After the senseless shooting of eight people in Atlanta massage parlours, six of them Asian women, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) tweeted out guidelines for newsrooms to follow when covering the tragedy. Their very first instruction was to “avoid terminology and connotations of prostitution or sexualization” that could “fuel hyper-sexualization of Asian women.”
Following that instruction to essentially erase sex workers and what makes them vulnerable to harm from the conversation, the AAJA urged journalists to contextualize the murders with the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, which has also fuelled the #StopAsianHate movement.
Recent data has also shown women bearing the brunt of anti-Asian racism in Ontario.
The Chinese Canadian National Council and partner organizations said that 1,150 anti-Asian racist attacks in Canada were reported to the websites covidracism.ca and elimin8hate.org between March 10, 2020 and February 28, 2021. Forty per cent of those attacks occurred in Ontario and 11 per cent were physical. Women reported 60 per cent of the attacks.
“We stand by stopping Asian hate but the question is, why have we removed the conversation away from sex workers?” asks Vixen Vu, a former escort and online cam girl. “There is this idea that we don’t deserve this #StopAsianHate.”
Vu teamed up with NOW to host a livestream conversation to discuss the implications of #StopAsianHate and conversations urging for the rights and protection of sex workers being treated as mutually exclusive. The discussion, which you can listen to on the NOW What podcast, also included cam girl Serena Ivy and Elene Lam, the executive director at Butterfly: Asian Migrant and Sex Workers Support Network.
Together, the women discussed the stigmas and danger Asian sex workers face on a day-to-day basis, and how the silence of the broader community around these issues contributes to violence.
“They are loud about being anti-racism, but at the same time they uphold moralistic values and whorephobia,” says Lam, whose organization has issued a petition and call to action in honour of the victims in Atlanta. Butterfly’s #8CallsForJustice includes a petition where people can support fighting discrimination against sex workers along with racism.
There is no confirmation of what duties the women who were attacked in the Atlanta massage parlours performed, or whether they would choose to identify as sex workers. The shooter reportedly told police that he has what he considers a sex addiction and massage parlours represented a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” In other words, the victims were sexualized.
Lam worries that when people and organizations urge to separate the conversations about anti-Asian racism and the stigmas attached to women who work in massage parlours, they reinforce the silence that so often makes sex workers vulnerable.
“I don’t think we can break the stigma of being sex workers when people have to hide who they are,” says Vu, who adds that gathering Asian sex workers for the livestream and podcast was a challenge. Many cannot speak publicly about their work for fear of shame within their families and the Asian community. Lam adds that, in an over-policed industry, coming out also means that Asian and migrant sex workers are vulnerable to immigration law as well. And that vulnerability is what makes them such easy targets for violence.
Vu adds that the #StopAsianHate movement can learn from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Right-wing pundits like Candace Owens might try to explain away the police killing of George Floyd by trotting out his criminal record, but the #BlackLivesMatter movement didn’t take the bait.
“They were like, ‘We don’t give a fuck if he had a criminal history,’” says Vu. “That same energy needs to be brought into the Asian community. We don’t give a fuck if you’re a prostitute or if you’re a doctor.”
Listen to the entire conversation on the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.