It’s high time the words “racist misogyny” entered the conversation about the Atlanta spa shootings.
On Tuesday evening, police say, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long walked into three different massage parlors in the Atlanta area and fatally shot a total of eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
Slowly, names of the victims are being released: Delaina Yaun, 33, of Acworth; Paul Andre Michels, 54, of Atlanta; Xiaojie Tan, 49, of Kennesaw; and Daoyou Feng, 44. Other victims have not yet been identified.
Long told investigators he had “sexual addiction” issues and had targeted the spas in an attempt to remove that “temptation,” Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Capt. Jay Baker said in a press briefing on Wednesday.
To the utter bafflement of many on social media, police said that it was “too early” to determine if racism was at play. (It certainly didn’t help matters that Baker had summed up the previous night’s events as “a really bad day” for the suspected shooter.)
“A temptation he wanted to eliminate” is how Baker described Long’s thought process that night. A temptation that led him specifically to Asian-owned and operated massage parlors. We can’t overlook that the shootings occurred at places like Young’s Asian Massage, not some generic Massage Envy he spotted off the side of the road.
“I don’t care that the shooter told police his attack wasn’t ‘racially-motivated,’” tweeted feminist author Jessica Valenti. “The fetishisation of Asian women is racist. Believing women are responsible & to blame for your sexual ‘temptations’ is misogynist. This was a racist misogynist crime.”
In the course of just under an hour, the shooter ended eight lives, apparently placing the need to “eliminate” sexual temptation from his life above the humanity of Asian women.
Depressingly, that’s not altogether surprising. A 2018 report from the American Psychological Association detailed how Asian American women are objectified and hypersexualised in media and popular culture, depicted as “faceless, quiet and invisible, or as sexual objects.” These stereotypes, the researchers gathered, contribute to experiences of marginalisation, invisibility and oppression.
And Asian women have been disproportionately affected by the skyrocketing number of hate crimes reported against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic as well.
A report on hate incidents released Tuesday by the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate found that among the 3,800 incidents that were reported over the course of roughly a year during the pandemic, 68% of those were reported by women.
Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, recently told NBC Asian America that it’s not just racism but sexism ― namely, the belief that Asian women are subservient and weak ― that’s played a part in many of these incidents.
“There is an intersectional dynamic going on that others may perceive both Asians and women and Asian women as easier targets,” he said.
As the coronavirus worsened, Asian American women have heard taunts of “Chinese coronavirus bitch” or “Where is your corona mask, you Asian bitch?” while running errands or walking down the street. The racist rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus ― fuelled by President Donald Trump’s xenophobic tweets and his use of phrases like “China virus” ― coincided with a surge in harassment.
But the reality is, experiencing direct misogynistic racism isn’t particularly new for many Asian American women.
“The hypersexualisation of Asian women plays a huge part in the violence we face,” said Christine Liwag Dixon, a writer and the content director at Samahan, a Filipino American online community.
“I’ve had men corner me on the street and call me a string of racial slurs, while one of them said ‘Me love you long time,’ standing so close to me that I could feel his breath on my neck,” she told HuffPost. “I’ve been offered money for a ‘happy ending massage.’ I’ve been hit on because I’m Asian and told it’s a ‘compliment.’”
The hypersexualisation ― and in the process, dehumanisation ― of Asian women plays out in far-reaching, insidious ways. There’s an over-prevalence of Asian women in violent porn categories ― and Asians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately trafficked into sex work in America.
In the US, 41-61% of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime. (Women are more likely to be targeted if they’re economically disadvantaged, if they’re exploited by their employer or if they lack full citizenship.)
“The fact that the perception of Asian women as sex objects isn’t seen as racism is exactly why incidents like the shooting in Georgia aren’t seen as hate crimes,” Liwag Dixon said.
This type of violence is linked to the criminalization of massage parlors and sex work.
Among the details we know about the shooter up to this point is he likely patronised massage parlors.
“It may be the targets of opportunity ... we believe he frequented these places in the past and may have been lashing out,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Wednesday, according to The Daily Beast.
At this stage of the investigation, it’s not yet clear whether any of the victims were sex workers. Some reviews on Rubmaps, an erotic review site that allows users to search for and review illicit massage parlors, suggest the spas were “full service,” as does the fact that they were 24-hour spas with a late-night clientele.
Many sex worker advocates look at law enforcement’s failure to address the relationship that often exists between massage parlors and sex work as an example of how they have failed to protect not only sex workers, but also working-class or poor East Asian and Southeast Asian immigrants.
“The existing discrimination against sex workers and massage parlors make workers a target regardless of whether they provide sexual services or not,” said Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly, a Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex workers support network. “The moralistic and moral panic against sex work has encouraged a hate and fear of these workers.”
She elaborated: “The laws themselves often put these workers in more danger ... the women are not allowed to work together and many of them are not allowed to lock the front door to protect their safety. It’s illegal for them to do so.”
If a crime were to occur during a massage, Lam said many of the workers fear that reaching out to the police would do more harm than good.
“They’re often not protected in fear of being discriminated against, charged or even arrested or deported,” she said.
Indeed, the uncertain immigration statuses of many of these workers make them particularly vulnerable to both exploitation and over-policing, said Erique Zhang, an Asian American activist and Ph.D. student at Northwestern University.
“Asian immigrants are among some of the largest growing populations of undocumented immigrants in big cities,” Zhang said. “In places like New York, underground networks exist for ‘unskilled’ Chinese immigrants to ‘buy’ their way into the country and then pay off their debts through low-wage labour such as restaurant work and sex work.”
Zhang pointed to Flushing, a majority-Asian neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, as an example. In 2017, an undocumented Chinese sex worker named Yang Song fell to her death after being harassed by the NYPD.
“Activists have linked her death to the increase of policing in low-income, Asian immigrant communities, where the police target businesses they assume to be harbouring sex workers or undocumented people, such as massage parlors,” Zhang said.
Stories like this are why many activists, including Zhang, remain sceptical of calls for the police to protect the community or of coronavirus-era police initiatives like the NYPD’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force.
The US has a long history of equating Asian womanhood with sex work — and chastising and seeking to control Asian female sexuality.
As many have pointed out on Twitter, some of the earliest US immigration restrictions were laws specifically targeting Chinese women believed to be sex workers. Under the Page Act of 1875, Asian women were barred from entering the US because of the assumption that they were prostitutes.
This law ― along with the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 ― furthered the perception of Asian women as morally degenerate, said Robin Zheng, an assistant professor of philosophy at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and the author of the paper “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes.” It also singled them out as exotic and both sexually submissive and oversexed.
“The hypersexualisation and association of Asian women with sex work dates back to the 19th-century immigration laws and the provision of sexual services to soldiers during WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War,” Zheng told HuffPost.
When the US gained a military foothold in Asia beginning in World War II, soldiers visited sex workers, and more hackneyed stereotypes about Asian womanhood emerged. (Think: the Vietnamese prostitute shouting “me love you long time, me sucky sucky” in broken English to GIs in “Full Metal Jacket” or longstanding racist jokes about Asian women possessing sideways vaginas.)
“I think there is a clear continuity between this history and the modern-day sex tourism industry in Asia and elsewhere, which continues to profit off of this association,” Zheng added.
Zheng puts the Atlanta shooting on that same continuum. When you consider the shooter’s desire to “eliminate temptation,” it’s fairly obvious, she said.
In the aftermath of this shooting, we need to talk about ways to help Asian Americans and sex workers.
So what can be done now? First, recognise that this is as much a sex worker rights issue as it is an Asian American issue. Donate to organisations like Stop AAPI Hate, the Asian Pacific Fund’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund and Asian Mental Health Collective. All three groups have endeavoured to decrease violence and xenophobia during the pandemic while also providing resources to the AAPI community’s most vulnerable members.
But while you’re at it, don’t forget to lend your support to groups that provide aid to sex workers in these increasingly worrying times ― groups like the Sex Worker Outreach Project or Asian-led sex work grassroots collectives like Red Canary Song and the aforementioned Butterfly.
In your personal realm, when your Asian and Pacific Islander friends talk about how demeaning and demoralising it is to hear racist, sexualised messages from strangers on the internet or in person, listen to them. Women wouldn’t feel the need to share if it wasn’t weighing on them.
Lastly, recognise the humanity of the victims of these shootings. It sounds obvious, but as this story develops, many fear that the coverage or people’s reactions will take on a dismissive tone: that news outlets won’t mention the victims’ names or that their personal stories will fall to the wayside. That certain people will talk about the story and subtly suggest that the women were “asking for it” because of their presumed line of work.
“That erasure and disavowal is why people target sex workers,” Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex worker rights advocate, tweeted Wednesday. “Calling someone a sex worker as ‘victim blaming’ is based on the idea that engaging in sex work means you deserve violence.”
Writer and comedian Atsuko Okatsuka also worries that that narrative will take hold. In many ways, she said it adds insult to injury that the shootings took place at locations that people have historically used for stereotyping and making fun of Asians, particularly Asian women.
“It’s scary to realise how easy it is for people to dismiss working folks as faceless hands who just service you,” she told HuffPost. “Why is that? We need to tell people’s stories. All of it. Not just as a side character with no lines who does your nails or rubs your back.”