The Deep American Roots of the Atlanta ShootingsBreaking News
tags: racism, violence, sex work, Asian American History
Among the first things I did upon learning about the shootings at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area was to check in with a former massage parlor worker I met in 2019. At the time, I was reporting an article about a prostitution raid at a Florida massage parlor.
Unable to work during the pandemic, she was home alone when we spoke; the news from Atlanta hadn’t reached her yet. “Too frightening,” she said, when I sent her an article about what had happened. Robert Aaron Long, 21, who has been charged with the murder of eight people in Atlanta and nearby Acworth, six of them Asian women, had been arrested on his way to Florida — where she was — and where he planned on killing more, according to what he told the police. She worried for her colleagues. “Do you think someone will kill them? Am I in danger too?”
I didn’t know how to respond, in part because I knew so little about those killed in Georgia: Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Yong Ae Yu, 63. (Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, were victims identified earlier.) In some massage parlors, women, often Asian, may sometimes perform sexual services. But I did not know whether those who died this week would have identified themselves as sex workers.
I have spent the past few years researching the various ways sex work intersects with race, class and gender, routinely amazed by how it connects to such disparate issues as criminal justice, gentrification, poverty, immigration and trans rights. I have come to understand sex work rights as an overlooked civil rights issue that deserves study. I soon found myself placing the Atlanta killings within the context of a horrific history.
Since the terrible events this past Tuesday, much effort has been devoted to understanding Mr. Long — an earnest inquiry that betrays a particular kind of American naïveté. He claimed to have been driven by “sexual addiction”; investigators have not yet ruled out race as a factor. For now, we do not know whether the massage parlor workers who were killed would have considered themselves sex workers, and we may never know. But the answer is less relevant to their deaths than their murderer’s answer: Does it matter how one identifies oneself if a mass killer conflates any Asian woman in a massage parlor with a sex worker?
The stereotype of the Asian woman as simultaneously hypersexualized and submissive is borne of centuries of Western imperialism. An early documented instance of Asian fetishization can be found in “Madame Chrysantheme,” a thinly fictionalized account of a French naval officer’s time visiting 19th-century Japan. “Madame Chrysantheme” was wildly popular when it was published, and went on to create a subgenre of Orientalizing prose. The women in such accounts were, as Edward Said wrote in “Orientalism,” “creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.”
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