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Atlanta spa killings lead to questions about sex work and exploitation

Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, two of three locations where deadly shootings occurred in Atlanta this week. (Chris Aluka Berry for The Washington Post)

The Atlanta-area massage businesses where eight people were shot and killed Tuesday have long been identified online and by police as places where sex work and possible sexual exploitation regularly occurred — and where Asian women could be found.

Customers who posted about the illicit offerings at Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Massage made the businesses targets for people who showed up expecting to be able to purchase sex acts. This week, those businesses became targets for a man who showed up with a gun, intent on ending the lives of those who worked there.

Police have given no indication that any of the victims were sex workers. But the suspected gunman, Robert Aaron Long, told law enforcement that he was a regular customer at two of the massage spas he attacked. He said he saw the people who worked in them as “temptations” he needed to “eliminate,” signaling that he set out with the intention of attacking Asian women whom he perceived to be selling sex.

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“I would absolutely call it a hate crime,” said Justice Rivera, a national advocate for sex workers. “This was targeted violence.”

Now, as more information about the businesses emerges, sex worker advocates and anti-sex-trafficking groups are anxious about how the shooting victims could be dehumanized by narratives that form about them in the media, and how the other employees who have already been victimized by this crime will be treated during the investigation.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) also warned against drawing any conclusions. “We are not about to get into victim blaming, victim shaming, here,” she said Wednesday.

Massage businesses, especially those that employ Asian people, are stereotyped and stigmatized in every corner of America, assumed by some to be places where consensual sex is bought and sold, and painted by others as epicenters for exploitation.

On March 18, a group of Korean Americans decried a law enforcement portrayal of Robert Aaron Long, saying it was an attempt to "protect the shooter." (Video: Reuters)

Establishments that do participate in the sex trade have long been the subject of heated debate among proponents of decriminalizing sex work, groups pushing to end sex trafficking and law enforcement agencies policing what plays out behind flashing neon signs. The businesses are the frequent target of “stings” intended to catch human traffickers that often end in the arrests of the very people police are claiming to help. The circumstances of those people can vary widely: they may be employed there by choice, forced into sex work out of desperation or sex trafficked by someone exploiting them.

One of the businesses attacked by the shooter, Gold Spa, has previously been the subject of prostitution stings by the Atlanta Police Department that led to the arrests of employees, according to police reports The Washington Post obtained through a public records request.

During a two-year period from 2011 though 2013, police conducted seven undercover stings at Gold Spa, making a total of 10 arrests, according to the reports. The arrests were all of women. The reports often listed their home addresses as the address of Gold Spa.

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Police received complaints about alleged prostitution at the addresses of Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa, another business where the shootings took place, as recently as 2019, according to Officer Steve Avery of the department’s public affairs unit.

Young’s Asian Massage, located just north of Atlanta, has been under investigation by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office since 2019, according to a record keeper for the county, who declined to give any details about the case.

Greg Hynson said Young’s and its owner Xiaojie Tan, who was killed Tuesday, were being unfairly stigmatized. He considered Tan a friend and called her “absolutely professional.”

“People think ‘Asian spa’ and they want to categorize it as something,” said Hynson, a 54-year-old former competitive weightlifter who got massages at Young’s.

But one man who works a few doors down saw the type of activity that often raises red flags for anti-trafficking groups.

Tanner Adams, 33, who works at a smoke shop in the same plaza as Young’s, said he saw a steady stream of middle-aged men enter the business, often parking their cars far away from the entrance and walking the length of the parking lot.

Residents paid their respects on March 18 at makeshift memorials outside three Atlanta-area spas where eight people, including six Asian women, were shot. (Video: Ian Cone, Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Adams said he rarely saw the half-dozen women who worked there come or go, but when they did, they were being ferried to and from work in a Honda Odyssey van. He said an older White man frequently hovered near them.

The older man “would come and go from the place and bring groceries or clothing that was just washed,” Adams said. “They were all in a position where they all seemed stuck.”

He said it didn’t occur to him to report his suspicions to authorities. He did not call the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

No one involved in running the three targeted businesses could be reached for comment.

The owner of Young’s, who would have turned 50 on Thursday, had been licensed as a massage therapist since 2016 according to public records. Tan was known in the community as a hard-working business woman who owned two spas. Neighbors of her other establishment, Wang’s Feet & Massage in Kennesaw, Ga., described it as quiet and unremarkable. A man working at Wang’s on Thursday declined to speak to a reporter.

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In Georgia, massage therapists must be licensed by a state board, like Tan was. Therapists who work in the industry are the frequent target of assaults by customers who wrongly assume or expect them to offer sexual services.

Advocates warn that even when sex is involved, no one should jump to conclusions about employees’ roles.

“They are sisters, mothers, daughters. It can be misleading to slap labels on them because everybody approaches those labels through their own lens,” said Annalisa Gibbs, who works with trafficking survivors in Pittsburgh and recently co-founded the Asian Network Against Violence.

Gibbs, who is Thai American, has spent her whole life experiencing the ways that Asian women are sexualized, from childhood jokes about “happy endings” and “me love you long time” to the racist phrases hurled at the Asian trafficking survivors she works with, who are accustomed to being called “takeout.”

Such fetishization runs rampant on sex buyer websites, such as the online forum RubMaps. The subject of outcry and law enforcement investigations for years, RubMaps allows anonymous users to describe in lewd detail the services they receive at spas and similar businesses. Though the accuracy of the reviews can’t be verified, the site serves as an underground business guide, giving certain establishments a reputation for illicit offerings, with no mention of the exploitation that might be involved.

A report by the Georgia anti-trafficking organization StreetGrace found that there were roughly 165 massage businesses in the state listed on RubMaps in 2020. The first piece of information described about each massage business is “Masseuse Ethnicity.” While the spas in the area list a range of reported ethnicities, the three that Long attacked list “Asian” as the biggest, and sometimes only, ethnicity represented.

Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Massage are the subject of more than 200 reviews, filled with racist slurs, breast sizes and names of who to ask for. One recent visitor complained that the employee they met was “very detached and clinical.”

A House subcommittee held a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans on March 18, days after eight people were killed at Asian-run spas. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

The degradation of Asian women has deep roots in American history and culture, which has eroticized them as sexually available for the benefit of White men, said Karen Suyemoto, professor of clinical psychology and Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“There’s a whole stereotyped package of Asian women as sexualized, subservient, small” — maids, masseuses, nail salon technicians and other low-wage workers whose existence is diminished to their ability to serve, said Suyemoto, citing her research into the discrimination faced by Asian American women. “It’s gendered racism with deep roots in the history of American imperialism and war and that continues to be maintained by popular media.”

Asian spa workers were already vulnerable to abuse

U.S. law barred the immigration of women from China, Japan and other Asian countries in 1875 for “lewd and immoral purposes,” on the presumption that they would be prostitutes. Women and girls from China were regularly kidnapped into sex slavery and auctioned off in San Francisco in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The sexualization of women of Asian heritage continued through stereotypes promoted and maintained during U.S. military actions in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, Suyemoto said.

Those harmful stereotypes are exacerbated everywhere from the porn industry to dating websites, said Grace Kao, a Yale University sociologist who studies race and ethnicity. Kao said aspects of the shooting is reminiscent of “incel” culture and the men who blame women for their involuntary celibacy.

“Minorities are already seen as less than human by some people. And these women are seen as objects who don’t have the right to refuse,” Kao said.

Furthering the problem is the way that racism against Asian Americans is still rendered invisible because of the mythical idea that Asian Americans — a diverse diaspora often wrongly lumped as a monolithic group — are “model minorities” who have “made it” in this country. In reality, Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial group in the country and make up a large proportion of low-wage service workers.

That reality contributes to the vulnerabilities that can make Asian women, particularly immigrants, at risk of being forced into the sex trade by traffickers who profit off the repeated sale of their bodies.

Republicans in Georgia, including Gov. Brian Kemp, have made human trafficking a key campaign issue and have supported law enforcement tactics, such as raids around the Super Bowl, that have been questioned by those who caution against the criminalization of vulnerable people.

After StreetGrace completed its research on Georgia’s massage businesses, executive director Camila Zolfaghari said the exploitation of workers within them is undeniable. She hopes it will be taken into consideration during the shooting investigation.

“They have very few contacts with the community, are told they’ll be put in jail for visa fraud if they outcry, and are told their families will be put in danger,” Zolfaghari said.

Such threats keep trafficking victims from seeking help, and keep sex workers from reporting the violence they regularly experience at the hands of buyers. Those who do report crimes always run the risk of being arrested for prostitution and solicitation, and blamed for their own victimization.

And if they are undocumented, they risk being deported for seeking safety. Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, a multiracial economic justice organization, said that while the immigration status of the victims in the Georgia shootings remains unknown, people without authorization to work in the United States are often afraid to seek help from authorities because of the fear that local law enforcement may be working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find undocumented immigrants.

“It’s definitely a race issue. It’s also misogyny and a class issue,” said Chancey, a first-generation Chinese immigrant who lives in Atlanta. “All of these intertwined — white supremacy, structural violence and xenophobia.”

Advocates fear that so much attention on massage businesses and sex work will lead to more stings and deportations across the country, rather than the supportive services people who may be being exploited or struggling in other ways need.

Tamika Spellman, a sex worker and activist in D.C., said she is thinking of every person who works for massage businesses, strip clubs, video-chat websites and all places where sex is sold — or perceived to be.

“In no other occupation do you fear what could happen next as much as you do in this occupation,” Spellman said. “Who is to say that some yahoo out of nowhere won’t do some copycat crime?”

Haisten Willis, Meryl Kornfield, Julie Tate and Alice Crites contributed to this report.