New York Times Blames Victims in Atlanta Spa Attacks

A massage parlor in Quebec.(City Walkr via Flickr)
Opinion/Analysis: Sex workers denounce a recent New York Times article on the Atlanta spa attacks, which peddles misleading anti-sex worker narratives common to the MSM.

It’s an oft-repeated refrain that journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted, but The New York Times recently abandoned that principle in a March 18 article about the recent slayings of eight persons at three “Asian” spas in the Atlanta area by a deranged religious nut.

Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white Bible-thumper, who was reportedly obsessed with a self-described “sex addiction,” is the alleged perpetrator.  After his arrest, police said Long had visited the establishments in the past. Long explained to cops that he targeted the massage parlors in order to remove them as a “temptation.”

Long has been charged with eight counts of murder. Authorities have not decided whether to prosecute the case as a hate crime.

Of the eight people murdered, seven were women, six were of Asian descent and two were white. The killings have caused a national outcry against a tidal wave of violence targeting members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, as well as a debate over the nature of massage parlors and sex work in general.

But the March 18 Times article by Frances Robles attacked a complex issue by adopting the rhetoric and the disputed statistics of anti-sex worker non-profits, painting the spas as havens for sex trafficking, which, unlike consensual adult sex work, involves either children or adults coerced into the sex trade.

Robles’ piece quotes Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a recent press conference as describing the spas in Atlanta as “legally operating businesses.” Bottoms also admonished the press against “victim blaming, victim shaming.”

Yet, without one quote from sex workers or sex worker rights advocates, the Times piece states that “experts say there are more than 9,000 such businesses” in the U.S. which are “fronts for prostitution,” and that “many of the women working there are being exploited.”

That dubious statistic hails from a particularly odious non-profit, the Polaris Project, which has long conflated consensual adult sex work with sex trafficking and has a history of dealing in fake statistics and urban legends, like the much-debunked myth of the Super Bowl being a magnet for sex trafficking, and the phony stat of 300,000 U.S. children sex-trafficked per year.

In a watershed March 2020 piece, Reason Magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown slammed the Polaris Project as being part of a national “massage parlor panic,” noting that the “9,000” statistic “is a projection from the number of Rubmaps ads in some cities.” is a site where people post reviews of massage parlors and masseuses for erotic services, some of which may be illegal, but are certainly not the same as sex slavery.

Robles quotes Street Grace, a religious “anti-trafficking organization” that uses Polaris Project’s methodology of relying largely on Rubmaps to “identify 165 illicit massage businesses in Georgia.” Robles also reports that two of the Atlanta spas shot up by Long “have dozens of comments on Rubmaps.”

Massage workers, however, have no agency, nor any voice, in this scheme or this article. Similarly, Robles quotes Yvonne Chen as “an advocate for sex trafficking victims” who depicts massage parlor workers as largely being “lured” to these establishments with “the promise of good jobs or travel visas,” only to be tricked into selling “sex for tips.”

Though you don’t find this out from Robles’ article, Chen is currently listed as the “director of private sector engagement” for the nonprofit group ECPAT-USA, an anti-trafficking group that opposes the decriminalization of sex work and claims there is only “a very small segment of society that enters sex work with their eyes wide open, and in the absence of coercion.”

Pretzel Logic

Robles’ piece is not surprising coming from a newspaper that has pushed an anti-sex worker and anti-porn agenda. Still, many sex workers and sex worker allies perceived the item as blaming the victims for their own demise.

Filmmaker and former sex worker Juliana Piccillo told Front Page Confidential (FPC) that she was incensed by the piece.

“That article is shameful,” Piccillo says. “It’s blaming the industry for these murders, rather than placing the blame where it belongs – on male perpetrated gender and race-based violence.”

The director of the 2019 documentary Whores on Film and an organizer with the sex workers’ rights group SWOP Tucson, Piccillo  described her own experience working in a massage parlor as a teenager, where “the masseuses were free to say no to sexual services,” and the only violence she and her co-workers encountered “was at the hands of the police when we were raided.”

She acknowledged that there are “incidents of badly run massage outfits and exploitation.” However, “these aren’t the norm and could be readily addressed if the industry was decriminalized.”

Piccillo is not alone in her indignation. The article was pilloried on Twitter for being biased and insensitive.

Writer Cathy Reisenwitz tweeted to the Times, “Literally fuck off with your concern-trolling whorephobia.”

The account Girls Gone Gyro also clapped back, tweeting that the Times “hates sex [workers] and wants to see us all in jail.”

And webcam model Aeden Rayne wrote on Twitter, “So, it’s the fault of sex workers for getting MURDERED? NYT’s stance on sex work is abundantly clear. ‘Sex workers deserve to die because of their job.’ That’s fucked my dudes.”

The Times piece is representative of much of the mainstream coverage of the shootings. Most legacy news outlets have avoided speaking with sex workers. And for talking heads, it’s far easier to decry a scourge of anti-Asian violence than it is to decry violence against sex workers, who remain stigmatized in this country.

According to author and “semi-retired call girl” Maggie McNeill of the “Honest Courtesan” blog, sex work remains the proverbial pachyderm in the massage parlor, one the MSM would rather ignore.

“It’s like, ‘That’s degrading, that’s insulting to them,'” McNeill told FPC. “No, just the opposite. It’s recognizing what got them killed.”

McNeill recalled a recent comment from a fellow sex worker.

“She tweeted something like, ‘It was vicious because they were Asian rather than because they were sex workers? Why didn’t he go shoot up nail salons?'”

McNeill says much of the press is complicit in pushing an anti-sex-worker agenda: treating hostile nonprofits as “experts,” ghosting sex worker advocates, acting as lapdogs to the police and overlooking the long history of aggression and murder toward those in the sex industry.

A recent column in the Los Angeles Times by novelist and former sex worker Tracy Quan offered one of the few bursts of clarity in the coverage.

Quan pegged the shootings as “a crime against sex workers,” and she reminded readers of how “toxic” and dangerous “whorephobia” can be.

“Like a lot of people, I’ve experienced bias and ethnic profiling, but I’ve also been a sex worker, and I have encountered more prejudice, more name-calling, more fear, anger and hostility in connection with my sex work than regarding my race,” she writes.

She noted the tendency of serial killers to hunt sex workers, mentioning Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire ripper,” as an example. Other multiple murderers fixated on sex workers include Jack the Ripper, Gary Ridgway, aka, “the Green River Killer,” and  Samuel Little, whom the FBI has confirmed to be the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history, claiming 93 victims over several decades.

As Piccillo tweeted following the darkness in Georgia,

“Sex workers present an ideal outlet for rage [because] we’re already seen as disposable. That we offer sex for $ infuriates, not only serial killers, but also those that criminalize us, take our kids and deny us rights. It’s on the same continuum.”

Red Canary Song

According to The Washington Post, Long’s victims included Xiaojie Tan, 49, the owner of one spa, as well as Soon Chung Park, 74, the manager of another location. In addition, five spa workers were killed:  Daoyou Feng, 44, Young Ae Yue, 63, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Suncha Kim, 69, and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

One customer, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, was killed. She and her husband had stopped by one of the parlors for a couples’ massage and were in separate rooms when Long attacked, per several reports.

Yuan and Michels were apparently white, the exceptions in this killing spree.

Whether any of the slain spa workers self-identified as sex workers is unclear. (Michels reportedly was a “handyman” at one location.) But the evidence so far indicates that Long was targeting sex workers.

A former roommate of Long’s recently confirmed the cops’ account of Long’s motivations. Reuters reports that the roommate said, “Long had been treated for sex addiction and that he frequented massage parlors ‘for explicitly sexual activity.'”

Whenever Long had “relapses,” he would, according to the roommate, “have a deep feeling of remorse and shame and say he needed to return to prayer and to return to God.”

WaPo identified HopeQuest, an evangelical facility “just down the road” from one of the spas,” as the place Long sought treatment for his supposed sexual sins. The paper also quoted the roommate as “the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating.”

Meanwhile, Asian sex workers and their advocates fear increased police scrutiny because of the recent slaughter. (The AP has reported that two of the Atlanta spas Long attacked had been “repeatedly targeted” in the past by local police for harassment and prostitution stings.)

That fear is justified. Atlanta, New York and other cities have ordered more police patrols near massage parlors and Asian communities.

As Brown at Reason has pointed out, both federal and local law enforcement regularly engage in massage parlor “stings” that result in the arrest, jailing and sometimes deportation of spa workers. And cops are notorious for abusing and sometimes raping sex workers.

Some famous examples include a 2018 investigation of massage parlors in Mohave County, Arizona, where DHS officers received handjobs as part of their undercover probe.

A 2018 police sting of Florida massage parlors famously roped in Patriots owner Robert Kraft, as well as a number of workers and other patrons. Billed as a “human trafficking bust,” the operation, like most of its kind, resulted in zero trafficking charges. The spa workers were pressured to say they were trafficked, but would not do so. They were treated like criminals and caught the worst of the heat.

Massage parlor busts are commonplace for cops, so routine that they rarely draw scrutiny. But the 2017 death of Queens sex worker Yang Song during an NYPD sting marked an infamous milestone. Yang Song, who reportedly was sexually assaulted by a police officer and was being hounded by cops to become an informant for them, threw herself from the fourth floor of her apartment building to her death, fleeing New York city police.

Her death inspired the creation of Red Canary Song, which bills itself as “the only grassroots Chinese massage parlor worker coalition in the U.S.”

(Front Page Confidential reached out to Red Canary Song for an interview, but has not yet received a reply.)

The group has been very active in response to the Atlanta tragedy, issuing a statement rejecting the call for increased policing in its wake.

The statement reads, in part,

Policing has never kept sex workers or massage workers or immigrants safe. The criminalization and demonization of sex work has hurt and killed countless people–many at the hands of the police both directly and indirectly. Due to sexist racialized perceptions of Asian women, especially those engaged in vulnerable, low-wage work, Asian massage workers are harmed by the criminalization of sex work, regardless of whether they engage in it themselves.

Decriminalization of sex work is the only way that sex workers, massage workers, sex trafficking survivors, and anyone criminalized for their survival and/or livelihood will ever be safe.

 The women who were killed faced specific racialized gendered violence for being Asian women and massage workers. Whether or not they were actually sex workers or self-identified under that label, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants. 

Two days after the massacre, Red Canary Song held an online vigil for the victims, with speakers from their organization and others, such as Butterfly,  an “Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network” based in Toronto.

One speaker, Yanhoo Park Cho, who does outreach to Korean massage parlor workers in Rhode Island, described “a deep history of violence” toward that community, “which involves police raids” and the “intervention of Homeland Security.”

Emi Koyama, an activist of Japanese descent with the Seattle-based Massage Parlor Outreach Project told of a massive Seattle Police Department raid on local massage parlors in 2019. She said police claimed they “rescued” 26 women working at the businesses, but the reality is the women were “simply displaced,” losing the source of their incomes.

Many massage workers are “scared” by the news of the Atlanta tragedy, Koyama said. But “when asked what makes them feel safe, not a single person mentioned the police.” Fear of arrest and fear of immigration authorities has kept them from calling the police when assaulted, she added.

Groups like Red Canary Song are helping to shift the media’s coverage of their community by pushing back on the frequent, and lazy, “trafficking” meme used by many journalists. Both Mother Jones and NPR recently did pieces featuring Red Canary Song.  The group even scored a shout-out from op-ed writer May Jeong in a May 19 piece for The New York Times, a paper that only occasionally concedes space to those calling for the decriminalization of sex work.

Yet many news outlets remain unwilling to discuss decriminalization seriously.

During the vigil, Red Canary Song co-founder Kai Lin Zhang denounced the shootings as an “act of terrorism,” an “act of hate,” and a “religious jihad against sex workers.

Amid tears, she aptly summed up the situation of the community she cares so much about:

“To be Asian, migrant and a sex worker is deadly in the United States of America today.”

Sadly, for the most part, the MSM stubbornly refuses to embrace this reality.

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times,, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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