A Survivor-Centric Way to Talk About the Atlanta Murders — Free to Thrive

By: Mira Seyal

Justice for survivors and their families begins with honoring the humanity of those who died. The Atalanta victims weren’t just case-in-point examples of racism and misogyny in America, they were mothers, friends, co-workers and daughters . One was known for her incredible work ethic as a massage therapist. Another was known for always making a point to celebrate her employee’s birthdays. Another loved her indoor aquarium, summer plants and pet Chihuahua. When we leave out these details of humanity, we reduce the value of human life to a statistic.

Discussing last week’s murders in a survivor-centric manner means honoring the victims’ humanity and simultaneously building constructive dialogue around how those outside of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community can help. Although many people have been well-meaning in their frustration that eight lives were lost and their desire to help the AAPI community, help can be harmful if it unintentionally perpetuates racist stereotypes. The repeated conflation of massage establishments with illicit massage businesses (IBMs) for example, perpetuates the narrative that all Asian women who work in massage are victims of sex trafficking and offer illicit sex services. This puts massage workers in a dangerous situation because many are approached by, sometimes violent, men who feel they are entitled to or owed sex. On a larger scale, the conflation of massage establishments and IBMs perpetuates racism towards all AAPI women because it reinforces narratives that sexualize and exotify Asian women.

As news outlets deliberate over whether the shooter “may have had a racial motive ,” they miss the bigger picture: racist violence against Asian women is what has landed so many of them in vulnerable positions in the first place.

The Fetishization of Asian Women

To contextualize the Atalanta murders and the problematic response by both media outlets and law enforcement agencies, we must understand the historical fetishization of Asian women. Law enforcement tried to justify the shooter’s actions by proclaiming that he had a “sexual addiction” and had frequented what were probably IBMs in the past before carrying out the shootings to eliminate his “temptation.” Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum :

Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian and Asian American women as variations of the Asian temptress, the dragon ladies and the lotus blossoms, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies and desires… This is horrifying. Stop fetishizing us.

Law enforcement’s excuse of a “sexual addiction” in conjunction with the racialized nature of the murders nods to a long history of White American men fetishizing Asian women. On its face, sexual fetishization of Asian women might not seem problematic. Some might even see it as flattering that an online dating found that all men (except notably, Asian men) prefer Asian women. But one doesn’t need to look far into U.S. history to understand why this is an issue.

The popular term “yellow fever” (a pun on the disease that afflicted many white men who played a role in Asian colonization) also helps explain why Asian fetishization and exotification is problematic. A fetish, held by someone with power, strips the fetishee of their humanity and autonomy. It reduces them to a body with the sole purpose of granting sexual pleasure to the fetish-holder. When we see someone as an object of pleasure and subservience, rather than as a human being, we normalize their oppression.

Normalized fetishization can be seen today across U.S. culture. As Nian Hu of The Harvard Crimson writes:

Being Asian means that when I meet someone for the first time, they ask me where I’m from- “New York”-no, where I’m really from. Being Asian means that men compliment me by calling me exotic. Being Asian means that I’m expected to do well in math and become a doctor. Being Asian means that people are surprised I can speak English so well, never mind the fact that I was born and raised in America and can probably speak English better than most Americans. Being Asian means that when I walk down the streets, I am catcalled with “Ni hao ma!” as well as the usual “Hey sexy!” And that’s why we can’t pretend that yellow fever is nothing more than an innocent preference for straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. It is rooted in a long history of fetishization.

Kyoko from the popular film Ex Machina is portrayed as the ideal sex servant: Asian and subservient

Today, the fetishization and exotification of Asian women can be seen across U.S. culture from movies to dating apps and social media, to food trends.

By understanding the history of Asian fetishization and by acknowledging that Asian fetishization still occurs on a large scale today, we can begin to understand why the shooter equated the Asian women he murdered with a “temptation” that he needed to “get rid of.” We can begin to understand why his decision to take eight lives was not an isolated event.

Illicit Massage Businesses

The historical fetishization of Asian women raises serious human trafficking concerns because within the massage industry there exists an underground industry for illicit massage — a front for sex slavery. According to Polaris, there are more illicit massage businesses in the U.S. than Starbucks storefronts. Not all massage businesses are fronts for sex trafficking, but in order to put last week’s murders into context, we must talk about the fact that many are.

Illicit massage businesses are able to operate because of the demand that exists for illicit sexual services from Asian women — a demand rooted in their historical fetishization. A look at the demographic makeup of illicit sex-buyers paints a picture of who holds up the demand that perpetuates the existence of illicit massage businesses. The majority of sex buyers in the US are middle to upper-class White men. A study by Demand Abolition found that active sex-buyers are very likely to describe sex-buyers as “just guys being guys” or “taking care of their needs.” Sound familiar? The attempt to justify racist, misogynist behavior and shift the entire burden of responsibility off White men similarly occurred when Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said that Long “may not have been racially motivated,” but was troubled by “sexual issues.” Equally appalling, Captain Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said that Long “was having a bad day.” The power imbalance between Asian women and the White men who make up the majority of sex-buyers, law enforcement and policymakers is what allows the illicit massage industry to persist in such a widespread manner. When those with power normalize systems of oppression, the systems remain.

Who Pays the Price?

Comments like those from County Sheriff Reynolds and Captain Jay Baker entirely disregard the traumatization of so many Asian women in industries like massage, where workers are vulnerable to exploitation. Despite their victimization, Asian women are routinely criminalized while being trafficked. In 2018, The New York Times famously published the story of Yang Song, a woman of Chinese descent who worked in an illicit massage business and fell to her death while running from the police. The story highlighted the reasons why Song and so many other women who work in illicit massage businesses do not escape their trafficker. Many victims fear publicization of their trafficking will bring about cultural shame. Others are stuck for economic reasons like debt bondage or inaccessibility to alternative employment options. What is almost universally true for trafficking victims in illicit massage establishments is fear of law enforcement, who routinely treat trafficking victims in massage establishments like criminals, not victims.

While Asian women carry the burden of criminalization within the illicit massage industry, sex-buyers ususally walk free. Only about 6% of men who purchase sex illegally report ever having been arrested for it. Most sex buyers don’t fear the law and are likely to say that prostituted persons “enjoy the act of prostitution,” speaking to the immense privilege that most sex-buyers have to justify contributing to human trafficking, with the confidence that they will not face represcussions.

What Now?

The Atlanta murders were an atrocious act. We need to be willing to see that this was not an isolated act. The murders occurred within the context of spiking anti-Asian violence, both physical and psychological. We cannot shake off the murder of an 84-year-old man in San Francisco. We cannot ignore that #ChinaVirus is trending on Twitter or that our own ex-president claimed that Chinese people are responsible for the pandemic, calling it the “Kung-Flu.” We cannot keep calling racist acts “isolated events,” because they are not. These events are part of an entire system of racist violence towards Asians. Ignoring that system means complicity with violence against Asians and it means complicity with the Atlanta shooter’s decision to take eight lives.

Still, we need to make sure that any effort to help the AAPI community is survivor-centric and trauma-informed. Otherwise, we risk reinforcing the very circumstances which allowed for last week’s murders to occur.

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to help survivors of human trafficking, we encourage you to visit https://www.freetothrive.org/. We also encourage you to check out the third part of our three-part training series on illicit massage as it affects the Asian Pacific Islander community.

Originally published at https://www.freetothrive.org on March 25, 2021.