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Would Regulating Massage Parlors Reduce Violence Against Women, Immigrants?

Activists demonstrate outside Gold Spa following a shooting where three women were gunned down on March 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. The suspect was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
Activists demonstrate outside Gold Spa following a shooting where three women were gunned down on March 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. The suspect was arrested after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced in late April that he’d no longer prosecute prostitution and unregulated massage parlors, a move applauded by organizations fighting sex trafficking and labor coercion.

Among them is the Polaris Project, a group that aims to end sex and labor trafficking. CEO Catherine Chen says marginalized women and immigrants suffer violence, discrimination and racism in unregulated situations where trafficking, coercion and desperation leave them few options.

The deaths of six Asian women and two others in three legal Atlanta-area spas in March brought the issue to light, though it’s unknown whether those killed performed sexual services.

But other women in massage parlors across the country are sex workers. Boston Globe gender issues reporter Stephanie Ebbert writes how many people lamenting the shootings averted their eyes from the truth of the situation.

“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,” she writes.

The shooter, who police say may have been a client of the spas, reportedly told officers that he wanted to eliminate “temptation.” All three of the spas attacked were listed on websites where men trade referrals and denigrate workers, Ebbert reports.

“Rampant racism” and commodification plague these online review boards, Chen says.

Most women who end up in illicit massage businesses are immigrant women, typically ranging from 30 to 70 years old, Chen says.

Poverty can be a driving factor. Many of the immigrant women are coerced into it because they owe money to “loan sharks” who threaten their families and hold titles to their property, she says.

“They agree to take these jobs, sometimes willingly and sometimes knowingly aware of what is going to be involved, and oftentimes not aware,” Chen says.

The Atlanta-area shootings happened at a time of heightened activism and awareness of hate crimes against Asian Americans. People were poised to be sympathetic. But the role of any kind of sex work in these spas was rarely mentioned — as if that might have made it challenging for people to sympathize with the victims — making for a “tricky situation,” Ebbert says.

She points to how sexism, misogyny, racism and violence are clearly intertwined in this case.

“It’s kind of impossible to disentangle them,” she says, “but it’s a bigger issue that we’re going to need to confront.”

Interview Highlights

On online review boards

Ebbert: “That’s the thing that I find most horrific. The way that these women are commodified. They are ranked given star ratings, described in categories based on their appearance and what men say they will be willing to do and for how much money. It’s incredibly demoralizing and it’s also, in many cases, very racist. You see a lot of descriptions based on ethnicity and a lot of stereotyping. It’s all laid out for you to see right there.”

On better protections for sex workers

Chen: “Very often, the payment system that women are brought into, these establishments, they’re paid barely anything, if anything, and they are expected to make their earnings off of cash tips. And so the coercive nature of an illicit massage business that is engaging in sexual services or prostitution is that you can do a regular massage. You’re going to get a $10 tip or a $5 tip. But if you perform a sexual service, you’re going to get $100 or $120. And so if poverty is a driver for you, you’re going to do what you need to do to feed your kids.

“There was a really important study done by John Chin and Lois Takahashi, who looked at 116 Chinese and Korean women who had been working in illicit massage businesses in New York and [Los Angeles] and what they showed, one, is that 40% of the women who they interviewed out of the 116 people, [said] they had been forced to perform sex by a client in the last year. So the amount of sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, violence and abuse going on inside of illicit massage businesses is infuriating. And for us, what we want to see is law enforcement tackle that much more than tackling whether or not a massage business exists or not, because we ultimately want to see workers who are inside of these businesses protected from the violence that’s happening to them.

“Of those 116 women, only 8% let their family know what they were doing. And so there is a significant amount of stigma that exists for people who end up in illicit massage businesses. And so when you ask that question about, for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, why was the first blush to say, let’s honor them as people without talking about what they did for a living — those of us in the community, what we saw was a desire to honor the dignity and the aspirations of who these people were before we worried about whether or not what they did for a living was above board or not.”

On the time Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft was caught performing sex acts with a spa worker during a 2019 police sting. He and the other men involved got off lightly, but the women did not.

Ebbert: “[The women] were prosecuted for felonies. Many of them were in jail for weeks. The men were all free. We’re talking about over 200 men who were free and contesting this legally. And the women had all their property seized and their assets seized, their homes where sometimes they had families. While prosecutors tried to build the case. For that story, I spoke with a criminologist. She said this is a situation where law enforcement has egg all over their face. Somebody is going to go down for this — and it’s going to be the women.”

Chen: “The headline is that we need to flip the script on how illicit massage businesses are being policed right now. We think that workers in illicit massage businesses need to be protected the same way that restaurant workers should be protected, the same way that farm workers should be protected. What we know from the investigations that were related to Mr. Kraft are that many of the women were deported and they were the ones who faced the brunt of the criminal justice system because of what was going on.

“That for us, it really underscores why we think that criminalizing people inside of illicit massage businesses or anyone in prostitution doesn’t work, because if we arrest people who are already so vulnerable or we arrest people who are victims of crime, it doesn’t help build trust with people who are being victimized. And ultimately, because poverty is such a strong driver for how people end up in these situations in the first place, when you slap a criminal record on somebody, it makes it impossible for them to get social services. It makes it impossible for them to get public benefits, and it drives them toward a cycle where the only option they have is to be in an underground or illicit economy.”

On New York district attorney’s decision to no longer prosecute prostitution and unregulated massage parlors

Chen: “We definitely applaud what District Attorney Vance has done. And I think the one distinction that I do want to make: The anti-trafficking community, many of us think that full decriminalization of prostitution, meaning that you also decriminalize the men on the john boards and things like that, that that’s not the solution, because we ultimately see the trafficking victims very often want to see sex buyers held accountable for the violence that they perpetrate. But we do want to see law enforcement pivot so that they’re protecting the workers inside of these establishments, as opposed to only protecting the communities from the establishments themselves.”

On what can be done moving forward

Ebbert: “I think it is important to pay attention and to not deny. [That] does not, however, call for us to act individually, because if it is an illicit massage business run by a criminal network, you certainly don’t want to go in there. And many of [the workers], they will have a hard time admitting the situation that they’re in to a stranger. They are not going to ask you for help if you offer it to them.”

Chen: “I think that culturally appropriate services are a key part of this, right. You have to be working with service providers who speak the many, many, many different languages that people speak inside of those illicit massage businesses. Because the whole point when you’re in a coercive experience like this is to make sure that you don’t trust law enforcement, to make sure that you are afraid that immigration is going to come and deport you. And it’s used as a coercive tactic to keep people in place.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.