Asian Sex Workers Want To Decriminalize Unlicensed Massage Work One Year After Atlanta Shootings

Chinese and Korean migrant women made up the majority of arrests for unlicensed massage in New York City.

Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images

Police investigate the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings in which eight women were killed.

Asian sex workers and advocates called for the decriminalization of unlicensed massage at a vigil to remember the lives of the eight people who were killed in a shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area spas one year ago.

“A white man waving guns in a massage business is not novel or new to massage workers,” said Esther Kao, an organizer with Red Canary Song, a group that advocates for migrant sex workers. “It has happened before, but they’re in uniform as the police.”

The vigil on Wednesday included statements from massage workers in New York City, Seattle, and Toronto, sex worker rights advocates, and Asian feminists and academics. Elena Shih, an organizer at Red Canary Song and professor at Brown University, who has tracked news about Asian massage businesses over the last year highlighted the recent deaths of two Chinese spa workers in Albuquerque and a shooting at a massage business outside of Detroit. Two East Asian women, Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go, were also killed in violent attacks in New York earlier this year, and a table at the event included self-defense items that were being handed out to Asian women.

Two of the victims and one of the businesses attacked in Atlanta had also faced police raids related to prostitution, and the shooter, a white man named Robert Aaron Lang, targeted Asian massage businesses and told police that he wanted to eliminate sexual “temptation.” It remains unclear whether any of the victims in Atlanta were, in fact, selling sex — the two who had faced prostitution charges had each told their families that they had wrongfully been caught up in the raids. The attack, which took place during a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, crystallized a national outcry against anti-Asian racism, and the speakers at Wednesday’s vigil, which took place in New York City on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, highlighted the way racist assumptions about Asian women and massage businesses made the Atlanta victims vulnerable to violence.

Kao said that in responding to the attacks, it was important to consider all of the ways in which massage workers face violence, including in police raids. One such raid led to the death of massage worker Yang Song in New York in 2017. Decriminalization, she said, was the “bare minimum.”

“I think it’s really important to not see the Atlanta shooter as a lone attacker,” Kao said. “He’s a part of this broader white patriarchal society that has been causing harm on massage workers. Laws and policies that push massage workers into the margins, that is violence in the same way that the shooter caused violence.”

Asian migrant women, predominantly those of Chinese and Korean descent, made up 87% of those arrested for unlicensed massage and represented by the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project in New York City between 2012 and 2015, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute. From 2016 through 2020, 94% of people arrested for unauthorized practice of a profession for any job that requires licensing in New York state were Asian and 96% were women, according to data from the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. And while prostitution is a misdemeanor offense, unauthorized practice of a profession — which is the charge that covers unlicensed massage, along with roles like veterinary medicine and engineering — is a felony that carries higher penalties including up to four years of jail time.

Following the Atlanta attacks, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced in April 2021 that it would no longer prosecute unlicensed massage or prostitution and closed 914 open cases with the massage charge, along with 5,080 open cases on the charge of loitering for the purposes of prostitution. District attorneys in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Philadelphia have also said they would decline to prosecute prostitution. However, the statutes for prostitution and unlicensed massage remain in place statewide for New York.

Red Canary Song, the migrant sex worker advocacy group, along with the Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network in Toronto and the Massage Parlor Outreach Project in Seattle, published a report in February saying that Asian massage work had become a target of “state-sanctioned oppression” as a result of “the misplaced advocacy of the anti-trafficking movement, which often claims it is saving Asian massage workers, when it is, in actuality, subjecting them to varied forms of state and state-sanctioned-if-privatized violence.” RCS is now leading an effort to eliminate the penalties for unlicensed massage, with support from the New York Civil Liberties Union. A bill was introduced in September of 2021 and is currently in committee in the New York’s state Assembly. Kao said the organization is still looking for a sponsor in the state Senate.

Esther Kao

Organizers for Red Canary Song, an advocacy group based in New York City

Other bills to repeal penalties related to sex work have been introduced in New York in recent years, but have not included changes to the penalties for unlicensed massage. One bill would fully decriminalize sex work, while a second would remove penalties for people selling sex, but continue to criminalize buyers and third parties.

Shih said the policing of Asian massage businesses is “brutally connected” to the attacks on them. “The white supremacist violence directed at Asian women like those that we saw in the Atlanta murders must be discussed and mourned alongside the state violence of policing, borders, and deportation,” she said. “The raid and deport formula is a key threat facing Asian migrant communities living in the United States.”

The vigil also included musical performances and a memorial art piece that was created in collaboration with massage workers in New York City.

The memorial, created by Chong Gu, was a structure set up like a massage business with tables and curtains. Portraits made by an anonymous massage worker based in New York were hung on the exterior, and inside the massage tables were laid with food in offering to the dead. A group of current and former Asian sex workers burned joss paper and left other offerings in remembrance.

The New York City memorial created by Chong Gu set up like a massage business with tables and curtains.
Otillia Steadman

The New York City memorial created by Chong Gu, set up like a massage business with tables and curtains

Wu, an organizer with Red Canary Song who led the ritual, which she said was a combination of Korean and Chinese funerary customs, said that when people die they live on in the people who remember them, and “in the future for workers whose lives are in danger, who just want to be prosperous, or workers whose lives don’t deserve to be put at risk because of who they are.”