Last week, a 21-year-old man named Robert Aaron Long allegedly murdered eight people at three Atlanta spas, six of whom were South Asian women. According to Atlanta police, the killer began at Young’s Asian Massage Parlour on the city’s outskirts, killing four people, two of whom were South Asian, and injuring one. He then moved on to Gold Spa, where he killed three more people, all of whom were South Asian women; and finally to Aromatherapy Spa, where he killed one more person.
It has not yet been fully established if any of the people killed were Sex Workers; given the level of stigma sex work carries in the public eye, the survivors of those whose lives were taken may choose not to confirm. What has been established is that the spas in question were venues where Sex Workers operated under Atlanta’s limited legalisation and licensing scheme for sex work, and that the alleged killer very certainly regarded them as Sex Workers when he killed them.
Local police state that Long’s motives were “not racist”; he killed “to remove a temptation he wanted to eliminate”. But while the obvious flaws in this argument at a time when anti-Asian violence and killings have skyrocketed across the US and the rest of the western world have been covered well by many news outlets, it is impossible to understand this terrible crime without considering the oppression faced by Sex Workers all over the world, and how, as in this case, racism, sexism and hatred of Sex Workers all too frequently intersects to produce systemic violence, including murder.
It is horribly typical of racist stereotypes to flatten many diverse nationalities and cultures into a crude caricature; in the West, South Asian women are objectified and fetishised as petite, demure, submissive and forever sexually available. It is notable that the majority of the more than 3,800 attacks on people of South Asian ethnicity in the US since the Covid-19 pandemic began have been on women; perpetrators have very clearly been in search of people they regard as completely unlikely to resist, let alone return, the violence they inflicted on them.
Sex Workers are also stereotyped in popular culture and in official and media discourse. One need look no further than the image presented by the Scottish Government regarding the recent “Equally Safe” consultation; the reality of a diverse group of people of a wide range of ages, genders, backgrounds and reasons for entering the industry was flattened into an exclusively female victim, lacking in agency, choice or socio-economic awareness. There are many other stereotypes of Sex Workers, most of them deeply misogynist, many of them depicting Workers as exploitative or manipulative, and, importantly, most of them locating the responsibility for anger, desire, or just about any other feelings any member of society might have towards Sex Workers on the Worker themselves.
The common elements are not only notable, but act to reinforce each other. Racist dehumanisation of South Asian women is easily generalised to “all South Asian women are Sex Workers”. Hatred of Sex Workers contains strong elements of hatred of women; the hatred and wish to perpetrate violence is easily generalised to “any woman the person regards as dressing or acting like a Sex Worker”, or indeed “any woman the person feels desire towards”. The common elements, and how they act both to create a victim complex in an aggressor (despite the fact that they are statistically likely to be male and far less marginalised that those they enact violence on) and encourage them to act on it are unmissable. Long’s words encapsulate this perfectly. He did not see any of his alleged victims as actual human beings, with lives, families, rights or agency of their own. He only saw them in terms of his desire for them; “a temptation” he felt he had every right to “eliminate”.
While we are grateful that the majority of the reactions are not as extreme or tragic as those that resulted in the Atlanta Shootings, their cumulative effect is nonetheless devastating; from physical attacks to verbal aggression, loss of opportunities and a constant need to fight for any concerns to be heard.
A major part of Umbrella Lane’s mission is to fight the stigma associated with sex work. This is not only because of the personal toll it takes on Workers and their personal and family relationships, but also because of the contributory role it plays in encouraging and normalising violence towards Sex Workers and other marginalised groups of people.
All of our thoughts are not only with the people whose lives were taken as well as their families and loved ones, but with all of those who continue to face violence and fear as they go about their lives.