very clear—we support migrant and Asian women who work in massage parlors,” Lam said. “For us, no matter what service they provide, they deserve to be protected.” Among all those workers, she said, “there is a lot of common agenda and common need.” While “it’s wrong to equate massage work with sex work,” as Emi with MPOP in Seattle wrote to me, the Atlanta shooting demonstrates that prejudice and violence against sex workers can harm massage workers, whether or not they personally engage in sex work. “The focus should be on the violence and oppressions rather than who or what the workers are.”

This “hyperfocus,” said Tong Nguyen from Red Canary Song, “on were they or weren’t they? That is coming from whorephobia.” It is the result of people not having thought about sex workers as part of these communities or conversations about massage work. When a member of the press asked Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms if the victims were sex workers, or if the businesses the shootings targeted offered sexual services, she replied, “We certainly will not begin to blame victims.” Captain Jay Baker, the now-benched spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, who said of the shooter, “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,” effectively echoed Lance Bottoms, saying at the same press conference, “I agree with the mayor, we are not going to do any victim-shaming.”

Such efforts to avoid victim-blaming can also reinforce the idea that sex work is to blame. “If we were to say they did sex work, that wouldn’t further stigmatize them—the stigma already existed,” said Tong Nguyen. “People are entrenching that. Because even if they were sex workers, they deserve to live.” 

“Many people are trying to capitalize on the murders,” as Emi with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project wrote me, “including anti-trafficking groups that want to use it as a justification for shutting down massage parlors, as well as Asian American leaders who decry anti-Asian violence while ignoring specific hardships faced by women, recent migrants, and people who work in a field that has an overlap with sex work.” Massage work has been made invisible in some community vigils and other responses to the shootings. On Monday, MPOP organized its own vigil in Seattle, held intentionally in the morning so that massage workers could attend and not miss work. It wants to ensure “that their voices are actually heard, not what other people think massage workers’ experiences are like.”

On Thursday, at a vigil organized by Red Canary Song, one of its few outspoken supporters in any legislative body, New York state Assembly Member Ron Kim, spoke out against both violence and the resistance to talking about massage workers. “Even at this dark hour,” he told me by phone before the vigil, “we have people who feel ashamed that there are these workers who are being brutalized by men who don’t see these workers as human. I don’t know how to get past it. All I can do is support groups like Red Canary and groups like them to create lanes for others to come in.”

But in the short term, Kim said, we can resist the easy solutions, like stepped-up policing: “I constantly refer back to what my constituents like Yang Song went through. When our response to violence is more state-sanctioned violence, we’re just continuing the violent cycle.” At the same time, in this case in Atlanta, “we want people to understand that a hate crime occurred.” Kim told me that this was not for “punitive reasons, that we want more punishment,” but instead because “the recognition that there was racism is very important for not just Asians in Atlanta, but for Asian-Americans in this country.”

What’s needed is improving social conditions for workers and the community, said Kim, and addressing “where the violence and hatred come out of. I think those are much more difficult conversations, and policymakers, lawmakers don’t want to have that. Now they would have to be held accountable—what are you doing to improve social conditions? Are you going to provide more housing, health care?” By comparison, “it’s much easier for politicians to individualize the violence and hatred, and say, we’re giving an extra $50,000 to create a task force in the police department, take a picture, and then we’re going to punish the crime and make examples out of people.”

Groups in the communities the mass shooting targeted, like Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, or AAAJ–Atlanta, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans in Georgia and the Southeast, haven’t called for increased policing, either, said Phi Nguyen, litigation director with AAAJ–Atlanta. There is a concern, she said, “among community members, including myself, that increased police presence is not welcome and would lead to further violence and criminalization, and we don’t think that’s a solution.”

Two days after the shootings, 60 such groups had convened to talk about how to respond and what was needed, Nguyen told me. “There’s a broader community-level fear and trauma we want to address and hold space for,” and there is is a longer-term conversation about “how to address some of these root causes of violence, and that’s a conversation we’ve been having before mainstream media started covering anti-Asian violence more regularly.” In that work, sex workers and massage workers cannot be excluded. “We support sex workers,” Nguyen told me,  “and we want to remove the stigma, and they deserve to be talked about with dignity.”

In 2017, there was no national outcry when Yang Song died after a raid on the massage business where she worked. Few media outlets reported on her life or investigated the role police played in her death. At the time, it seemed that stories about Asian migrant massage workers were most often given media coverage when told through the staff of anti-trafficking organizations, the massage workers’ own voices largely absent. That violence and silencing is what led Red Canary Song to organize in the first place.

 More than 20,000 people came to their vigil on March 18. But the group itself, “we’re at most 10 people,” Tong Nguyen, the Red Canary Song organizer, told me. “We’re not paid to do any of this.… It’s just us showing up.” They had been doing that work for years when it felt like no one was listening, she said, and now they’re suddenly hearing from so many big media organizations. And it’s hard, she said. “Where were you before the people died? … Anytime anyone dies—not just this community—it feels like it was preventable if only people were there before.”