Reflections on the Erasure of Violence Against Sex Workers Pre- and Post- Atlanta

By Erica MacDonald

In the hours following the horrific murders at three Atlanta-area massage parlors on March 16, 2021, journalists and other commentators attempted to make sense of what motivated the killer. Debates and speculation began immediately regarding who these women were and what they had been doing. Were they sex workers? Victims of trafficking? Undocumented? It was assumed by many that answers to these questions would somehow provide a justification for or understanding of the violence.

Most of those killed were women who were at work and who deserved to be safe at work. We do not know if the six murdered employees engaged in sex work. Nor does it matter. What we do know, as the organization Red Canary Song stated clearly, is that “as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people and immigrants.”

What most coverage has overlooked is the intersectional ways in which a number of identities and systems of oppression contributed to that day of senseless violence. Yes, this violence is the result of Anti-Asian racism. Yes, this violence is the result of the sexist fetishization of Asian women. Yes, this violence is the result of anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiment. And yes, this violence is the result of what sex worker advocates coined as “whorephobia”: the hatred and fear of sex workers. The women were targeted by someone who intended to kill people in the sexual services industry.

None of this is news to the transnational community of sex workers rights advocates and allies who have long called for the intersectional organizing that is essential to address violence against sex workers. However, mainstream analysis from both media and most advocacy groups did not explain or emphasize how the broader culture of hatred and fear against sex workers played into last Tuesday’s violence. Not only must we acknowledge this erasure we must also pause to examine its historical and ongoing consequences.

Contributing to the invisibility of this violence are the stigmatized ideologies that frame sex workers through a narrow binary, where they are either victims of oppression or criminals engaged in illegal behavior. This perspective fails to capture the complex experiences and conditions sex workers face and allows for continued criminalization of sex work and work perceived to be sex work, thus perpetuating cycles of violence.

To address systemic violence, we need to make the all-to-often invisible experiences of sex workers visible. Organizations such as Red Canary Song Red Canary Song in New York City have been, and are, doing this work.

Read the full statement released by Red Canary Song and signed by allied organizations in response to the shootings in Atlanta linked here.

This post was first published on the Black Issues Blog of the APA, March 30, 2020. 

Erica MacDonald is a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Political Science in the subfields of comparative politics and international relations at the University of Connecticut. Her dissertation “Formally Informal: Sex Work, Stigma and Institutions” examines how different regulatory models governing sex work impact the rights of sex workers in Nevada and New South Wales. In doing so, she analyzes the strategies sex workers develop for institutionalizing their own protection and livelihood to navigate environments of exclusion. She currently works as a Graduate Assistant for the Democracy and Dialogue’s Initiative at UConn’s Dodd Human Rights Impact. Follow her on twitter @ericamacdonald.

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