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Asian Massage Parlors & Trafficking
July 22, 2021

We frequently share what anti-trafficking initiatives look like from a policy perspective, with intervention and aftercare, or from what we see on the ground working in prevention. Today, to give full breadth to the variety of viewpoints in the field, we’ll share what anti-trafficking looks like from the sex worker advocacy perspective – through the example of Asian massage parlors. 

Earlier this year, when a shooter went on a rampage targeting Asian massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, he pinned his motive on the desire to curb his sexual addictions. News reports at the time stated that it remained unclear whether those massage parlors actually even engaged in sexual services. “While it’s not known if the victims participated in sex work, they were targeted because of the assumption that they did, advocates say.” (Source: The Cut) This incongruence reflects a thorny issue in anti-trafficking. Some Asian massage parlors have been fronts for trafficking and other crimes. Copious reporting on it (for example, this one from The New York Times) has fueled stereotypes about Asian massage businesses, stigmatizing them. These stigmas lead to harm against those who are working legally and have to combat the stereotype, especially from law enforcement profiling them for investigation or from pushy clientele assuming they can demand sexual services.

“While ‘it’s wrong to equate massage work with sex work,’ as Emi with MPOP in Seattle wrote to me, the Atlanta shooting demonstrates that prejudice and violence against sex workers can harm massage workers, whether or not they personally engage in sex work. ‘The focus should be on the violence and oppressions rather than who or what the workers are.’” – Melissa Gira Grant,  The New Republic

Why We Should Care About Massage Workers – Whether They Provide Sexual Services or Not

Just last week, we shared a piece about why caring about ending child sex trafficking means caring about all the myriad ways that people become vulnerable, marginalized, and exploited–namely, that different types of exploitation don’t exist separately. The sources of risk are very much the same.”Children who are at risk often come from families that are at risk, whether it’s risk of sex trafficking or labor trafficking, or other forms of exploitation like having their wages withheld, or predatory loan practices, or discrimination and exclusion that pushes them into financial desperation.” Focusing on ending sex trafficking without consideration for other ways people become exploited, or without care for the safety and concerns of even consensual sex workers runs the risk of causing harm and may even make it more difficult to combat trafficking.

We’ve talked before about how a focus on the individual level, rather than the systemic level, is problematic in dealing with something as complex as trafficking. Viewing trafficking through the lens of individual crimes (instead of systemic and contextual causes) leaves a very limited, albeit essential, tool: policing. 

If you don’t address context, like the poverty or stigmas that lead to marginalization, then it should be no wonder that police might perpetuate the same stigmas against marginalized communities that the larger culture does. The confluence of policing on top of other marginalization only furthers a sense of persecution against those in the community—from massage businesses to nail salons and similar low-wage migrant Asian service providers. They feel targeted, if not for trafficking, then for licensure, or immigration-related offenses. 

“When my colleagues and I talk to Asian massage workers, they often share stories of police officers entering their workplaces at random under the guise of stopping sex trafficking. When they don’t find any evidence of wrongdoing, they demand to see massage licenses. Workers tell us they are frequently arrested if they don’t produce a license, or are hit with building code or public health violations.” – Dr. Elena Shih (Source: The New York Times)

If you don’t address context, you miss the basic needs people have that led to the trafficking or exploitation—or even sex work—in the first place. It imposes paternalistic assumptions about people’s needs, without asking them what they actually need. “Those who are arrested are often funneled through special courts and programs where workers, seen as morally flawed and traumatized victims, are offered programming framed as rehabilitation. Yet those alternatives to incarceration subject these migrant workers to everything from religious proselytization to “recovery-focused yoga” to unpaid labor, when what they really need is economic security.” – Elena Shih [Editor’s note: bold font is ours.]

Sex workers could be natural allies in the fight against trafficking. They too have incentives to pursue policies that help shield them from violence, to fight against their own potential exploitation from practices like wage theft and other forms of unpaid labor, and to curtail victims of trafficking under-cutting sex workers seeking a decent wage. They have a close-up perspective to where and how trafficking might be happening. However, stigma against sex workers means that they get marginalized, criminalized, brutalized, and that their voices go ignored, even by those who should see common cause with them if the goal is to end sex trafficking. Because of criminalization and respectability politics about who is “worthy” of protection and safety, victims and survivors of trafficking and exploitation often view law enforcement as a source of violence, not protection. 

“These women sit at the intersection of multiple layers of criminalization. An increase in policing just means there’s a heavier amount of surveillance that is happening in that neighborhood. It also feeds into this narrative that the police and social services are going to be the ones to save you, as opposed to we want to give you the resources so you can either stay in the conditions that you’re in if that’s something that you want or you can move out if that’s something that you also want to do.” – Wu, The Nation

It’s not only sex workers and sex worker advocacy groups who make this claim either. Some places, like New York, are making moves toward decriminalization. “‘Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: Criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,’ Mr. Vance [Manhattan district attorney] said in a statement.” (Source: The New York Times)

The Convenient Truth About Prevention: You Don’t Have to Choose Between the Rights of Children and the Rights of Sex Workers

From our perspective, for the purposes of prevention work, it does not have to be mutually exclusive to hold both the hard-line “no children should have to sell themselves sexually for any reason” and the view that sex workers’ rights should be upheld. Instead, the answers to both remain the same: resources to make informed choices, access to education, knowledge of rights, systems in place to protect workers’ rights. These rights include decent wages, safety, health care, and channels to seek redress if those rights are violated. In general, we should seek to empower people to protect themselves from coercion, violence, and exploitation. The things that protect vulnerable children and their families from trafficking and exploitation are the same things sex workers call for, for themselves. 

“Things like employment services or immigration services would make sex workers safe. Things like mental health resources would help make sex workers safe. Very localized approaches to the community help keep the community safe. Also just generally, reduce stigma against sex workers and acknowledge that it’s just labor.” – Wu, The Nation

We should be wary of attempts to categorize people on the basis of “worthiness”–the innocent victim who is deserving of help versus those who must accept whatever comes to them because they’ve been somehow morally impure. If you take the view that everyone is inherently worthy of dignity, respect, autonomy, and safety, then you create the conditions for consensual sex workers to work safely and also incentives to change the structural conditions that perpetuate so many forms of exploitation.

“First of all, we need to change our perception of Asian massage-parlor and sex workers. I want to emphasize how powerful they actually are. Even with language and other barriers they are still supporting themselves and their families. For many, this is very empowering work. It gives them the ability to connect and help people. They often serve the most marginalized people who can’t afford physical therapy. They deserve rights, protection and dignity. I think instead of taking away their jobs, we should be asking how can we support them?” – Elene Lam (Source: The Cut)


Note: Much of the evidence provided in all the news articles we’re using as sources come from sex worker advocacy organizations Red Canary Song, based in New York, and Butterfly, based in Toronto.


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