Let’s not romanticize what happens inside illicit massage businesses on the best of days. The women who work in such spas are routinely treated as commodities, used and dehumanized, rated and discarded.
On Tuesday, they were murdered, along with several other people, at three spas in Georgia. The alleged murderer claimed a sexual addiction and said the spas were a “temptation” he wanted to eliminate.
Could there be any clearer instance of blaming victims?
It’s not clear whether the women who were killed were actually involved in commercial sex. Yet as we lament how they died, let’s take an unflinching look at how they were treated in life.
Women who work in these spas face unsparing evaluations on an erotic review website that directs customers to illicit massage businesses nationwide. Men who post on the site are florid in their descriptions of sexual experiences and harshly critical of the masseuses, routinely denigrating their appearances and stereotyping them by ethnicity.
Identified only by nicknames, the spa employees are dehumanized and evaluated by their body parts, breast sizes, and bikini waxes, and rated for their skills in sexual acts they were allegedly paid to perform. All three Georgia spas attacked this week — Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, and Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa in Atlanta — were listed on the site and reviewed for sexual encounters, as recently as last week.
One man wrote that Young’s Asian Massage seemed “sad” on his December visit, The COVID-required mask and temperature check made him feel like he was at a doctor’s office. His review mocked the accent of the person who greeted him at the door.
In this week’s shootings, six of the eight victims were Asian women. As much as some may have wanted to believe it wasn’t another racially motivated hate crime, it’s impossible to disentangle racism from misogyny in the white shooter’s denial of a racial motive — threaded, as it was, with a racist trope.
It wasn’t Asian Americans he wanted to eliminate, you see. It was Asian-American temptresses.
“This is not, unfortunately, something new,” said Catherine Chen, the chief executive of Polaris, a social justice organization that fights labor and sex trafficking. “Illicit massage businesses thrive in the United States for this very reason – that Asian women are viewed as there to provide sexual services for men.”
This week’s murders, occurring at a moment of heightened fear and stigmatization of Asian Americans, “shine a very different and complex light on how Asians in unregulated, poorly regulated, and hidden sectors in our economy are treated and are valued,” she said.
Chen herself is Chinese-American and views the alleged killer’s explanation as the very manifestation of racism. You don’t typically spot a German massage parlor or a Polish spa along Main Street, but many strip malls across suburban America feature an Asian massage spa, from which polite passersby avert their eyes. Willful blindness to the sexual exploitation of women in this industry reigns in a society where Asian-American women are still stereotyped as exotic, sexualized, and submissive to men.
“The fact that it’s a label – a known label – is already an expression of the racism that exists against Asians in America,” Chen said.
Many Asian spas are legitimate, of course, and advocates hasten to note that they should not be roundly stigmatized. Polaris, the anti-trafficking organization, points to indicators that a business might be illicit. More often than legitimate spas, they are marked by a neon “OPEN” sign, 24-hour accessibility, and covered windows that hide employees who are trapped – having been trafficked into the trade or having stumbled into the work for their survival.
“These are wives and mothers and daughters and aunties — and grandmas, in some cases — who were trying to do something right and honorable for their families and ended up with this as the economic option,” Chen said. “Or through force, we don’t really know.”
It’s fantastically hard to differentiate between commercial sex workers who are willing and those who were trafficked; even the reluctant are, over time, made vulnerable to prosecution by their involvement in an illegal practice and doubly fearful of speaking out.
The 2019 raids on Florida spas that ensnared Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed just how difficult it is to build a case against illicit massage parlors. Prostitution charges against Kraft and two dozen other men were dropped after video surveillance inside the Orchids of Asia Day Spa was ruled inadmissible. Evidence of sex trafficking never materialized. Many dismissed the charges as puritanical overreaction, insisting that what grownups do with their bodies is their own business.
Our laws don’t say that, of course. But they are upheld in ways that benefit male sex buyers, not the women, often women of color, who are being put up for sale.
When the massage business goes south, it’s the women who pay the price – with fines, jail time, or this week, with their lives. Men blame their temptresses. And America lets them.
What She Said is an occasional column on gender issues.