“They were not these kinds of people,” replied the former neighbor of Xiaojie Tan, owner of Young’s Asian Massage Parlor, in response to reports that the Atlanta shooter may have been purchasing sexual services at her business. “They were good, honest people.”
When I read these words in the Washington Post, a familiar pain pierced my gut. The implication was clear: people like me—Asian sex workers—are neither good nor honest. As an Asian American woman in the sex industry, I’m accustomed to the prejudice most people hold towards this kind of work, but it never gets easier to stomach.
In the wake of the massage parlor shootings of eight people, six of whom were Asian women workers, we must refrain from assigning identities to the victims that we do not know they held. When they were killed, Hyun Jung Grant, Daoyou Feng, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Yong Ae Yue took their voices with them, along with any possibility of learning their whole truths. Yet the widespread impulse to react defensively towards the possibility that they did sex work—or to engage in judgemental moralizing—highlights the urgency of expressing solidarity with “these kinds of people” in response to the tragedy.
While many share the grief of this tragedy, Asian women in the sex trade bear the emotional trauma disproportionately. On top of mourning this racist violence along with our AAPI communities, many face traumatic memories of workplace violence reawakened by reports of the murderer’s so-called “sex addiction” and that he planned continue his violent rampage by next targeting “some type of porn industry” in Florida (though his exact meaning was unclear). In the past days, I’ve heard chilling tales from friends about close calls that could have ended in similar tragedies: a customer trying to bring a gun into a strip club; an in-call that took a terrifying turn. The quiet tremor in their voices says, it could’ve been me. It could’ve been us.
As if this heartache weren’t enough, the ensuing discourse in the media, and even in our own personal spaces, constantly reminds us that sex workers are less-than, and that our voices aren’t welcome in the discussion. Even as talking heads condemn the murder, their coverage enables the very stigma against erotic labor which made it possible, either sensationalizing or ignoring sex workers instead of listening. That is why in the wake of this gendered, racialized, whorephobic violence, to support not only women, it is critical not only AAPI folks, but AAPI sex working women and queer folks in particular. Here are some ways you can cultivate lasting solidarity:
Our hearts are heavy and tired. In fact, in the midst of any public discussion impacting our communities, a word I hear repeated over and over by Asian American sex worker organizers is “tired.” As Yves Nguyen told NPR in their capacity as organizer with migrant sex worker rights group Red Canary Song, “The analysis we’re bringing to the table isn’t new… It’s tiring and it’s really hard that in the wake of violence towards Asian women, it somehow necessitates more labor.” It exhausts us when people who are not Asian sex workers talk over us about issues pertaining directly to us. It’s depressing to see the same problematic talking points trotted out that we have spoken out against for decades.
Combat this exhaustion by listening—not just to what we’re saying now, but what we’ve said in the past. Inform yourself about the rich history and literature of migrant sex workers in the United States, which remains misrepresented or completely ignored by the mainstream. Learn about how hatred of sex workers and immigrants has always gone hand in hand, cloaked in a veneer of law and order; California’s Anti-Prostitution Act of 1870 led directly to the federal Page Act in 1875 and finally the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Understand why sex worker activist Emi Koyama honored “Asian women sex workers…who lived through the 19th century white slavery panic” in a 2011 zine for having “built the foundation for the Asian American community today.” Read about how Yang Song, a sex worker in Flushing, Queens, fell from her apartment window to her death during a police raid on November 25, 2017, after the NYPD had terrorized her for months and assaulted her at gunpoint. Seek sources that platform and center sex workers of color rather than speaking for us, especially our own publications, social media accounts, zines, and statements. Listen to not just one of us, but many individuals, because Asian American sex workers are as diverse a group as Asian Americans as a whole.
Just as importantly, use your voice to hold others accountable for listening to us. This applies both to people outside the adult industry as well as well-meaning folks within the industry who wax poetic about what Asian sex workers need without actually platforming us. It applies both to people outside and inside AAPI communities; it’s not enough to platform Asian Americans regarding this attack—sex working Asian Americans bring critical context to the conversation. If a publication, television program, or event discusses the Atlanta shooting without inviting the people most affected, or even worse, discounts the relevance of those perspectives, speak up: compose a letter, talk to your friends, distribute our writings in your communities. Sex workers of color are tired of fighting for a seat at the table in discussions where our voices should be central.
Some have criticized focusing on sex worker issues in the aftermath of the shootings due to concerns about validating the killer’s alleged “sex addiction” or condoning hypersexualization of Asian women. As pointed out on NPR by Yves Nguyen, “Even mentioning sex work, people want to be like, ‘don’t assume that they’re sex workers’ because they think that there’s shame attached to it.” Asian sex working women know better than anyone else the reality and harms of racialized misogyny and fetishization, but dismissing the critical relevance of our voices in this moment only exacerbates the prejudice that led to this act of violence.
When Asian sex workers mourn this attack as a tragedy for our own community, we do not speak for the victims. We speak for ourselves when we say that our voices have been too long ignored, and that without whorephobia, this racist misogynistic attack could never have happened. We’re tired of explaining, yet people of all backgrounds and political persuasions continue to erase us. So listen, then make sure others listen too.
2. Give Space
Be mindful of the energy and emotions of the sex working AAPI folks in your community. Sometimes we may crave a listening ear, other times we need distance. This applies to social media too, where our pages are too often full of sensational reports on the latest brutalities on our communities, even long before the Atlanta rampage. Please don’t send us unsolicited news articles, threads, or personal thoughts that could be triggering; ask first.
Even as we ask to be listened to when we raise our voices, we also ask you understand if we decline requests to provide statements or engage in personal dialogues about these topics. Sex workers have contributed extensive writing and other media documenting our lives and struggles out of love for our communities; by “listening” deeply as described above, including actively seeking to inform yourself, you can give us some space to breathe in this moment instead of being pressured to reiterate the same stories and messages.
Perhaps even more important than giving emotional space to your Asian sex worker friends, society must give us space by allowing us the freedom to care for our own communities, rather than doubling down on oppressive legislation and law enforcement operations under the guise of “rescue.” These policies of “anti-trafficking” and criminalization strip people of autonomy and self-determination rather than giving it, often leading to state-sanctioned violence as in the case of Yang Song and countless others.
3. Make Space
Now more than ever, Asian sex working women and queer folks need to be in community with each other, but stigma and criminalization block us at every turn. Through stigma it has become normalized that sex workers, particularly those of color, are not welcome in virtually any space, or at least aren’t welcome to be ourselves. This stigma pushes sex workers not only out of physical spaces, but virtual spaces as well. SESTA/FOSTA, passed in 2018 allegedly to combat human trafficking online, spurred an internet-wide crackdown upon sex workers on both adult and mainstream platforms. Losing these virtual spaces had deadly results especially for the most marginalized sex workers who rely on them to conduct business more safely.
The same structures that force sex workers of color out of public life and into shame and secrecy may prevent us from ever knowing if the Atlanta victims engaged in erotic labor. Some insist that it’s discriminatory to bring up sex work when friends and family of the deceased deny it; this just reminds sex workers that if a sudden tragedy befell us, most of our friends and family may say the same. Sex workers are not truly allowed to exist in our society, even in death. Please, make space for us now, not after we’re dead.
Making space means not only opening platforms for Asian sex working women and queer folks to join together, but also ensuring that we are welcome in all spaces. Use any influence you have in your schools, workplaces, centers of faith, and other organizations to remove barriers to sex workers of color meeting together as well as participating openly in community. Fight to fully decriminalize sex work and end stigma so that sex workers can move freely without constant fear of arrest, deportation, and discrimination.
4. Support Our Organizations
Give your time and money to organizations that are led by and for sex working women of color. Don’t be fooled by organizations that claim to support us, yet don’t have us in their leadership. Groups centering AAPI sex working women and queer folks include: Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network) in Toronto, Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) in Seattle, Red Canary Song in New York, and SWAN Vancouver.
5. Support Us As Individuals
A simple yet powerful way to support the community is to support individual AAPI sex workers. If you have the capital, gift funds directly to individuals or support our crowdfunding campaigns. Hire an Asian sex working woman or queer person, and talk about it. Whether for erotic services, art, consulting, writing, marketing, lecturing, or any other of our talents, you can support us by supporting our livelihoods. If it’s safe for both us and you, tell other people in your life that you hired us, because we are human beings and professionals, not charity cases or a shameful secret.
Too often, the stigma and criminalization of sex work causes people to avoid hiring us, even after we’ve left the industry. Most times a sex worker is hired, it’s a secret, and this secrecy has a creeping detrimental effect on our mental health. Contrary to the ideology proliferated by “rescue” organizations, shaming people for hiring sex workers does not benefit sex workers, but only increases our own shame and isolation, making it more difficult to exit the sex trade. Like any professional, we have special skills, talents, and accomplishments, but unlike others, we are almost always forced to conceal our career history in public life or face exclusion. This unequal treatment must stop, and you can do your part to make it happen.
“To be an Asian woman in America,” lamented a recent CNN op-ed, “…means having men assume you are a sex worker, that you are not what you are: a human being worthy of dignity and respect.”
Biting back a blend of anger and humiliation at these words, I wasn’t surprised to find that the author linked to materials from faith-based anti-trafficking groups dedicated to “saving” sex workers through social services and law enforcement. In fact, countless pro-law enforcement and anti-prostitution advocates have already seized the opportunity to blame the sex trade for these murders.
An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution describes the targeted spas’ “suggestive” advertisements as “beacons to those seeking untold pleasures within,” an “invitation” that the killer found “irresistible.” As icing on the cake of victim-blaming, he breathlessly reveals that, on Aromatherapy Spa’s website, “One woman wears a lacy bra.” He then unironically discusses various law-enforcement “tactics,” including requiring massage therapists to “cover their arms and knees” and having undercover cops “complete sex acts with multiple people…to prove an entire operation is a brothel.” Reading such language, you’d be forgiven for wondering how you suddenly found yourself in the middle of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Not just the press but also nonprofits dedicated to ending the sex trade have called for law-enforcement investigation into possible sex trafficking in connection with the murders, as well as stricter regulation of massage parlor. Accordingly, law enforcement around the country is already responding with increased policing in Asian communities.
To Asian sex workers, it doesn’t matter whether these calls come from state actors, the religious right, or left-wing feminists; we know through lived experience that an increase in police presence in communities of color will only further marginalize the most vulnerable, but unless our communities rally around us in concrete solidarity now, our truths will be lost in the mire of other people’s prejudices and misconceptions.
In the words of Kai Lin Zhang of the New York State Assembly Asian American Taskforce at a recent vigil held by Red Canary Song:
All [the shooter] could see was his own self-loathing and he could not see these people as human beings. This is the problem that we experience so often as sex workers. People swallow you up in the ideas they have about you, and they refuse to see you. And the nonprofit workers, the pastors that come in to rescue and to help these women…They have the same motivation…To rid the world of temptation and sin…To reduce human beings—mothers, daughters—to an abstraction.
I am not an abstraction; I am an Asian woman in America. I am a sex worker. I am a human being worthy of dignity and respect.
It’s time this country recognized it.
Sammy is a virtual Domina and erotica author specializing in giantess fetish. A kinky queer woman of mixed Asian descent, she entered the industry in 2018 due to health-related circumstances and discovered a passion for the healing power of her work, as well as a love for the beautiful misfits that accompany her along the journey.