Anti-racism: Asian massage and sex workers should not be left behind

The women in Atlanta were killed not only because of racism, but because of sexism, misogyny, and opposition to sex work
Photo: City Walkr / Flickr
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Today communities across Canada are rallying against anti-Asian racism in response to the shootings in Atlanta that left eight people, including six Asian women, dead.

While we should stand strongly to fight against racism, we should also not forget that those targeted for violence were workers in massage parlours. They were killed not only because of racism, but because of sexism, misogyny, and opposition to sex work, as well as the overpolicing and criminalization of sex work and massage parlours.

At the same time, Asian women are also framed as desexualized — as naïve, ignorant and trafficked in massage parlours — which gives legitimacy to white saviours.

This violence is not only happening in the United States. In the last few years, a number of Asian massage workers and sex workers have been murdered in Canada, including in Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton and Markham.

Violence, surveillance, policing, criminalization and punitive bylaw enforcement are long-standing, systemic issues faced every day by Asian massage workers, in particular those who are migrants. Workers fear arrest or harassment by police, making them reluctant to report violence. This policing regime also fuels stigma against sex work.

Although not all who work in massage parlours or spas are sex workers, they are still targets because of a perceived association with sex work, and are thus harmed by the discrimination, policing and criminalization that accompanies sex work.

While the public might expect that Asian massage workers and sex workers will gain more protection in the aftermath of Atlanta, anti-trafficking and anti–sex work organizations may use this opportunity to mobilize and promote their agendas, catalyzing more policing and repressive laws, shutting businesses down and putting these workers in even more vulnerable positions.

Since the killings in Atlanta, many Asian groups and feminists have raised concerns about the sexualization and fetishization of Asian women’s bodies leading to the violence. Although it is important to challenge these stereotypes, the opposition to sexualizing Asian women may pose dangers in its own right, perpetuating whorephobia and racist, religious and moralistic views on sex and sexuality that suggest Asian women can never consent to doing sex work. This position may be used to support “raid and rescue” tactics and the shutdown of massage parlours in an effort to end the sex industry.

Instead of challenging the sexualization of Asian women, we should challenge the power relations behind the stereotypes.

Determination of Asian women’s sexual identities without their participation is a powerful way to produce racial and gender oppression that imposes control over their bodies. While Asian women are sexualized on the one hand, they are also desexualized on the other hand.

Asian workers in massage parlours are seen as sexualized bodies that are sinful, immoral and illegal under moralistic views. The argument about the hypersexualization of Asian women is being used by the state to impose policing on them in North America. Concern about “illicit services” in massage parlours has led to the surveillance, overregulation, overpolicing and crackdown of massage businesses.

At the same time, Asian women are also framed as desexualized — as naïve, ignorant and trafficked in massage parlours — which gives legitimacy to white saviours working with politicians and law enforcement to police, “raid and rescue” and crack down on businesses. Despite the fact that 300 Asian workers went to Toronto’s city hall in 2019 to say they are not trafficked victims, and they want to continue to work in massage parlours, some anti-trafficking organizations (such as Defend Dignity and Canadisn Centre to End Human Trafficking) still lobby to increase surveillance, policing, raids, criminalization, and restrictive and repressive bylaws to end the industry in Canada.

Framing Asian women as both sexualized and desexualized has produced racial and gendered power relations. White supremacy neglects their agency as workers and exercises power to control their bodies, which supports the surveillance, policing and criminalization of Asian women and their sexuality. Akin to the evangelicalism and moralism of anti-trafficking organizations calling for the elimination of sex work, the man charged for the murders in Atlanta said he targeted the massage parlours to eliminate “temptation.”

Although not all who work in massage parlours or spas are sex workers, they are still targets because of a perceived association with sex work.

Instead of challenging the sexualization of Asian women, we should challenge the power relations behind the stereotypes. We need to recognize that many Asian women (including trans women) are not passively sexualized objects, and many Asian women, in particular poor, migrant sex workers, are using this sexualization and fetishization to resist oppression, to access power, resources, social status and immigration status. Sex work is one powerful way to flip the power, ending sexual and racial subordination.

Asian women will never be saved by having more protection from law enforcement and the state. Workers in massage parlours and the sex industry will only be protected when they are free from discrimination, policing and criminalization. We should support Asian women in reclaiming their sexuality and sexual power. We should support Asian workers in massage parlours and the sex industry to speak out, recognize sex work as work, stand with them in the fight against discrimination and anti-trafficking and anti–sex work policies and campaigns and ensure they can access labour and migrant rights.

Anti-racism movements will not be successful without addressing sexism, xenophobia, classism and whorephobia. When we fight against anti-Asian racism, we should not leave Asian women in massage parlours and sex work behind.

Please support the #8CallsforJustice for migrant sex workers.

Elene Lam holds a Master of Social Work and a Master of Law, with a specialization in human rights. She is currently a PhD student at McMaster University, where she is researching the harms associated with anti-trafficking initiatives. Elene has been actively engaged in work related to human rights, violence against women, migration, gender, and sex work justice for over 20 years. She has also served as a sessional faculty member at McMaster University. Elene is the executive director and a founder of Butterfly, which supports and advocates for the rights of Asian and migrant sex workers.
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