Atlanta Sex Industry Workers Say They’re Used To Being Branded “Sinners” — And Fearing For Their Lives

For workers at nearby sex shops and strip clubs, last week’s attack on spa employees and customers marked a deadly escalation of long-standing hostility against the sex industry.

ATLANTA — There was a preacher on a megaphone calling people sinners at the sex shop Tokyo Valentino just last week, about 300 yards away from two of the three spas that would be attacked days later, in a rampage that left eight people dead.

“He wanted to yell and scream at people,” said Howard Calhoun, who was hanging out in the lobby and described himself as a regular at Tokyo Valentino, which also has video booths and adult play rooms. Calhoun said it’s not the first time he’s seen that kind of thing – there was also a guy carrying a King James Bible and shouting about Scripture sometime last year. And there’s another guy who regularly buys a ticket to Hush Night, the weekly exotic dance show featuring trans women, so that he can come in and hand out religious pamphlets, said Lenox Love, a promoter who organizes the show and goes by a professional pseudonym.

Believers with pamphlets will also occasionally stop by Onyx, a strip club about half a mile down the road from Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, two of the locations that were attacked. Sometimes women bring gift baskets for the dancers, recalled an employee who identified herself as Y.C. “It’s nice stuff, but they always have a note that says something like, ‘God will save you, not this place,’” she said.

Workers in the Cheshire Bridge Road area, a neighborhood filled with sex shops, strip clubs, and spas, said it wasn’t unusual for their work to be called immoral — they’ve grown familiar with the social judgment and legal exclusion that reflect a public disregard for their lives.

The March 16 mass shooting, which targeted spas that employ Asian women, marked a horrifying escalation of the scorn people in the sex industry face, but its ingredients are deeply rooted in US culture. From the evangelical Christians trying to save dancers from damnation to the police officers cracking down on the livelihoods of people who sell sex, and anti-trafficking advocates calling for law enforcement action against spas based on racist assumptions about Asian women, some of the country’s most powerful institutions have worked to eradicate the sex industry, and in the process often put its workers in harm’s way.

The Atlanta shooter, who received treatment for sex addiction at an evangelical clinic, said in his statement to police that he wanted to eliminate sexual “temptation” at the locations he targeted. The attacks have forced spas that offer sexual services into an uneasy spotlight, and much of the same stigma that made these victims vulnerable — rooted in extreme interpretations of Christian doctrine and the racist hypersexualization of Asian women — has left community members hesitant to speak about them and their work.

Days after the attack, it is still unclear whether some or any of the victims were trading sex. Spa workers in the area largely declined to speak with BuzzFeed News, and those who did said that their businesses were not involved in the sex trade.

As the country grapples with the toxic stew of racism, religion, and misogyny at the root of the spa killings, advocates say remaining silent about the hatred of sex workers — who often labor in the shadows, without protection from violent clients and mistreated by police — will only enable violence against them to continue.

“We have an opportunity to really lift a group out of a situation of perpetual violence by acknowledging this incident for what it is,” said Kate Zen, a cofounder of Red Canary Song, a New York–based organization that identifies itself as a “collective of Asian and migrant sex workers.” “But we are not taking that opportunity, and it’s perpetuating that exact form of violence that made it so easy to do harm to these people.”

When Vivika Williams heard about the attack on spas in Atlanta, she wondered how close she might have come to being targeted herself. She had once danced at Tokyo Valentino, and Williams, who also sells sex to support herself, was struck by the reports that the shooter’s “motive for murder was immorality,” she said, “and he was trying to wipe out all the immorality.”

Williams has faced violence in her work too, and she said she felt people were often indifferent to crimes against sex workers.

One night last November, Williams made an appointment with a new client. The man said he was sending an Uber to pick her up, but it turned out to be a setup. The driver was actually delivering her to someone who attacked her, groping her and robbing her of a few hundred dollars at gunpoint. “He could have really murdered me and threw me in a forest somewhere. But it was to God’s grace I’m still here,” she said.

When Williams reported it to the police, though, she said it felt like they were blowing her off, and she thought it was because of her identity as a trans woman and sex worker. “That’s what they gave me, like, very, ‘Oh, just another one of them’ — that kind of energy,” she recalled. “‘Just another transsexual.’”

“They just kind of shit on people and I don’t understand it, that’s not fair.” she said. “Sex work is a job. A lawyer has a job, a construction worker has a job. Sex work is a job.”

Workers at other businesses along Cheshire Bridge Road, historically a red-light district that has been gentrifying in recent years, say that the police have done little to keep them safe when they’ve called for help dealing with angry or violent customers.

“I feel like [the police] don’t feel it’s a priority,” said Lisa Johnson, who works at Out of the Closet, a thrift store and HIV clinic in the neighborhood. Often, she said, the police take so long to respond that by the time they arrive, the violent customer is gone.

“We call numerous times and they don’t show up,” said Stephanie Fox, the owner of the Southern Nights sex shop.

Two employees at Tokyo Valentino told BuzzFeed News about a recent occasion when they had called the police because someone was waving a gun around. About 30 minutes later, when no one had arrived, the employees called back only to discover that an officer had, in fact, been dispatched, but was across the street at a pizza parlor. “The police officer was across the street the whole time,” said one of the employees, a janitor at the club who identified himself as J.O. “He just never came in.”

There have been two other shootings in the area recently, one by a customer at Tokyo Valentino. Chris Coleman, the manager, said he felt the police response in the neighborhood was “hit or miss,” and that officers sometimes take hours and sometimes respond quickly. He said there had been more police in the area after last week’s shootings.

A red umbrella and memorials outside a storefront

In response to questions about the incidents, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department told BuzzFeed News via email, “We take criminal acts, especially acts of violence, very seriously and we do not respond differently based on the victim’s race, gender or sexual orientation. We want everyone in our communities to feel safe and to know we are here for them.”

In neighboring Cherokee County, Mario Gonzalez, whose wife, Delaina Yaun, was killed at Young’s Asian Massage in the March 16 massacre, told the Spanish-language news site Mundo Hispánico that he had been handcuffed at the scene by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office for about four hours after the shooting. He believed he may have received that treatment because he’s Latinx.

The sense of police indifference to violent crimes in the area is magnified by law enforcement crackdowns on places suspected of selling sex, which is illegal in Georgia. Criminalization of the sex trade comes with its own threats of violence, at the hands of both clients and the police. Businesses in the Cheshire Bridge area, including Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, have been the target of undercover stings and arrests.

A 2019 report found that most women working in illicit spas feared arrest even more than assault or robbery. Yang Song, who worked in a spa in New York, fell to her death during a police raid, and had told family members she had been sexually assaulted by a man with a badge.

Stella Zine, a sex worker rights advocate with COYOTE Georgia, said gentrification in the Atlanta area has contributed to hostility against the sex industry, leading to brutal raids on gay bars and strip clubs, and legislation that aimed to ban sex work in certain areas.

Zine said she worked at multiple clubs in the area in the ’90s, and that there were several times she was afraid she would be hurt, but “at the time I didn’t even think calling the police was an option.”

Spa businesses that offer sexual services face particular criminalization, often at the behest of anti-trafficking advocates, who claim they are hotbeds of human trafficking. One anti-trafficking organization is already calling for Atlanta police to investigate connections between the shooting and the global sex trade.

Such spas often employ women who emigrated from countries in Asia, but Zen said the association between the spas and trafficking is itself the product of anti-Asian racism, which stereotypes Asian women as submissive and labels them as victims.

“Part of the rationale that’s given is that Asian women are somehow…culturally more needing of protection. That’s an extremely racist assumption,” said Zen. “This victimization narrative is required in order to justify rescue.”

The 2019 report, which Zen contributed to and was based on interviews with more than 100 Chinese and Korean women working at illicit spas in New York and Los Angeles, found that while some had been coerced or deceived, most had chosen the work as the best of very limited options.

Not all spa businesses are engaged in illicit activities, and for officials and civil rights advocates responding to the attacks in the midst of rising anti-Asian violence, the association with sex work has been thorny.

Racist stereotypes connecting Asian women to the sex trade have a long history in the US, dating back to at least 1875, when the Page Act excluded Chinese women from immigrating to the country over assumptions that they would be prostitutes. That same fetishization and hypersexualization now contributes to violence against Asian women broadly, advocates say.

“It’s stereotyping that Asian women working in those [businesses] are easily understood as sex workers or undocumented,” Su Choe, an organizer with the Korean community in Atlanta for Asian American Advocacy Fund, told BuzzFeed News. After the attacks, Choe said she had heard about more harassment of Asian people in the Atlanta area, including one incident in Duluth where someone came into a restaurant and started screaming about “massage.”

One of the women killed in the attack, Xiaojie Tan, owned Young’s Asian Massage. A friend and client told USA Today that the business didn’t offer any sexual services, and he had been seeing Tan for a stiff neck.

Some of the victims may very well have been sex workers, though, and attempts to avoid that fact — like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ statement that she wanted to avoid “victim-blaming” — tend to reiterate the stigma against sex work.

“This idea that sex work is wrong — it’s only victim-blaming if there’s something to be blamed inherently in sex work, and it’s scary because it requires a perfect victim to acknowledge that this is a form of violence,” said Zen.

Even in the aftermath of the attacks, while much of the country was mourning the killings of eight people, allegedly by a man who told police he was motivated by religion, the ideas at the root of his hate continue to persist. At a rally in Atlanta denouncing the violence at the spas last week, a witness present recalled one man walking by shouting that the women who died were sinners who should get real jobs.

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