With heavy hearts, the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies send strength and love to the eight victims, including six Asian women, murdered at three massage parlors and spas outside Atlanta, Georgia, and to their loved ones near and far. We also send the same to all Asians and Asian Americans who have experienced gendered racial violence and racialized sexual violence, and who might be feeling targeted, scared, sad, and angry, for their elders, friends, families, communities, and themselves.
The recent rise in anti-Asian violence against all ages and genders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has a deep-seated history in U.S. culture, white supremacy, and harmful stereotypes of Asian migrants as carriers of disease and contagion. The former president fueled this hatred by repeatedly calling the coronavirus the “China virus,” and “kung flu,” and his words are echoed by millions of Americans even as reported anti-Asian violence rose 150% in 2020. But this latest incident of violence demands that we account for the specific vulnerabilities of Asian migrants who are targeted while working at massage parlors and spas, Asian migrants who are often poor and sometimes undocumented, Asian migrants who are subject to sexualized violence whether or not they traded sex because of an enduring animus toward sex workers, Asian women, and immigrants. After all, it is the fantasized figure of the migrant Asian sex worker who is the foundation of U.S. anti-immigration law. The first immigration restriction legislation, the Page Act of 1875, prohibited the migration of all Chinese women, described as “lewd” and “immoral,” on the assumption that all Chinese women engaged in sex work. A century of U.S. military operations in Asia and the Pacific oversaw the expansion of sex trades around bases, and reinforced the non-accountability for U.S. soldiers’ racialized sexual violence toward all Asian women, from Okinawa to Saigon to Manila. Asian and Asian immigrant women have been particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of violence within these longer histories of U.S. militarism and law.
For this reason, we caution that the answer to anti-Asian violence is not more policing. (Indeed, a Georgia sheriff official sympathetically said at a press briefing that the man accused of killing six Asian women and two others at spas had a “bad day.”) As the Page Act of 1875 illustrates so well, the criminalization of sex work is central to the criminalization of migrant movements. Anti-sex trafficking measures already make migrants, whether or not they trade sex, vulnerable to all sorts of violence –from the murders in Atlanta to the everyday stigma and harassment massage workers face daily— while also facilitating the militarization of the police and the authorization of other legal and extralegal agencies (such as ICE and also non-profit anti-trafficking organizations) with police powers. Anti-sex trafficking measures, which are also anti-immigration measures, do nothing to address structural impoverishment or labor abuses, and instead criminalize the movements of those who perform labor deemed illicit or unlawful. Increased policing would therefore only result in more racial profiling and surveillance, arrests, deportations, and other forms of racialized and gendered violence against Asian women, migrants, sex workers, massage workers, and trafficking survivors.
We mourn the lives of those so senselessly and brutally taken by anti-Asian violence. We also call for the decriminalization of migration, and for labor rights for all workers, in order to protect Asian women and femmes and bring about migrant and racial justice. You can learn more about some these movements from Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network) and Red Canary Song, among other organizations working to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize migrants and anyone criminalized for their labor and survival.