After the mass shootings in Atlanta broke on Tuesday, police and some news sites were alternately calling where they occurred “spas” or “massage parlors” — and neither immediately conjured up thoughts of sex workers for me. I was too busy thinking about what I know of the immigrant Asian women who often work in those types of businesses — how harsh their work conditions often are, how lonely and difficult it can be for them to adapt to a new country.
I pictured the many Asian nail technicians, massage therapists and other service workers I had encountered over the years — chatty, warm, friendly women who were happy to talk to you about their hometowns or give you relationship advice if you asked them. I thought of the friends I had whose mothers had owned nail or hair salons.
I didn’t know anything about the six Asian women or the other two people who were killed, but I mourned for them, for their lost dreams, for their grieving families. The empathy I felt for them, the rage I felt on their behalf — none of that was predicated on their profession.
Then on Wednesday morning, law enforcement shared in a news conference that the white 21-year-old man who had been arrested and charged in the shootings told them that he had a “sexual addiction" that led him to attack. He claimed he killed his victims to “eliminate temptation.”
The suspect’s fetishization of Asian women is the reason why six Asian women are dead.
Once that admission became public — and even before — many people were talking about sex workers, albeit some in respectful ways. I saw tweets about protecting sex workers, as well as those about donating to nonprofits that advocated for sex workers and fought against sex trafficking. I saw former sex workers and sex addicts alike come out to condemn the shooting.
The focus on sex workers was so intense, I thought I had missed that it had been confirmed that the women who had been killed were, indeed, sex workers. Concerned at how this new information might skew people’s perspectives on the victims, I tweeted out a piece that my magazine, “Hyphen,” had published several years ago about how major media outlets tend to exoticize and sensationalize coverage of Asian American sex workers, and a request for media to be mindful in their coverage.
Moments later, I realized that the women’s exact professions had not been reported; I had fallen into the very trap I was trying to avoid. I added a second tweet, clarifying that it was not clear that the victims were sex workers. And, as of this writing, there has been no official confirmation that any of the women killed were actually currently sex workers.
According to early reports, at least one of the victims in Cherokee County was a customer on a date with her husband. We knew that the two other Asian women killed in the Cherokee County spa, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, were women of Chinese descent in their mid to late 40s. We heard that the four Korean women killed in Atlanta were, according to Korean newspapers, between their 50s and 70s.
I pictured the many Asian nail technicians, massage therapists and other service workers I had encountered over the years — chatty, warm, friendly women who were happy to talk to you about their hometowns or give you relationship advice if you asked.
That is all we knew about the women in the day after the attacks.
Then on Thursday, Randy Park, 23, identified his mother, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, as one of the victims at Gold Spa in Atlanta. He says he knew about the kind of place his mom worked — he told The Daily Beast that, though she was an elementary school teacher in her native Korea, "here in America, she did what she had to do. She was a single mother of two kids who dedicated her whole life to raising them." Police confirmed Grant's identification and identified the others on Friday morning as Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.
Yue's sons, Elliot and Robert Peterson, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she was a licensed massage therapist who had been laid off early in the pandemic and had only recently restarted her shifts at the spa.
Reports confirmed on Thursday that Xiaojie Tan, 49, owned Young's Asian Massage Parlor in Cherokee County where she and Feng, 44, a recent employee, were killed. Tan's daughter, ex-husband and customers denied to reporters on Thursday that her two spas provided anything more than massages.
So why was it so easy, despite the dearth of information on the victims in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, for even the most well-intentioned people to assume and promote the assumption that these women must be sex workers?
A narrative in which Asian women are immediately reduced to their sexuality, in which they become “less victimized” because of their perceived moral failing, and in which the suspect’s motive is considered a kind of justification is worrisome.
That is not to say that narrative of the sex worker doesn’t matter in this story: It does, because the suspect’s own fetishization of Asian women is the reason why eight people, including six Asian women, are dead. (The Atlanta police have said that “he had frequented both locations," but have no evidence that he knew the victims.) But by equating female Asian service workers to vessels meant only to sexually gratify him, the suspect had no ability to respect any Asian women who worked in the service industry as fully formed human beings — and apparently no ability to see them as anything other than objects that “tempted” him and thus had to be eradicated, regardless of the jobs they actually performed.
Despite law enforcement’s heretofore reluctance to label this attack as “racially motivated,” it is impossible to separate the suspect's reported desire to “eliminate [the] temptation” of spa workers from this country’s enduring sexualization of Asian women. Asian women, including those of us in America, are often relegated to a status of (as the podcast “Journey to the West” calls it) “perpetual prostitute” — stereotyped as either scheming seductresses or meek sex slaves.
Ask any Asian American woman, and I guarantee she has a slew of stories to share — of being solicited by strangers, of being asked to perform strange sexual tricks, of being treated like a sexual bucket list item. (I once had an older white man stop me on the street and, with a leering smile, ask if I’d give him a “happy ending.”)
That is the state of being an Asian woman in America: Your existence is constantly dehumanized, sexualized and objectified; for many, you are merely a colonizer’s fantasy.
The source of this stereotype is a complex one, simultaneously rooted in Western imperialism, white supremacy and the anti-immigration and anti-miscegenation laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, women who arrived in America to wed Japanese men in arranged marriages (commonly known to Americans as “picture brides”) and the second wives of Chinese laborers in America were seen as no better than sex slaves and therefore a moral threat to white Americans. Meanwhile, abroad, the Western military presence in Asian countries accelerated and contributed to thriving economies of sex workers. The hypersexualized image of Asian women-as-prostitute, driven by Western male demand and colonial-power enforced poverty, is still perpetuated today in film, television and other Western media.
We can make space for their names and their stories. We can resist reduction. We can resist sensationalism.
No wonder it’s so easy for people in America to reach for that stereotype and automatically assume it is the reality.
Of course, Asian sex workers do exist in America — and, it should be emphasized, they aren’t necessarily the victims of sexual trafficking. For many, sex work may be a choice — which illuminates the class diversity among Asian Americans often ignored by the model minority myth — and one they should be able to make free of our moral judgments. But a narrative in which Asian women are once again immediately reduced to their sexuality, in which victims become “less victimized” because of their perceived moral failing or are seen as objects of pity, and in which the suspect’s motive is considered a kind of justification is worrisome because it obscures their humanity.
We can do better. Instead of jumping to conclusions about the work these women did because of where they worked, we can wait for their families and friends to come forward and tell us who their loved ones were. Instead of judging them or pitying them, we can make space for their names and their stories. We can resist reduction. We can resist sensationalism. We can be cognizant of the ways in which racism and misogyny are inextricably linked. We can try to start dismantling these centuries’ old biases we share as a culture.
Xiaojie Tan. Daoyou Feng. Hyun Jung Grant. Soon Chung Park. Suncha Kim. Yong Ae Yue. I hope we have a chance to learn who they all were, beyond our speculations about what they did.