The Atlanta massacre and US anti-trafficking laws

What led to the massacre was not only the killer’s misogyny and racism, but also criminal laws and policies.

A makeshift memorial is seen Friday, March 19, 2021, in Acworth, Georgia in the aftermath of the Atlanta massacre in which eight people, including six Asian women were killed [AP/Candice Choi]

On March 16, the world was rocked by the worst massacre of Asians in modern American history. A white 21-year-old from the Atlanta suburbs, Robert Long, targeted Asian spas in a rampage that left one person injured and eight dead, including six Asian women.

Critics rightly excoriated Long’s claim that his actions were not discriminatory because they were the product of a “sex addiction” that drove him to eliminate sexual “temptation”. Of course, a man working out his sexual issues by killing women is the apotheosis of misogyny. Targeting Asian women because they are sexual temptresses is racist.

The sexualisation and fetishisation of Asian women is a well-recognised phenomenon, and one I have experienced. I have lost count of the strange men who have asked about my “exotic nationality”. In my teens, a 2 Live Crew song made it difficult to walk around without hearing the words “me so horny”. Growing up, people inquired too often whether my Japanese-American mother, who married a white man, was a “geisha” or a “war bride”. She was born in Fresno, California. At six years old, she was sent to a concentration camp along with thousands of Japanese-American citizens.

While there is appropriate focus on the killer’s sexism and racism in this era of unprecedented anti-Asian violence, the massacre was also enabled by criminal laws and policies­­ – including anti-trafficking laws – that also trade on stereotypical and negative views of Asian female sexuality but enjoy popular support. This moment demands a critical examination of the legal regime that made the Atlanta victims and thousands of others vulnerable to private and state violence – a regime born of 19th-century fear and loathing of immigrant Asian sex workers.

Commentators have downplayed the sex work issue to avoid stigmatising the victims or alternatively have argued that the tragic events indicate the need for tougher anti-trafficking laws. But it is precisely the existing tough criminal and immigration law regime that relegates Asian spas to society’s dangerous margins, stigmatises Asian sex workers, and prevents them from seeking protection. In the face of this horrific event, we can no longer cling to the belief that zero-tolerance trafficking laws are the answer for Asian immigrants employed in commercial sex work.

In the US, Asian sex work has always been singled out for particular reprobation and regulation since its inception. The early legal regime reflected an American fascination with, fear of, and disgust with Asian female sexuality, as well as a paternalistic desire to “save” Asian women – by deporting them. It was expanded and formalised over decades through the efforts of not just xenophobes and racists but concerned citizens and liberal activists.

In the 1870s, amid fears of “yellow peril”, media, politicians, and citizens denounced immigrant Chinese women as innately inculcated to sexual slavery, carriers of “exotic” diseases, corruptors of white men, and producers of “degenerate hybrids”.

“Chinese females who immigrate into this state are, almost without exception, of the vilest and most degraded class of abandoned women,” declared a San Francisco newspaper. The American Medical Association launched a study to determine if Chinese women were poisoning the nation’s blood.

These sentiments, along with liberals’ objections to “yellow slavery”, spurred numerous anti-immigration efforts that culminated in the first federal immigration law, the 1875 Page Act, which forbid “the importation… of women for the purposes of prostitution”. Sponsor Horace Page lamented that America was China’s “cesspool” because it sent “the lowest and most depraved of her subjects” and vowed to “send the brazen harlot who openly flaunts her wickedness in the faces of our wives and daughters back to her native country”.

Today, similar sex-aversion, stereotyping, and “slavery” concerns drive policy on Asian spas. Florida police, for example, focus on spas because they are, in their words, the “standard Asian model” of prostitution. In 2018, they launched an anti-trafficking operation targeting Orchids of Asia spa. After a questionably legal investigation, police arrested a number of employees and customers, including billionaire Robert Kraft. With media buzzing, the district attorney called a press conference to boast about eradicating “evil in our midst”, only to admit months later: “There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation.”

The state charged 25 men with misdemeanours, which were all dropped. By contrast, four Asian female Orchids employees, ranging in age from 39 to 58, were slapped with numerous prostitution and profiteering charges carrying decades in jail and had their assets frozen for forfeiture.

In 2009, Rhode Island re-criminalised “indoor” sex work after 20 years of permitting private commercial sex. Leading up to the bill, community and religious leaders condemned the growing presence of Asian spas in the state capital, Providence. Past bills had failed because of liberals’ concerns over arresting women. But then feminist activists got involved and described the spas as sites of foreign sex trafficking. Korean spa workers, many using translators, pleaded with lawmakers not to pass the bill, but to no avail.  Today, sex workers continue to fight for the bill’s repeal.

Laws and discourses that stigmatise sex work, presume workers are enslaved, and treat Asian spas as community blights consign spa employees to a dangerous and invisible underground. We may yet learn that Long was a known problem at the spas. But what could they do? Call the police?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.