The victims of the massacre in Atlanta deserve to be respected and remembered in their full humanity—not reduced to the fantasies of their killer.
By invoking his “sexual addiction,” Robert Aaron Long is getting the last word not just on his murderous rampage in Atlanta, but on framing the victims, their work and his crime as one of passion, not hate. Police, prosecutors and the public should not let him have the last word.
The headlines reshuffle different versions of the same words: “Asian women,” “massage parlors,” “sexual addiction” and ”killed.” Without reading any further, most people already have a picture in their minds of the crime scene, and what produced it. Before the facts of the case are clear, the verdict has already been unofficially decided: This is about sex—and specifically sex work—not race. As Esther Kao, consultant with the Sex Worker Project and organizer with Red Canary Song, a coalition for Chinese massage parlor workers, stated, “This ends up being a sex worker issue because they’re seen as sex workers.”
While many people associate the words “Asian massage” solely with sex work, what comes to my mind, and the minds of many Asian Americans, are hard-working Asian immigrant women making a life for themselves and their families. Daoyou Feng, 44; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Yong Ae Yue, 63. Their lives, along with customers Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, and Paul Andre Michels, 54, deserve to be respected and remembered in their full humanity, not reduced to the fantasies of their killer.
When I first saw the photo of Young’s Asian Massage outside Atlanta, my first reaction was—it looks just like the massage place I go to with my daughter and sister-in-law in Little Saigon. These spas are ubiquitous from Fullerton to Flushing, often in strip malls next to restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores and nail salons.
My next thought was: The women killed could have been among those who have rubbed the soreness out of my neck, or shared their stories with me for my research, or attended my parents’ church. They could be members of my family—or me.
It is unclear whether the spas Long targeted were engaged in sexual commerce. But several points deserve stating and restating unequivocally.
First, the kinds of services offered at any establishment, including sex work, in no way justify violence toward the workers, owners or customers.
Second, whether or not they engage in sex work, many businesses that provide body-related services, from manicures to massages, are simultaneously racialized and sexualized simply because they are associated with Asian women.
And third, this racialized sexualization of Asian women has deep roots in U.S. society and culture, making them vulnerable targets for harassment and violence, motivated simultaneously by misogyny, xenophobia and anti-Asian racism. But these points seem to be lost on those who refuse to recognize this as a hate crime, simply because the perpetrator said it wasn’t.
After being apprehended on March 16, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, confessed to the killings. His explanation, according to a press conference the next day, was “sexual addiction,” and that he saw these women as a “temptation” that he “wanted to eliminate.”
Captain Jay Baker added that Long was “pretty much fed up, and had been kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him.” These comments immediately drew much social media criticism, which uncovered a Facebook post from March 30, 2020, in which Baker promoted an anti-Asian T-shirt referring to COVID-19 as an “imported virus from Chy-na.” In other words, a police officer who openly expressed anti-Asian bias was tasked with investigating whether or not these killings were motivated by anti-Asian bias.
Baker has since been removed from the investigation, but the assumptions underlying his words still shape the subtext of the case and much media coverage. Fortunately, there has also been much pushback offering alternative and incisive critique, attesting to the hard work of Asian American journalists, organizations, activists, scholars and writers (a few of which are linked to in this piece).
I am adding my voice to theirs, not just to offer more analysis, but as part of a raw and collective wail for those who have been silenced. Why does the kind of day Long was having seem to matter more than the meaning of that day—and the lives—of those he killed?
Asian Women Workers Routinely Subjected to Sexual Misconduct
The moniker “massage parlor” has long carried sexualized connotations. Many businesses that advertise themselves as offering massages actually offer only massages, while others also engage in sexual commerce. Massages are an $18 billion industry in the U.S. according to the American Massage Therapy Association and have attracted many small business owners, many of them immigrants, and many of them Asian.
Early in the investigation, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms cautioned against “victim shaming” and said that the spas were “legally operating businesses.” Relatives of Delaina Yaun shared that she was a Waffle House employee who was on a date night with her husband, who survived the attacks. Yet, many assumed that the victims were sex workers, or clients, and that this somehow explained what happened to them. Sex workers indeed face high levels of violence, but this is not inherent in their work, but because it is exploited, criminalized and pathologized.
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Further, Asian immigrant women in a wide range of jobs are also subject to violence and harassment. I have written about how Asian women are routinely subject to indirect sexual innuendo or direct sexual advances, even when they are performing routine body labor, such as manicures.
Legal scholar Sumi K. Cho introduced the term “racialized sexual harassment,” arguing that “the repeated projection of a compliant and catering Asian feminine nature feeds harassers’ belief that Asian Pacific American women will be receptive objects of their advances, will make good victims, and will not fight back.” She also examined how “the law’s current dichotomous categorization” of “separate spheres of injury” is inadequate to respond to racialized sexual harassment, or violence.
The History of Racialized Sexualization of Asian Women
This racialized sexualization of Asian women is part of a larger social and historical context which is invoked to blame them for a range of social problems, from prostitution to pandemics.
In 1875, the Page Act effectively barred Chinese women based on presumptions that they were seeking to immigrate “for lewd and immoral purposes.” The U.S. military presence and wars in Asia fostered the attitude that Asian women were spoils of war, whether for “rest and relaxation” or as military brides. Popular culture has portrayed Asian women as Miss Saigon or Madame Butterfly figures who need saving but are more often raped, used and abandoned.
Most recently, StopAAPIHate data has documented 3,800 acts of anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Asian American women have reported hate incidents at 2.3 times the rate for men.
Although he acted alone, Long’s shooting spree, and his justification for it, unfortunately, were not those of an isolated, sex-addicted lone wolf, but are an extension of this long pattern of racialized sexual violence that defines what it means “to be an Asian woman in America.” It should not be left up to Long, or any perpetrator, to get to say whether or not his crimes were racially motivated. Any efforts to attain justice must recognize that ‘sexual addiction’ is ‘racially motivated,” both in driving Long’s violence and in heightening the vulnerabilities of the lives that he took.
For those interested in supporting Asian American women and communities:
- Support sex workers’s rights, legal protections, decriminalization of sex work, and organizations supporting Asian migrant sex workers, such as Redcanarysong.org.
- Read books and articles such as “Dealing in Desire Street Corner Secrets Language Matters: Talking About Sex Work” and the Amerasia special issues on “Rethinking Gendered Citizenship” and “Law and Life: Immigrant and Refugee Acts Amid White Nationalism.”
- Attend and sponsor Bystander Intervention Training To Stop Anti-Asian/American And Xenophobic Harassment.
- Donate and get involved to support Asian American community-based organizations, especially those that focus on Asian American women such as NAPAWF.
- Educate about Asian American history and contemporary issues through websites such as Addressing Anti-Asian Bias, Asian American and Pacific Islander people’s history, Asian-Nation, NextShark, NBC News: Asian America, and HuffPost: Asian Voices, Hyphen Magazine, AsAm News, and 8Asians.
- Read Asian American books, such as these from the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, SocialJusticeBooks and Vox.
- Read and assign articles in journals such as the Journal of Asian American Studies, Amerasia Journal, AAPI Nexus, Asian American Literary Review, Verge: Studies in Global Asias and the Asian American Policy Review.