On March 16, a 21-year-old man walked into three Atlanta-area massage parlours and began shooting. Eight people were murdered by him, with a ninth victim wounded.
These shootings were horrific acts of violence, quickly condemned by the media and politicians alike. They were labeled a hate crime, as six of the victims were women of Asian descent. In the days following the attack, statements were made decrying hate towards the Asian community, especially in light of a rise in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What an alarming majority of these statements failed to address was that these crimes weren’t just perpetrated against the Asian community – it was an attack on sex workers.
The shooter, Robert Aaron Long claimed to police that racism didn’t play a part in the shootings. Instead, he told them that the establishments were targeted to “eliminate the temptation” he felt due to a sexual addiction. Long had patronized the parlours in the past.
It was just another example of violence against sex workers and another example of that violence flying under the radar. There were few statements made by politicians in the days following the shootings advocating safety for sex workers and a large portion of the media and public conversation seemed content to ignore this element of the crime.
In the wake of the shootings, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she wasn’t going to take part in “victim blaming” or “victim shaming.” Calling the victims sex workers isn’t shameful – it’s the truth, it’s why these establishments were targeted.
When you say a sex worker has been the victim of violence, you aren’t blaming them for what happened, no more than would it be victim blaming to note the reason why somebody else was specifically targeted, whether that’s for their race, gender or some other reason. Refusing to acknowledge violence against sex workers only pushes them further to the outskirts, allowing a serious issue to continue unabated.
This isn’t about downplaying racism – even if Long’s crimes turn out to have zero racial motivation, there still needs to be discussion about anti-Asian hate in Canada and abroad. All this is about is continuous acts of violence towards a marginalized community and how there needs to be some form of a shift in society to deal with it.
This is something that is happening across the country – in strip clubs and massage parlours, in apartment buildings and on the street. Whether it’s sexual assault or physical violence, it is taking place and there isn’t enough conversation about this.
According to research done at the University of British Columbia in 2014, 45-75 per cent of all sex workers were victims of a violent act, be it physical or sexual. In Vancouver, that number rose to over 80 per cent.
Last February, a 17-year-old man murdered a woman at a Toronto massage parlour. Three years earlier, a man called the Toronto Star after taking an employee at another Toronto massage parlour hostage.
Between 1991 and 2014, 294 victims of homicide in Canada were sex workers. Over a third of those cases remain unsolved.
These incidents are happening and turning a blind eye in the press and political sphere will not make it better. It’s time to stop talking about this issue in hushed tones – it needs to be openly discussed, just as violence against any other group is. Forget about issues of the morality or legality of sex work. These are people being attacked because of a job – that’s the only reason needed to speak up.