The shootings that claimed the lives of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday evening highlight the racism, misogyny and violence faced by women of Asian descent working in massage parlours in Canada, say advocates.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about the killings. But we do know that seven of the eight victims are women, six of Asian descent. Four of the victims have been identified as Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng.
They were shot in three locations offering massage services, allegedly because the killer, a white man, saw these businesses as tempting his “sex addiction.”
We don’t know if any of the women were engaged in sex work, said Stacey Hannem, an associate professor of criminology at Wilfred Laurier University who studies sex work.
But they were still killed because the shooter apparently thought they were, she said.
“It’s really important to understand that whether or not these women were sex workers, they were targeted because the shooter believed that they were,” Hannem said.
The link between sex work, misogyny and anti-Asian racism is not unique to Atlanta or even the U.S.
Women of Asian descent working in massage parlours in Canada are at risk of violence, particularly if they do not have permanent residency or citizenship.
The Tyee spoke with Hannem and five organizations that advocate for or work with sex workers about what people in Canada should know about migrant and Asian-descent sex workers in this country.
1. Massage parlours are 100-per-cent legal, but sex work is not.
Known as “body rub parlours” in most Canadian bylaws, massage parlours are legal businesses offering recreational massages, as distinct from therapeutic massage offered by a registered massage therapist.
Not every body rub parlour engages in sex work, but many do, says Hannem.
“Those of us who study sex work realize and understand that, in reality, in most cases what we’re looking at is sex work happening in massage parlours. There is definitely an overlap,” she said.
Hannem noted two of the businesses targeted in the Atlanta shootings did not call themselves massage parlours but spas, and there are many spas run by people of Asian descent who do not engage in sex work.
“You want to be really careful about not equating all Asian spas with massage parlours,” she said.
For those facilities that do offer sexual services, Hannem said it’s important to keep in mind that “not all sex work is what we would call ‘full-service sex work.’ They’re not necessarily having intercourse.”
2. Women of Asian descent working in massage parlours aren’t necessarily victims of trafficking.
There is a diversity of people who work in massage parlours, says Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy with the HIV Legal Network.
“Some of them might occasionally provide sexual services, some of them might not. Some of them might identify as sex workers, and some of them might not be comfortable with that identity,” she said.
Many women find refuge from racism and language barriers in their work at massage parlours, says Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network in Toronto.
“Massage is the tradition and wisdom of many Asian countries,” Lam told The Tyee via WhatsApp, adding that Butterfly supports some women in the sex industry in B.C., as well.
“They can use their job to support themselves and their family.”
Alison Clancey is executive director of Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network, which supports migrant and immigrant sex workers in Vancouver.
The stereotype that women of Asian descent in sex work are docile, vulnerable and victims of human trafficking is false for the majority of these women in B.C., she said.
“These are very resilient women who are go-getters and take opportunities to generate income for their families the best way they know how, in the circumstances which suit them best,” said Clancey.
And anti-human trafficking advocacy that doesn’t acknowledge sex work as a choice for many women fuels these racist stereotypes about women of Asian descent working in massage parlours, she said.
“Unfortunately, this is a narrative that has been disseminated by government, by the media, and there’s been incredible uptake by the general public buying into this narrative over the last 10 years,” Clancey said.
“Anti-trafficking initiatives actually exacerbate the criminalization, harassment and stigma of Asian sex workers. And what that results in is these women are impeded from reporting any types of violence of exploitation that happens to them.”
3. Existing anti-trafficking laws in Canada cause violence against sex workers, in massage parlours that offer such services and elsewhere, to go unchecked.
Lyra McKee, co-executive director of Pace Society, a peer-driven sex work education and advocacy organization in Vancouver, says sex workers do face more violence than the general population.
But the risks are increased by anti-sex work activists who frame the work as inherently violent or exploitive, which leads to a lack of action on measures to increase safety, she said.
SWAN gets at least one call a day from sex workers who are frustrated they can’t report the violence they face on the job, Clancey said. That’s because Canada’s current prostitution law, passed in 2014 and long overdue for its five-year government review, allows selling sex, but not buying it or providing services like advertising or security to sex workers.
“When these women report violence, there’s only ever two outcomes: the first outcome is they become a target of a prostitution or trafficking investigation themselves,” Clancey said. “Or they are arrested, detained and reported as according to our immigration policy.”
People with temporary visas in Canada are prohibited from doing sex work of any kind and could lose their visas if caught. Those without any immigration status are at risk of deportation if discovered. This only serves to entrench the isolation that migrant sex workers of Asian descent experience, says the HIV Legal Network’s Ka Hon Chu.
“The criminal laws really entrench their alienation from social services, health services, from help if they need it, by criminalizing their labour,” she said. “It’s something that we see in our work with migrant sex workers. We know that there are people who target migrant sex workers because they know that migrant sex workers risk criminalization or deportation if they report violence to authorities.”
But it’s not just police. Bylaw officers are also empowered to come into those spaces and harass, ticket or confiscate the belongings of the women who work there, by the body rub parlour bylaws that assume human trafficking is occurring in these spaces, Ka Hon Chu added.
“We need to remove all those laws that claim to protect women, but they actually do profound harm,” she said.
This is why many sex workers are calling for the decriminalization of sex work in Canada, which would pave the way for the same legal and labour protections available to other forms of work. Protections like hiring security to keep dangerous clients out.
“If they don’t have security and they don’t have the ability to protect themselves and their businesses, then they are vulnerable to people who might do violence,” Hannem said.
4. Violence against massage workers, particularly those who provide sexual services, is part of a continuum of gendered violence.
Attacks against women in massage or body rub parlours are not unheard of in Canada. In February 2020, two people were injured and one person, Ashley Noell Arzaga, was murdered in an attack on a north Toronto massage parlour by a teenage boy armed with a machete.
This is not far removed from the violence all women and femmes face in Canada, says Clancey.
“The general public needs to understand that the violence against sex workers exists on a continuum of violence against women,” she said.
“Despite anyone’s moral objection to the sex work sector, I think that when perpetrators can act with impunity, the way in which they do in Canada given the laws that we have around the sex industry, no one is safer in society.”
A recent report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability on the gender-related murders of women and girls in 2020 found the majority of victims of femicide in Canada know their killers. But those who are killed by strangers are often marginalized in society, because they’re poor, racialized, sex workers or victims of trafficking.
In 2016, Statistics Canada found 294 women in sex work had been murdered between 1991 and 2014, and a third of those cases remains unsolved. The unsolved rate for murder in general in Canada is 20 per cent.
5. People of Asian descent in sex work have always faced racism.
Anti-Asian racism has skyrocketed in Canada since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Vancouver Police Department, the rate of anti-Asian hate crimes reported has gone up 717 per cent in the last year, and women are the most frequent victims.
But Clancey said the women SWAN works with haven’t mentioned an uptick in harassment or violence, and that’s likely because it was already a common occurrence for them.
“The situation was already so dire to begin with,” she said.
“These women experience anti-Asian racism in so many ways, and it’s the anti-Asian stereotypes that have informed our prostitution laws, our federal anti-trafficking laws — that these women do not have agency, can’t think for themselves, that they don’t know any better, they’re backwards and that the state needs to protect them.”
If anything, Clancy added, it’s the state that stands in the way of sex workers of Asian descent seeing any recourse in response to the violence they face at work.
A press release from SWAN, Butterfly, the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter and Elimin8hate noted the long history of anti-Asian racism combined with anti-sex work attitudes.
“This violence is not isolated and stems from a long history of fetishizing, hypersexualizing and marginalizing Asian women,” the release, issued Wednesday, said.
“Anti-migrant and anti-sex worker legislation promote and encourage hate towards Asian migrant sex workers, labelling them as undeserving and unworthy of rights and protection. Our communities are often framed as criminal just for existing.”
We will only end anti-Asian racism if we call it out whenever we come across it, Ka Hon Chu said.
“We need to challenge it when we see it in our everyday lives, and we need to also challenge the laws and policies that perpetuate that,” she said.
“The idea that migrant communities do not have the agency to make decisions over their own economic security and if they want to sell or trade sex, is based on a stereotype about Asian women not having agency. The idea that women who do sex work also do not have agency is another stereotype that we need to challenge.”