Being an Asian migrant sex worker in America shouldn't be a death sentence

TOPSHOT - Sally Sha holds up a sign during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Discovery Green in downtown Ho...
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It’s hard to wrap your mind around the kind of senseless, horrible hate that infected the heart of the Atlanta shooter, who last week targeted three Asian spas in the city, where he killed eight people, six of them Asian women. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many of us in the Asian American community have experienced a surge in violence, intimidation, and discrimination — reports of hate incidents have exploded to nearly 4,000 in the past year alone, according to Stop AAPI Hate, which has been documenting anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us seems to have a story: walking down the street, picking up groceries, taking out the trash — we’ve experienced dirty looks from neighbors, assaults on our elders, attacks outside our homes, and now, these shootings, which are targeted against our community’s workplaces. We are feeling terrorized.

But some members in our community are even more vulnerable than others: Asian women, Asian elders, Asian migrants, Asian massage workers and sex workers. Just like the COVID-19 epidemic, the virus of hate and racism hits hardest the people who are already the most vulnerable. As a community, as a country, how do we come together to protect our most at-risk?

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We know that the man who killed eight people last Wednesday was an ordinary American, a churchgoer, one of the most committed members of his congregation, where his father was a respected lay leader. And yet his ex-roommate said he was a sex addict who went to treatment for his porn addiction, and that he felt guilty every time he visited an Asian massage parlor, which he claimed was a safer place to buy sex. When arrested, police say he told them the women working in the spas were “a temptation that he wanted to eliminate.”

While it’s easy to repudiate this person’s actions as that of a monster, he isn’t alone in his views. Many Americans feel only disdain toward these businesses, and have little respect for the women who work there. Also, like many brought up in the Christian faith, this man struggled with his sexuality. He had recently attended treatment for sexual addiction at HopeQuest in 2020, a Christian ministry that helps clients overcome their addictions through God. His internal battle galvanized him to commit violence against the Asian women whom he reduced to symbols of his angst. On Piedmont Road in Atlanta, where Long shot customers and workers at Gold Spa and Aroma Therapy Spa, church groups previously gathered to protest this so-called red-light district, demanding the shutdown of the sex shop across the street, according to BuzzFeed News reporter Otilia Steadman.

The battle with sexual stigma is an acute pain that many sex workers and allies in the LGBTQ+ movement also experience — it’s a maddening condemnation, which devastates mental health and increases vulnerability to violence through social marginalization.

Asian women, who are associated with sexuality by a Western culture that fetishes us, can become particular targets for violence. But to add to that Asian womanhood the outsiderness of being a migrant and a sex worker — this combination is deadly.

The everyday violence of ostracizing sex workers, of which nearly all of us is guilty, from “dead hooker” jokes to misogynistic language, is just a subtler form of the violence that kills women. Sex workers face a high rate of violence that is underreported due to fear of criminalization and social stigma. Globally, between 45 and 75 percent of sex workers have experienced work-related violence, a harrowing rate that makes it one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Moreover, this violence often comes from law enforcement itself, from the NYPD cops who extorted money and sexual services to the police officers who harassed, assaulted, and abused sex workers in South Africa. Sex workers face even higher rates of mental health issues, due to low social status that makes them easy targets for violence and theft, and have an inability to trust in law enforcement to provide safety on the job, all of which is exacerbated by stigma and self-stigma.

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A few years ago, I cofounded Red Canary Song, an organization for Asian women in sex trades, with a friend in Flushing, Queens, who has worked for over 20 years as a massage worker. We were responding to the 2017 police-instigated killing of a Chinese massage worker named Yang Song on 40th Road, the Piedmont Road of New York City, to provide support for the victim’s family, and build relationships with other massage workers in the area. Yang was only 38 when she was killed, which is relatively young compared to most migrant sex workers who are Chinese moms in their 40s and 50s. On the block where Yang worked, known as the Red Light District of Flushing, many Asian street-based sex workers complained that passersby on the street would spit at them and call them names.

One migrant worker in our outreach said some of the religious anti-trafficking groups, who try to convince the workers to stop working, can be even more hurtful than the pedestrians who call them names. She used to stand on the corner of 40th Road and Main Street before a series of police raids in February and March of 2019 shut down her workplace and left her homeless. She said previous to this crackdown, anti-trafficking church groups that collaborated with police to legitimize raids like the one that led to Yang’s death, had spent months harassing her on the street. They were "nagging her and wasting her time" when she needed to work. “Where are these people when I need to pay my rent and bring money home to my children?” she asked me. “I don’t need prayers right now. That just makes them feel better about themselves. I just need money to feed my family.”

Vigil for Yang Song, 2018. Photo by Corky Lee; courtesy of the author

In many ways, Long’s extreme actions are a consequence of the way we treat all sexuality in society. We subject women associated with sexuality to so much violence, because men can’t control the feelings inside themselves. Asian women, who are associated with sexuality by a Western culture that fetishes us, can become particular targets for that violence. But to add to that Asian womanhood the outsiderness of being a migrant and a sex worker — this combination is deadly.

What’s so challenging about this violence is that the people who are tasked with undoing the harms are often infected by the same dangerous ideas: The sheriff who investigates the case, and decides that the perpetrator was “just having a bad day”; the local community that writes off all these workers as “trafficked” and pathetic beyond comprehension; the social worker who apprehends the workers and customers for treatment.

Top anti-trafficking organizations in New York City, such as Garden of Hope and Restore NYC, who provide therapeutic services through the criminal courts to arrested sex workers, are explicit in their Christian mission and messaging. While some of their work is indeed helpful to those in need, these organizations tend to conflate all sex work with human trafficking. They work closely with police to increase monitoring of vulnerable migrants who want no such encounters with police.

These organizations also often refuse to believe sex workers when workers tell them they have not been trafficked, instead insisting on telling workers how to think of their own work: that it is inherently exploitative and immoral, going so far to say it's against God's wishes. (One friend of mine tried to take her own life after going through one of their programs because she said she felt confused and like a bad person afterward.)

The refusal of many anti-trafficking organizations — and the general public — to listen to voices of Asian migrant sex workers feeds into a dangerous false narrative.

For an arrested sex worker, the path forward is a challenging one. Through the New York prostitution diversion courts, arrested sex workers are forced to complete five or six monthly treatment sessions of mandated therapy, or face harsher criminal penalties. These courts were renamed “Human Trafficking Intervention Courts,” even though the majority of people who go through their revolving doors are actually criminalized sex workers. It's true that the courts were designed to provide more compassionate alternatives to incarceration. But if a sex worker fails to complete their collaboration with mandated treatment program, they can be rearrested on a bench warrant and penalized, as Layleen Polanco had been, leading to Polanco’s death inside a prison cell in Rikers.

Moreover, if a sex worker is rearrested for prostitution during their probationary “treatment” period, they could be given a harsher sentence or risk deportation. Since most workers can’t afford to go for six months without income, many continue engaging in sex work, under intensified fear of police and social workers. This was the state of heightened anxiety that Yang Song was in on November 25, 2017. She had completed five of six mandatory treatment sessions, and was deadly afraid of being rearrested.

The refusal of many anti-trafficking organizations — and the general public — to listen to voices of Asian migrant sex workers feeds into a dangerous false narrative, resulting in widely accepted yet incorrect statistics, social panics, and conspiracy theories based on presumptions about the lives of ignored and silenced people, as opposed to their nuanced realities. Add to that our culture's pernicious conflation of all sex work with human trafficking, and existing racist tropes that view Asian immigrant businesses and Asian women as particularly prone to trafficking, and an unspeakable event like the Atlanta shooting becomes an all-too-possible reality.

To address these issues as a society, we need to take a hard look at all of the cultural ideas in our media, in our religious and social spaces, and examine them deeply for the contradictions within: what hurts there, and what needs healing. At the heart of a hate crime is a culture that is deeply hurt. We all have work to do to understand the contradictions inside our culture, and inside ourselves. Because when we can’t heal these hurts inside ourselves, we become part of the violence it does to others.