Atlanta Asian massage parlor murders are a warning to the anti-trafficking sector

By the end of 2020, four women from the Orchids of Asia Day Spa would ultimately face extensive charges and fines related to prostitution. In what began as a human trafficking probe evolved into a crackdown on prostitution. Lei Wang, the manager of the spa, would plead guilty to the sole charge of soliciting another to commit prostitution, though the conviction will be withheld from her record if she fulfills her yearlong probation conditions, including a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. Hua Zhang, the owner of the spa, pleaded guilty to a count of soliciting to commit prostitution and a count of renting a space to commit prostitution.

Lei Chen and Mingbi Shen, both masseuses at the spa, would also face prostitution charges, tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and probation sentences. Prior to entering her plea deal, Shen had her bank account frozen and passport taken away. Now she must pay $20,000 to the city of Jupiter’s police department and $5,000 in other fees. If that wasn’t enough, the women must undergo STI tests as part of their sentences.

Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County that had originally pushed the sex trafficking narrative, celebrated the charges, saying “Orchids of Asia Day Spa was a notorious brothel in a family shopping center.” It had all come full circle. Snyder’s remark at the outset that “I would never consider them prostitutes” would foreshadow the precise opposite conclusion to the case.

A lesson in caution (and anti-racism)

The claim that a vast sex trafficking ring was operating out of Asian spas across South Florida was problematic for several reasons, though the underlying issue is the support for the ‘raid and rescue’ model among authorities and some anti-trafficking organizations. Combined with the fact that Asian spas were singled out as likely sites of sex trafficking or prostitution, as evidenced by the search warrant lamenting the “standard Asian model”, we cannot ignore that race played a role in how “victims” and “prostitutes” were framed by the authorities. Raids premised on saving immigrant sex trafficking victims can go two ways in the United States — either victims are identified and given assistance, or they are found to be consenting sex workers and thus eligible for prosecution, jail time, criminal charges, and immigration violations.

As Jill McCracken, a professor at University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and cofounder and co-director of SWOP Tampa Bay, told Rolling Stone, “We tend to see Asian massage parlors in general through a very prejudiced lens,” adding that they are often targeted as a result of a sort of “racial profiling”. Similarly, an article in Vanity Fair noted that “It was somehow easier for law enforcement officers in South Florida to believe that the women had been sold into sex slavery by a global crime syndicate than to acknowledge that immigrant women of precarious status, hemmed in by circumstance, might choose sex work.”

Admittedly much of the problem boils down to the conflation of sex trafficking – which requires an element of force, coercion, or deception as well as an intent to exploit – with adult, consenting sex work. The ‘raid and rescue’ model accepts that consenting sex workers may be rounded up alongside victims of sex trafficking and views any charges of prostitution for the latter as simply collateral damage. That is a long way from ‘do no harm’.

A policy path forward

At Freedom United we recognize that sex trafficking and sex work are not the same thing. We recently responded to the Scottish Government’s ‘Equally Safe: challenging men’s demand for prostitution’ consultation, arguing that criminalizing the purchase of sex was not an effective strategy for tackling human trafficking, that criminalization puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, abuse, and HIV infection, and that full decriminalization of sex work was needed. Under the ‘Nordic model’, which criminalizes the purchase of sex, sex workers are pushed into less safe working environments and accepting clients they may not have chosen otherwise.

As UNAIDS points out, “The legal status of sex work is a critical factor defining the extent and patterns of human rights violations, including violence against sex workers. Where sex work is criminalized, violence against sex workers is often not reported or monitored, and legal protection is seldom offered to victims of such violence.”

Full decriminalization of sex work should apply to immigrant Asian massage parlor workers in the United States as well. It is unconscionable that the raids in South Florida resulted in criminal charges for prostitution and massive fines for women workers, not to mention the trauma of being profiled by the national media. Furthermore, criminalizing their customers – the ‘end demand’ strategy – ignores the reality that immigrant massage parlor workers often choose sex work from among their limited options to make ends meet.

While the immigrant Chinese women at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa were clearly not victims of sex trafficking, it may be true that they did not have safe working conditions or know their rights. Finding out why may help us reform public policy so as to not further victimize or penalize immigrant Asian massage parlor workers. We also recognize that some frontline counselors have reported some women only come to recognize their exploitation after months of building trust.

With this in mind, one critical need is to better understand the lived experiences of immigrant Asian massage parlor workers. We need to center their voices in discussions about addressing the challenges they face. A recent in-depth research report, “Illicit Massage Parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City: Stories from Women Workers,” aimed to do just that. Authored by Professor John Chin from Hunter College and Professor Lois Takahashi from the University of Southern California, they interviewed 116 immigrant Chinese and Korean women massage parlor workers who had provided sexual services, listening to their experiences and concerns without judgement.

In the report’s policy recommendations, the researchers point to four areas for reform:

  1. Modify police practices and court services to protect the safety and rights of illicit massage parlor workers, including a scaling back on arrests
  2. Increase employment options
  3. Increase access to healthcare, prevention education, and health screening
  4. Work with key community institutions, such as religious institutions and local neighborhood organizations, to reduce stigma of illicit massage parlor work

Notably, the study found that “women often chose illicit massage parlor work from a very small number of employment options; some women described being coerced or deceived into this work, but most women said that they chose this work as their best alternative among limited options.”

Though it is true that a minority of the women interviewed may qualify as victims of trafficking, approaching the entire Asian massage parlor industry as inherently suspicious, and assuming that all workers are trafficked or oppressed, is misguided. There must be space for discussing the challenges facing immigrant Asian massage parlor workers through a labor and immigrants’ rights lens, especially given the fact that most women chose this work, albeit from limited options.

While sex work may not be their ideal job or one they necessarily want to tell their families about, given limited economic mobility and a desire to support their families, these women are choosing what makes sense for them based on limited options.

Indeed, as the study points out, there are benefits and drawbacks to this line of work:

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