In the wake of another mass murder that has shocked and rocked our nation, we find ourselves once again engaged in a debate we never should have to have: Was the killing of 8 people at three different massage parlors in the Atlanta area a hate crime?
We’ve learned that seven of the victims were women and six of those women were Asian. We know that six of the women worked at the spas and one woman was a first time customer. And these facts are considered to be crucial in determining if a hate crime was committed.
Georgia, where the murders occurred, only recently passed the state’s first hate crime bill and some are eager to make this mass murder their first test case. What constitutes a hate crime for the state of Georgia? Many consider the definition to be broadly based as it includes race, gender, religion and national origin.
In this instance, both race and gender would apply. According to the statute, and many others like it, if someone is killed because of their race, or killed because of their gender, that constitutes a hate crime.
But in all the discussion and debates as to whether or not what happened in Georgia is a hate crime, there is something you will never hear from any journalist, member of law enforcement or legislator — and that is that murdering sex workers for being sex workers is also a hate crime.
Why? Because to this day there are NO laws defining the murder of sex workers, because they are sex workers, as a hate crime.
In this moment we all know a hate crime was committed. We can feel it in our churning guts and in our breaking hearts.
It is possible that race and gender were motivating factors in the mind of the murderer. And this senseless slaughter of Asian women has brought to the surface, the crucial issue of Asian hate crimes that are on the rise in the US. As a nation, we MUST address Asian hate crimes now.
And, for me at least, it is incredibly painful to witness a narrative that ignores the fact that this particular mass shooting, while possibly motivated by race, was absolutely a hate crime against women and women who, if not actual sex workers, were perceived to be sex workers by the murderer.
Why is it beyond our grasp of reality to entertain the possibility that when someone guns down sex workers for being sex workers, they are in fact committing a crime of hate?
The murderer has confessed that he wanted to eliminate the sexual “temptation” he felt these massage parlors represented, and that he was getting “treatment” for a sex addiction. Our visceral reaction to his rationalization is revulsion, as it should be.
But if we simply dismiss his claims as a self-serving attempt to “excuse” his crimes, which it may very well be, then we will not be in a position to reduce hate crimes against women and women who are seen as sex workers. We won’t be taking any action to protect sex workers who are often the target of violence simply for being sex workers.
The killer had frequented at least a couple of these massage parlors. He knew what was available there, and it definitely involved sexual titillation and almost certainly other sexual services. You can see for yourself from the online ads placed by the massage parlors where the murders took place.
Even if you’ve been reading a lot about these murders, I bet you haven’t seen these websites and images before now. Why has the media rarely if at all dared to reference the websites of these spas?
Could there be a reasonable fear that if the public saw the photos of scantily clad women, it might diminish the outrage and empathy for these mass killings?
Do we as a society harbor feelings that women who are sex workers, and who are murdered for that reason, do not deserve our sympathy or the full protections of our laws?
Legally, it’s true that killing sex workers merely because they are sex workers is not considered a hate crime.
But why are there are no laws stating that even the mass murder of sex workers is a hate crime? Is it because as a society we have deemed those who provide sexual services for money to be subhuman, and deserving, not of our protection, but of our contempt?
Almost all of us would swiftly condemn the actions of the Atlanta mass murderer. But his actions, as terribly twisted as they were, actually point to a disturbing reality that is still widespread today.
If you want to know how our society looks at sex workers, consider that even thoughtful commentators, such as Jon Stewart, have nonchalantly made “dead hooker” jokes to raucous laughter from their audiences.
The case for recognizing hate crimes against sex workers for what they are is masterfully made by author and former escort, Tracy Quan, in her March 19 article in the LA Times, titled “Don’t Forget — the Georgia Shootings are a Hate Crime Against Sex Workers.” As a woman of Asian descent, Quan is well aware that the majority of the victims were Asian. But she is also adamant that the man who committed these murders was in fact targeting sex workers and that most certainly should be considered a hate crime.
Many sex worker rights activists are calling for solidarity with the Asian and Asian American, APIA communities. They are also calling for decriminalizing sex work so that sex workers can live and work more safely.
But the dominant narrative tends to veer in the direction of “reasoning” that the victims might not have been sex workers after all and anyway if they were, certainly they were trafficked.
So here’s the thing. That might actually be true.
Or it might not be.
The fact is, we may never know because these women are dead and cannot speak for themselves.
But the fact that we think knowing matters, points to how entrenched our prejudices are.
Deep down, too many of us feel that only certain people “deserve” our grief when they are harmed.
Is it so difficult to imagine women being able to choose how and when and why they have sex — including sex for money? Do we feel obliged to obliterate their sexual and professional autonomy and label them trafficking victims who surely would choose to leave the profession when they finally “saw the light?” If only we could have “rescued” them before they were murdered.
I wish I wasn’t having this conversation right now. It’s 2021, and as someone who has been a sex worker rights activist for more than 20 years, I had hoped that by now we would all know that sex workers can make the choice to be sex workers, and deserve to live and work in safety.
But here we are in 2021, invisibilizing the lives of sex workers and fabricating our own narratives about their lives and their loves and even their deaths.
While I might want human rights for sex workers because I am a former sex worker, that isn’t my only motivation. I also want to highlight the fact that as long as we perpetuate beliefs that define women’s “worth” by their sexual choices, and as long as we demonize women who choose to provide sexual services for money, there will continue to be profound restrictions of women’s sexual autonomy. And we will all continue to live in a world deeply distorted by misogyny and hate.
Don’t you think it’s past time that we honor and respect all women, regardless of how they express their sexuality or make their money?
Is that really too much to ask?
Yes, what happened in Georgia WAS a hate crime.
Did the shooter hate Asians? Maybe. Did he hate women? Most assuredly. But he also hated the sexuality these women represented to him.
I hope we all learn from this tragic and ghastly mass murder so that we won’t see more like it in the years to come. I hope we can learn to look at our judgments about women’s sexuality and occupational status, because those judgments aren’t just incredibly demeaning. They can also, as this latest event illustrates, be lethal.
Yes, this moment in our nation’s history calls for MORE protections for Asian and Asian American and APIA communities. Yes we need law enforcement and our judicial systems to FULLY prosecute hate crimes against people of Asian descent. Yes, yes, yes. #StopAsianHate. Please.
But please, let’s also stop hate crimes against sex workers. You can begin by examining your own hatred and disgust for what they do for a living. On what is it based? Have you ever met a sex worker? Did you take the time to ask them about their life, their work and their loves?
The best way to move past prejudice and fear is to become curious and to listen to the voices of those people who are targeted by hate crimes. We know this when it comes to race and we need to do more of it. Now is also the time to expand our hearts and listen to the voices of sex workers. They deserve to be respected and safe from hate crimes too.