On March 16, the world was rocked by the worst massacre of Asians in modern American history. A 21-year-old white man from suburban Atlanta, Robert Long, targeted Asian spas in a rampage that left one person injured and eight dead, including six Asian women.
Critics have 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 who solves his sexual problems by killing women is the apotheosis of misogyny. Targeting Asian women for being sexual tempters is racist.
The sexualization and fetishization of Asian women is a well-known phenomenon that I have experienced. I have lost count of the strange men who asked me about my “exotic nationality”. In my teenage years, a 2 Live Crew song made it hard to walk around without hearing the words “me so horny”. Growing up, people too often wondered if my Japanese-American mother, who had married a white man, was a “geisha” or a “war bride”. She was born in Fresno, California. When she was six, she was sent to a concentration camp with thousands of Japanese-American citizens.
While the focus is on the killer’s sexism and racism in this era of unprecedented anti-Asian violence, the massacre was also made possible by criminal laws and policies – including anti-trafficking laws – which also deal with stereotypical and negative views of Asian female sexuality. but have popular support. This moment demands a critical examination of the legal regime that made the victims of Atlanta and thousands of others vulnerable to private and state violence – a regime born out of 19th century fear and disgust for workers in the United States. Asian immigrant sex.
Commentators have played down the issue of sex work to avoid stigmatizing victims or have argued that the tragic events point to the need for stronger anti-trafficking laws. But it is precisely the harsh criminal and immigration law regime that relegates Asian spas to the dangerous margins of society, stigmatizes 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 laws on trafficking are the solution for Asian immigrants employed in the sex trade.
In the United States, sex work in Asia has always been the subject of special condemnation and regulation since its inception. The first legal regime reflected an American fascination, fear and loathing for Asian female sexuality, as well as a paternalistic desire to “save” Asian women – by expelling them. It has been expanded and formalized over the decades through the efforts of not only xenophobes and racists, but also concerned citizens and liberal activists.
In the 1870s, amid fears of the “yellow peril”, media, politicians and citizens denounced Chinese immigrant women as being naturally inculcated into sexual slavery, carriers of “exotic” diseases, corrupting white men. and producers of “degenerate hybrids”.
“Chinese women who immigrate to this state are, almost without exception, the lowest and most degraded class of abandoned women,” a San Francisco newspaper said. The American Medical Association has launched a study to determine whether Chinese women are poisoning the country’s blood.
These sentiments, along with Liberal objections to “yellow slavery,” sparked numerous anti-immigration efforts that culminated in the first federal immigration law, the 1875 Page Act, which banned “importation. … Of women for the purpose of prostitution ”. Sponsor Horace Page lamented that America is China’s “cesspool” because she sent “the lowest and most depraved of her subjects” and vowed “to send the brazen prostitute who openly flaunts her wickedness on the faces of our wives and daughters in his native land. “.
Today, similar issues of sexual aversion, stereotypes and “slavery” drive Asian spa policy. The Florida police, for example, are focusing on spas because they are, in their own words, the “standard Asian model” of prostitution. In 2018, they launched an anti-trafficking operation targeting Orchids of Asia spa. After a questionable legal investigation, police arrested a number of employees and customers, including billionaire Robert Kraft. With the buzz of the media, the district attorney called a press conference to boast of rooting out “the evil among us”, to admit months later: “There is no human trafficking that ensues. of this investigation. “
The state charged 25 men with offenses, all of whom were dropped. In contrast, four Asian Orchid workers, aged 39 to 58, were slapped with numerous prostitution and profiteering charges resulting in decades in prison and had their assets frozen for confiscation.
In 2009, Rhode Island again criminalized “indoor” sex work after 20 years of licensing the private sex trade. Ahead of the bill, community and religious leaders condemned the growing presence of Asian spas in the state capital, Providence. Previous bills had failed due to Liberal concerns about the arrest of women. But then feminist activists got involved and described the spas as overseas sex trafficking sites. Korean spa workers, many of whom use translators, pleaded with lawmakers not to pass the bill, but to no avail. Today, sex workers continue to fight for the repeal of the bill.
Laws and rhetoric that stigmatize sex work, presume workers are enslaved, and treat Asian spas as community plagues confine spa workers to a dangerous and invisible underground. We can still learn that Long was a known issue in spas. But what could they do? Call the police?
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.