How to Protect Massage Workers
Policing and criminalization of sex work hurts massage workers, even when they aren’t sex workers.,
The shootings of Asian massage workers in Georgia this month have been framed as part of a surge of anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. But they’re also part of a longstanding problem: the violence against and the surveillance of migrant massage workers.
These women are vulnerable because of their race, their gender, their immigration status — and for the type of work they do. Asian massage parlors have long been a target of law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations who see “illicit massage businesses” as loci of human trafficking.
Nearly all of these organizations have called for the increased surveillance and policing of massage businesses, and the result has been hundreds of raids across the country which have terrorized and criminalized massage workers. These systemic forms of violence cannot be divorced from the brutal killings of massage parlor workers in the Atlanta area on March 16.
Countless Asian massage workers in the United States are not victims of sex trafficking, and many of them aren’t sex workers, even if they are often profiled as such by police agencies, anti-trafficking organizations, and civilian vigilante groups. To ensure their safety, we should turn instead to the work of grass-roots migrant, labor and sex worker rights organizations that focus on massage worker safety, organizing and mutual aid. One such organization is Red Canary Song, with which I have worked as an outreach organizer for the past two years.
When my colleagues and I talk to Asian massage workers, they often share stories of police officers entering their workplaces at random under the guise of stopping sex trafficking. When they don’t find any evidence of wrongdoing, they demand to see massage licenses. Workers tell us they are frequently arrested if they don’t produce a license, or are hit with building code or public health violations.
Those who are arrested are often funneled through special courts and programs where workers, seen as morally flawed and traumatized victims, are offered programming framed as rehabilitation. Yet those alternatives to incarceration subject these migrant workers to everything from religious proselytization to “recovery-focused yoga” to unpaid labor, when what they really need is economic security.
When conducting raids, local law enforcement agencies often team up with the Department of Homeland Security, which can initiate detention and deportation proceedings against undocumented workers unless they are determined to be victims of trafficking. That status allows them to avoid conviction and receive temporary immigration protection.
Yet, despite these obvious incentives, many massage workers refuse to take on the label of trafficking victim, largely to avoid a long legal process and taking part in the prosecution of their traffickers.
This everyday threat of policing also makes it far less likely that workers will feel comfortable reporting poor working conditions and threats to their safety. They cannot seek help because anti-trafficking raid and rescue efforts rely on the criminal legal system, which can lead to their own arrest and imprisonment.
People presenting badges have exploited massage workers for free services knowing that they have limited means of recourse. Workers have also said that they are coerced into being informants against their colleagues. Some migrant massage workers are undocumented and some engage in sex work. Both of these statuses make them more vulnerable.
Under the guise of combating sex trafficking, hundreds of massage businesses around the country have been raided; one of the most notorious was the 2019 raid on Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Florida, involving the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft. While misdemeanor prostitution solicitation charges against Mr. Kraft were dropped in September, at least one of the low-wage migrant Asian workers arrested in the raid on Orchids and other nearby massage parlors ended up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody; others had their assets seized; and some were jailed and released, only to find themselves out of a job because their old workplace had been shut down.
It is fears of outcomes like these that caused Song Yang, a 38-year-old Chinese massage worker in Queens to plunge four stories to her death during a police raid on her workplace in Queens in 2017. Ms. Song had been arrested three times on prostitution-related charges and had confided in her lawyer that she would rather die than be arrested again. The raid came after Ms. Song told her lawyer in 2016 that a man claiming to be a police officer held a gun to her head and threatened to arrest her if she did not provide oral sex.
The same night that Song Yang died, another migrant worker hid on the fire escape all night long without a jacket in the late November cold to avoid arrest. In the wake of Ms. Song’s death, police and anti-trafficking groups have urged a “crackdown” on Asian massage businesses.
Across North America, laws have introduced requirements that make the industry more visible and susceptible to violence. A regulation that forbids workers to lock doors leaves them open to assault and robbery. Harsher sentences for “promoting prostitution” can fall on the workers who open the main doors or work the front desk of businesses.
In Toronto, research found that the Chinese friend of a massage worker was charged with working without a license simply because she was sitting on a sofa in a massage business. Officers demanded to see the underwear of another worker, presumably as proof she was not offering sex.
The raid-and-rescue approach to regulating Asian massage work is understandably alluring. It promises an easy solution to the perceived problems of sex work and the massage industry without requiring sustained structural changes. But it hurts the workers it seeks to protect.
Instead, the most effective ways to support Asian massage workers is to support the campaigns of grass-roots migrant, labor and sex workers’ rights organizations, in the United States and globally, that know what workers need. Asian massage workers need affordable housing, safe working conditions, a living wage, safe avenues to seek redress and the ability to organize when their rights are infringed.
Assistance must also be extended across the immigrant low-wage service sector, as many workers move to and from jobs in nail salons and in restaurants, as home care workers, as street-based sex workers, as hair stylists, as garment workers. They need to feel that they can apply for public assistance without jeopardizing their immigration status. This can happen only if we remove the threat of deportation for undocumented and temporary status workers.
The decriminalization of sex work is vital. Asian massage workers are universally policed and considered to be involved in the sex industry, regardless of whether they are a part of it. Whether the Atlanta victims were sex workers or victims of sex trafficking is irrelevant to the reality of mass surveillance, policing and constant fear unleashed on all Asian massage workers.
Elena Shih (@uhlenna) is an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University and an outreach organizer of Red Canary Song.
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