Tuesday’s deadly mass shooting in the Atlanta area that left eight people dead, including six Asian women, was the “peak of everything that we have feared actually coming to fruition,” said Bianca Jyotishi, a Georgia organizer for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, an advocacy group that focuses on racial and gender justice.
“Our safe spaces just really have been violated.”
The attack on three Asian spas rattled Asians and Asian Americans across the country, many of whom had already been fearful of increased attacks on their community.
Authorities said Wednesday that 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long has been charged with multiple counts of murder, homicide and aggravated assault and has confessed to the shootings. Long told investigators he had “a sexual addiction,” indicating that he may have frequented the spas in the past, police said, and that he said they were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
The killings struck a chord with many Asian and Asian American women, who say they have long experienced racialized misogyny. A report from Stop AAPI Hate released Tuesday found women reported 68 percent of the nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents documented in the last year.
“This is both racially and sexually motivated violence. It’s not one or the other,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of NAPAWF. “Asian American women were targeted.”
Connie Wun, co-founder of the research and advocacy group AAPI Women Lead, said it was important to be even more specific about who Long targeted: women whose association with spas make them vulnerable to both systemic and interpersonal abuse.
The trajectory of Long’s attack suggests he was deliberate. He stopped first at Young’s Asian Massage, allegedly killing owner Xiaojie Tan, along with Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels. He then drove nearly 30 miles to Gold Spa, where authorities say he killed three Korean women before crossing the street to Aromatherapy Spa and killing one more. Police have not confirmed all the names of the victims.
As Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse noted, his path would have taken him past multiple adult businesses.
“I don’t think we can remove the fact that [Long] said he had these sexual — he called them ‘issues,’ and took them out on massage parlor workers. We can’t divest and separate the two,” Wun said.
Recognizing their precarity is important, Wun added, because spa workers can often be marginalized within their own communities.
“There are multiple forms of violence and perpetrators of violence that these women have to navigate through and survive,” Wun said.
Wun’s concerns were echoed by advocacy groups that work directly with workers in Asian-owned spa businesses, including the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, and the New York City-based organization Red Canary Song.
There are many different kinds of workers who end up working in spas and other services centered on the body, like nail and hair salons. These businesses can function as safe spaces for patrons and employees alike, but Wun noted that it’s also true that workers often make low wages. Many may be migrant workers, trafficked or undocumented. The informal economy they work in means they lack protections when faced with exploitation or harassment.
Because of this, the harassment, discrimination and abuse experienced by Asian spa workers and those in adjacent industries goes unreported, said Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of the National Association of Working Women.
“All of them, I would say, will never report any of this because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.”
She cited fears of retaliation and a lack of options. In the pandemic, these concerns have worsened.
Wun added that many workers in these industries also do not qualify for stimulus checks, meaning they’ve been further under-resourced and underprotected throughout the pandemic.
Because of language barriers, some workers may not be aware of their rights or are not able to report discrimination and harassment they experience, both in and out of the workplace. Jyotishi mentioned that women may not be aware that it is illegal for an employer to fire them if they’re pregnant.
The precarity of the work leaves workers with few options if they’re sexually harassed or abused by an employer, or if their wages are withheld, added Mira Yusef, co-founder of Monsoon Iowa, which supports Asian and Pacific Islander survivors of gender violence, domestic abuse and trafficking. The organization has intervened in cases of intimate partner violence at Iowa spas.
“They think that it is okay, that they need to keep that job,” Yusef said.
Jennifer Ho, a professor of ethnic studies and critical race theory at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted that Asian and Asian American women are often seen as easier targets for harassment and hatred because of how they’re sexualized and seen as passive. But the threat is much more immediate for a spa worker.
“They were certainly much more vulnerable to the harassment working in the service industry, in general, and in particular working in a situation in which you are putting yourself into an intimate interpersonal exchange,” Ho said.
Wun and other advocates say an increased police presence wouldn’t have prevented the Atlanta attacks. In fact, they could cause another kind of harm to an already vulnerable group of people.
“Massage parlors and spas are consistently the subject of police raids under the pretense of rescuing these women. Most of the time, the women are incarcerated and then deported,” Wun said.
Specifically in Georgia, Chancey noted that “police are not our friends.”
She occasionally drives out through Cherokee County, where one of the shootings took place, and is rattled by the proliferation of Confederate flags she sees.
On Wednesday, after Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker told reporters that Long was having a “really bad day” before the attacks, journalists and Internet sleuths found Facebook posts in which Baker promoted shirts calling the coronavirus an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA.”
While many Asian American women have come forward about the ways they’ve been racially and sexually harassed in the aftermath of the attacks, the heightened fear has made low-wage workers in these service industries even more conscious of being visible.
“People don’t want to share their stories,” Jyotishi said. “They want to just stay alive.”
As the names and lives of the women killed in Atlanta become known, Wun and other advocates stressed that it’s important to recognize the fullness of their experiences and the intersections they existed in — how age, gender, class and working in a stigmatized industry made them targets.
Centering the experiences of spa workers, as complicated and layered as they may be, is essential to developing solutions that actually keep vulnerable populations safe, experts added. These can range from decriminalizing sex work to bolstering social safety nets and making sure resources and information are available to workers in the languages they speak.
Regardless of the nature of their work, advocates agree the best way to honor the victims of the Atlanta attack is to understand and acknowledge the full breadth of their humanity. Doing so would help break down the stigmas that keep so many low-wage Asian workers vulnerable, Wun said.
“Just own their whole story.”