Alice Lee Melissa Farley Suzanne Jay

Prostitution Is a Racialized Hate Crime Against Women

The violence, racism and misogyny targeting Asians in North America--as we've seen most recently in Atlanta--is distilled and intensified in the racism of sex buyers at Asian massage parlors.
[City Walkr / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Alice Lee, Suzanne Jay, and Melissa Farley / Original to ScheerPost

Racists target the humanity of those they attack. In the Atlanta spa deaths, two Chinese women and four Korean women were six of the eight people targeted for murder by a racist white man. We wonder, who are the women who were murdered? If, as the evidence below suggests, some Asian  massage parlors or “spas” like those in Atlanta also operate as brothels, then we also wonder: what forces channel Asian women into massage brothels?  We know that 89% of women in the sex trade including massage prostitution urgently want to escape. What were their plans for the next week or the next year of their lives? How could we have left them so vulnerable? And now, how can we do justice to their lives and their deaths?

Two of us are Asian, we immediately understood the implied threat of the murders:  every Asian woman is vulnerable. That is the reality for every Asian woman because we cannot choose when we are viewed as Asian or as women. Fueled by white supremacy, anti-Asian racism has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, with bigots blaming Asians for COVID-19. Even in Canada, with national leaders urging kindness and patience, we have experienced a dramatic increase in violence against Asians in public spaces – women and especially elderly women are targeted. The freedom of each individual woman is curtailed as we are warned to avoid parks, public transit, and other public sites of attacks.  

Despite the pandemic, Asian massage brothels do a brisk business with sex buyers paying for the women inside. The violence, racism and misogyny targeting Asians in North American public spaces is distilled and intensified in the racism of sex buyers at massage brothels where sex buyers are shielded from public view and protected by public authorities. These men are paying for the women to gratify the men’s racist and misogynist stereotypes of Asian women as submissive, exotic, or hypersexual in a setting where the women’s lack of power is all too real. But the sex buyers are protected by the pretense that they are there for a legitimate service.  

City officials in Atlanta and elsewhere collude in that same pretense, licensing Asian “spa” facilities while turning a blind eye to red flags that many of these businesses are likely brothels and trafficking sites.  Gold’s Spa has a history of prostitution arrests and two of the spas are located in Atlanta’s red light zone where the sex trade thrives. All three of the Asian massage spas  were reviewed on a site called RubMaps, including reviews that enabled sex buyers to obtain “sexual services,” that is, prostitution. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, RubMaps is an online site that encourages sex buyers to publicly evaluate the women in the “spas”; most of the men carefully noted the women’s ethnicities, ages, and breast sizes. All three of the Asian massage spas targeted by the killer “have dozens of reviews on RubMaps, dating back years, where purported customers describe paying for sexual experiences with staff members.” Reviews of Asian massage spas, like the three the Atlanta killer targeted, often promote prostitution in coded language that facilitates prostitution while evading law enforcement, for example instructing sex buyers how to obtain FS (full service) at an AMP (Asian massage parlor).

The first two authors have worked as victim advocates for Asian women trafficked in massage brothels. We share Angela Hsu’s observations about red flag indicators of trafficking from inside Asian massage “spa” brothels. These include 1) passport confiscation, 2) use of debt bondage whereby the women owe an exorbitant amount of money to the owner/trafficker, requiring them to work months or even years to repay the debt which includes ongoing deductions for rent because the women live in the massage parlor, 3) the women are provided drugs in order to addict and control them 4) constant surveillance of the women by limiting their access to transportation and the Internet and also by “chaperoning” their grocery trips, 5) denial of options to leave their “job” and seek an alternative, 6) bosses or pimps deliberately create emotional dependency in the women, 7) bosses or pimps limit the women’s social contacts to the brothel’s managers. 

We spoke with Camila Zolfighari, former head of the Fulton County Human Trafficking Unit and former human trafficking prosecutor for the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, whose descriptions of warning signs for trafficking mirror what was noted by the first two authors inside Asian massage brothels. Warning signs for trafficking in Atlanta massage businesses include: 1) The women appear to live inside the massage parlors and rarely leave the building.  Groceries are brought in to the women and if they leave the location at all, they are under close supervision. Ms. Zolfighari explained that this level of control prevents the women from seeking help from concerned neighbors, anti-trafficking advocates, or law enforcement. 2) ”Security” is ever-present; its purpose appears to be to control the women inside via covered windows, grates over windows and entrances, and security buzzers for entry and exit. 3) Back door entrances permit sex buyers to hide their activity and avoids law enforcement scrutiny. 4) Online reviews of women in the massage parlors describe specific sex acts that sex buyers can pay for. 5) The hours of the massage parlors are sometimes 24/7 or late into the night; these are not normal business hours. 6) The massage parlors are sometimes owned by shell corporations. They are bought and sold by the same owners in order to avoid licensing issues and to hide their identities after an arrest. Some of these owners are known to be members of organized crime groups.  

San Francisco’s mayor acknowledged in 2006 that although its Asian massage parlors were licensed, they were “emblematic of a booming Asian sex-trafficking business that operates with near impunity…” including pimps confiscating the women’s passports, keeping the women in debt-bondage by charging exorbitant fees for food and rent, and fining the women for displeasing sex buyers.  Two additional investigations of massage prostitution arrived at similar conclusions in 2019 and in 2020.

The City of Atlanta should recognize that many Asian massage “spas” are trafficking women and should shut them down rather than continue to protect sex buyers, as Robert Kraft was protected in Florida, at the expense of the Asian women who should never have been arrested.  In a future article, we will discuss how a progressive law could protect women in the Asian massage brothels (by decriminalizing them and offering exit support services) while at the same time holding exploiters and predators (sex buyers, pimps, traffickers, brothel owners) accountable for abuse and violence committed against the women. The Nordic Model law, implemented now in 8 countries, is widely supported by sex trade survivors and anti-trafficking advocates. 

The global sex trade increasingly contributes to the dehumanization of all Asian women. When cities license Asian massage parlors, they not only abandon women, but they also send the message that Asian women’s rights, safety, and personhood is secondary to men’s demand for prostitution and the pimp/ trafficker’s demand for profit. As an Atlanta sex trade survivor explained to the authors, “As long as places that are known for pimping women are allowed to function as high-volume legal businesses, these women will not have hope or feel safe. It gives a strong impression that the city and APD are turning a blind eye.”

In the days to come, the public will hear that the only way to protect women is to decriminalize the pimps, brothel owners and their sex-buying customers. This is a lie that, if believed, has deadly consequences for Asian women. The Atlanta killings should not serve to immunize the men who harm us–no benefit should flow to the pimps, sex-buyers or traffickers. Rather, we need to abolish the racist and sexist practice of prostitution by offering women real alternatives to escape the built-in oppression that serves us up to men like Robert Aaron Long.

Alice Lee and Suzanne Jay are at Asian Women for Equality, Vancouver Canada.

Melissa Farley is at Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco, USA.


  1. We call the US a democracy. It is not. It is a master/slave involuntary servitude type system, just as our own economic system has become, valuing the dollar more than human life itself. After all why do people do what they do? For money and as much as they can get to try to get ahead, or out of the slavery, except the lie is you NEVER get out. Unless we change the system and eliminate money as they sole item of value in an otherwise valueless system, we will see no change. Do you think humanity could thrive without money as a tool of exchange? If we worked to provide all basic necessities for all people we could level the playing field and get away from such enterprises because Money would not be necessary. The pimps disappear, as do the massage parlors. People engage in new endeavors like raising a family, education or realizing their true potentials. Sure this is pie in the sky, but if we think pie in the sky we get pie in the sky.

    Ed Case

    1. The people who profit the most from Asian prostitution, are Asian human traffickers and criminal elements of the Asian community. Certainly White Males are a large part of the demand for these services which are enabling these businesses to thrive. Asian prostitutes generally are the least protected, most abused workers in the industry, which is based on supply/demand economics as abhorrent as that is.

      Like all underground economies, whether guns, drugs or prostitution, more stringent criminalization will not reduce demand, and likely not put a dent in supply, as we have seen with the abject failure of our war on drugs. These women need to be provided better rights, especially the non citizens that have no escape route even possible. Unfortunately, people are getting farther away from traditional, monogamous relationships and the demand for these services will only be growing as people(men) have less time and are less social, and married men are becoming more addicted to the porn, sex industry.

      Germany is the best example of legalized prostitution, and yes Eastern European women are still being exploited there, but the legal protections for these women are still better than they are in Canada. Most likely legalization combined with, strict enforcement of the groups of traffickers and criminals that run the low end establishments where women are underpaid, overworked and abused the most is the best way to improve the industry.

  2. But of course it is China that is the terrible enforcer of cruel vicious exploitation of certain ethnic groups, not the land of the free which is for freedom and democracy!!!
    We know this because a “Christian scholar” from Germany has given all the details to the USA,UK, Canada to enable them to sanction the communist Chinese government, and we believe every word with no evidence or proof.

  3. This article us long on rhetoric and short on evidence.

    Being poor I have personal experiences with other poor people, some of those have been trafficked or formerly trafficked men and women. Not all human trafficking involves prostitution, or women but it all involves capitalism.

    I have met and spoken with asians working in chinese restaurants owned by in one case a chinese woman who were virtually slaves. Undocumented, working for less than minimum wage, and living in squalid crowded housing, for which their boss/owner, charged them absurd rent. Said rent and groceries deducted from their paltry paychecks. They were forced at days end to relinquish their tips to the restaurant owner. All
    of these things leave them in perpetual debt bondage. When they attempt to leave they are threatened.

    Anchorage Alaska roughly 50 miles from where I live, is often considered the most racially diverse city block n the U.S. There are many sketchy looking self advertised oriental massage parlors in the area, including in Wasilla. Some of my former co workers frequented said establishments. Said former co workers were a sad sorry lot, but I don’t believe incarcerating them is going to solve the problem.

    While there is a common thread of racism, and sexism, I don’t see those as the root problems. We live in a brutal authoritarian society, that commodifies everything including our personal data. This systems fosters abuse at every level.

    Ae documented by journalist Laura Flanders, a woman Anchorage police detective arrested underage female sex workers in Anchorage for trafficking themselves. Many of these victims wound up being prosecuted and serving time for the crime of trafficking their own bodies. When quizzed by Flanders said detective retorted they were safer in jail.

    In regards to more designated hate crimes I find that absurd and counter productive. We already have the most punitive legal system in the developed world. Why would you want to make it more punitive? We need restorative justice and healing.

    If we want to end mass shootings let’s enact a ban and buyback of automatic weapons. If we truly want to end human trafficking, and racism let’s deal with the root causes. All of our problems have a common thread. Time to connect the dots.


  4. Wow pushing dogooder patriarchal purity morality views off a tragedy, real nice. Feel free to shut down any industry where minorities are trafficked exploited and killed it just doesn’t happen in the sex trade and actually, it happens more in other industries.

    “The Nordic Model law, implemented now in 8 countries, is widely supported by sex trade survivors and anti-trafficking advocates.”

    Saying that is would be similar to saying Prohibition was widely supported by certain women and religious groups who opposed alcohol. Doesn’t mean it didn’t cause its own problems or that the problem couldn’t be managed. Plus the Nordic Model itself leads to the marginalization and decreases the safety of sex workers as has been often seen in Sweden.

  5. Capitalism means prostitution. Millions have to sell their bodies for meaningless jobs most of their lives.
    Sure, they don’t give up sex, but they give up their souls, they are typically drugged, typically have experience with the criminal justice system and are more or less trafficked by going back and forth to drudgery from which they typically have no escape.

    This op-ed is deeply authoritarian as well as racist but is well written enough to couch itself as just the opposite. Only the best propaganda is going to dehumanize and strip agency from most of the public.

    The worst kinds of fascists ignore millions of poor people already in prison and call for more people to be destroyed by criminal justice.

  6. Strong evidence suggests that the johns (who abuse and exploit those with no other option in prostitution) can be stopped by legal means. Policies can support people in prostitution to find other options for survival. The Nordic (or Swedish) model, which is mentioned in the article briefly, has been shown to reduce prostitution many times compared to neighboring countries with legal prostitution while also making it safer. Contrary to Simon’s comment, many prostituted people in Sweden have reported that when the johns started to realize that they could be reported to the police simply for attempting to buy sex while the woman faced no sanctions, the johns got a lot more careful and did not want to upset the women by subjecting them to any additional abuse than the purchase already entailed. It does not appear to be a coincidence that Germany has seen over 90 completed murders of women in prostitution since they legalized it in 2002, while Sweden has seen no such murders in prostitution during the same period. Read any of my articles below in the relevant sections, and you’ll see the evidence laid out in full. / Max Waltman, Ph.D., Researcher, Stockholm University

    “The Politics of Legal Challenges to Pornography: A Comparative Analysis.” Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society 35, no. 1 (2020): 1–41 (mentions the Nordic/Swedish model in a specific section, with the most recent updates on the data).

    “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law.” Michigan J. Int’l Law 33 (2011): 133-57.

    1. Max Waltman you should as an academic well know there is plenty of research and reports showing the opposite. Why not at least acknowledge that, it isn’t as if I’m saying things that haven’t been looked into by some academics. How do you account for that?

      I also found at least one paper questioning you can hardly just look at the murder rate alone and draw such conclusions as you have.

      What would be interesting if you know of any debates between the academics on both sides have this out? As a layperson I’d rather see those who are researching the topic on either side discuss it.

  7. As a man who has paid for sex with adult asian females for the past 25 years…I say what’s wrong with that?

    I first began in San Francisco, a city with a rather open mind towards the business @1995….

    I now live in Vietnam, where prostitution is illegal, and which, therefore, unlike Thailand, is not a sex-tourism destination.

    Here It is not white men who frequent massage parlors (nudge, nudge). It is asian men…often husbands.

    A young woman here might face a choice of working in sweat-shop conditions in the garment industry for a foreign-employer, yes, American even…for a pittance.

    Or, have a date with me for the equivalent of a month’s wages in less than an hour of mutual satisfaction.

    Do you regard that as dirty, sinful and exploitative?


    Who has the most pleasure in sex? Ovid, in Metamorphoses, writes, in the tale of Tiresias (a man who became a woman for a number of years )… (Tiresias) “knew perfectly well that women enjoy much more sexual pleasure than men.” Women are NOT Victorian wallflowers who must be sheltered, by a male.

    ESPECIALLY, Vietnamese women who are some of the strongest on the planet!

    I know Vietnamese women here who have bought nice, modern apartments here with money earned abroad. And, yes, the latest iPhone! HA!

    Underworld trafficking, and gangster run business, IS evil…as is capitalist exploitation.

    Sex for money, however, IS NOT!

    Hiêu không?

    1. Doesn’t matter RF when you are using Purity morality if sex isn’t within marriage its a bad thing. Doesn’t matter if done and the woman wants to do the work. Doesn’t matter if in other industries people are trafficked and abused or even murdered for some reason they can be addressed by the law but when its connected to sex its a special case. To Purity morality busybody dogooders its all about the sex.

  8. Good to finally see some sense and connections between the dots! Misogyny grows on a fertile soil, it does not fall from the sky.

  9. Germany is the perfect example for showing that legalizing prostitution doesn’t work. Fully legalized since 2002 there are almost no working contracts of prostituted people, most of them have no health ensurance (which is more than unusual – a person can’t have a working contract or have his or her own business without having health insurance) and the prostitution milieu is marked by violance, poverty and abuse. The German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth published a research in 2004 which shows the precarious condition of women working in a legal prostitution system. They have more physical and mental deseases, have to struggle with fear at their workplace and are much more often victims of violence than non prostituted women.

  10. Is it a choice when you choose prostitution over hunger? homelessness vs prostitution? That’s not a choice, that’s a last-ditch survival alternative. There are women in the US who are doing a blow job for a tank of gas or for a hamburger. That’s not a choice. Let’s give them real choices which includes the real option to escape prostitution.

  11. Prositution is the oldest oppression in the world and every punter, ( or” john “) is a pitiful misogynist and a poor excuse for a man. You’re just a trick, not a date, and prosituted women despise you. Read anything by any women who has escaped prositution to grasp that your sleezy, duplicitous lifestyle makes you detestible especially to the women you use like toilets because you’re too lame to learn how to pleasure a woman and have no respect for females.

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