By Yvonne Chen, Kathy Lu, and Amy Hsieh
“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our own personal experiences… to make sure that others do not have to suffer the same discrimination.” Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (an American politician in Hawaii, and served in the US House of Representatives for 12 terms. She was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman elected into Congress. She was also the first Asian American to seek the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party in the 1972 election.)
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The month-long celebration is a chance to acknowledge the historic achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and their impact on American history. It is also the time when we honor the lives lost from this essential part of our American community.
We honor the lives lost during the Atlanta Massacre that occurred on March 16, 2021. A shooter targeted two Asian owned massage businesses in Atlanta, shot and killed eight people, seven of whom were women, and six of whom were Asian. Although little is known about the victims, we know that most of them “were mothers, middle-aged or older, with limited English language skills, who for decades had been seeking financial stability for themselves and their children.” Some had little to no family in the United States.
Many assumptions were made about the victims, by the media and the shooter himself. These assumptions are born from a long history of exploitation, exclusion, and fetishization targeting Asian women in America. The first recorded Asian woman came to America in 1834 and worked in show business, eventually becoming a circus act managed by white men. Afong Moy captivated audience members with her bound feet and exotic “Oriental” practices. By the mid-1800s, this fascination and objectification had turned to fetishization and exclusion. Asian women faced ugly stereotypes that classified them as “prostitutes” and accused them of spreading both moral pollution and disease. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, one of America’s first major restrictions on immigration that excluded all women from “the Orient” who came to the U.S. for “lewd” purposes. In practice, the U.S. government used the law to systematically bar entry to Asian women. Today, Asian-operated massage businesses continue to be typecast as commercial front brothels with Asian women assumed to be consenting sex-servants to buyers.
As service providers in the Anti-Trafficking field, we do not assume that these businesses are selling sex or trafficking people. Moreover, we are deeply aware of the dangers of these types of assumptions for Asian-operated massage businesses. They can and often do lead to violence, both from customers demanding sex services and from police executing raids resulting in the arrest of women in these settings.
Concurrently, we also know that many of our clients have been subjected to fraud, coercion, and force, by their employers, coworkers, and customers at illicit massage businesses. Because of the intersectional vulnerability caused by this particular brand of racism and misogyny, Asian women experience violence on multiple levels. They are defrauded by employers who exploit the vulnerability of female immigrants. They are targeted by buyers for sex services whether they consent to it or not, racially profiled. They are violently arrested during prostitution raids. They are stereotyped by the broader public as exotic sexual objects.
Regardless of the Atlanta victims’ survivorship or victimhood, what is clear is that they were among many Asian and Asian Americans working in low-wage earning, back-breaking, often invisible jobs. From the over 1200 individuals with whom we have met and who have disclosed massage businesses experiences, we have learned that all need access to living wage jobs, culturally-sensitive and appropriate social services, and pathways toward immigration status and true stability in their lives. This is not surprising, taking into consideration that the largest population impacted by poverty in NYC are Asians and Asian Americans.
We must continue to support communities who have been historically impacted by racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. We encourage service providers to find ways to meet the needs of individuals who unwillingly find themselves in illicit massage settings. We call on this community of legal practitioners, advocates, and jurists devoted to improving the status of women in society and to promoting the fair and equal administration of justice, to include Asian American and Pacific Islander women in your fight.