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The massage parlour as a sacred space – Open Democracy

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Poor Asian women have been the targets of American evangelicals for over a century. Are their lives not also sacred?
Massage businesses are sacred spaces where people’s bodies are cared for in ways usually reserved for those closest to you. This was my thought back in March, when I heard that a white man had shot up three spas in Atlanta, Georgia and killed eight people. Six were migrant Asian women: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, and Sun Cha Kim.
According to the police, the 21-year-old killer claimed that he had a “sex addiction” and murdered the women to eliminate temptation. He was a youth member of Crabapple First Baptist Church and most likely indoctrinated by evangelical purity culture. As someone who was raised in a similar conservative, evangelical church, I know first-hand what experience with purity culture is like.
As a young child, I grew up believing that my virginity before marriage would affect whether I would go to heaven or suffer for all of eternity. I attended youth camps that would separate the boys and girls into different groups to teach us how to keep ourselves “pure for Jesus”. They told us that every one of our sexual decisions has life and death significance. It’s a stressful and traumatic environment where the simplest human urges were repressed, monitored, and shamed.
This culture, which portrays sex as a symbolic union between the church (as the woman) and Jesus (as the man), is preoccupied with policing sexual behaviour and limits what is ‘right’ to heterosexual sex within marriage. Every other expression of sexual intimacy and desire is disordered love. Homosexuality is a sin, Masturbation is a sin. Sex before marriage is a sin. Even lustful thoughts and watching pornography are sins. As one of the many Bible verses used to keep evangelicals disciplined commands, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matthew 18:9).
The best way to gauge a person’s stance on sex work is to see if they support carceral solutions.
For those who subscribe to purity culture, the sex industry and sex workers are stumbling blocks that threaten conservative family values and ruin the sanctity of marriage. And evangelicals have found common cause with a certain strain of feminists who conflate all sex work with sex trafficking. As someone who used to work for an anti-trafficking feminist organisation during the process of leaving evangelicalism, I’ve seen how anti-sex work feminists tend to hyperfocus on women sex workers. They consider them as having internalised misogyny, while barely seeking to address the myriad of complex life and socio-economic circumstances that surround this work. And if they don’t see sex workers as traitors to the female cause, they pigeonhole them into victimhood under the assumption that no woman could truly ‘choose’ this for themselves.
Despite their different intentions and reasons for being against sex work, both evangelicals and anti-sex work feminists have arrived at the same conclusion: sex work needs to be eradicated, even if it is violent. The best way to gauge a person’s stance on sex work is to see if they support carceral solutions. Both evangelicals and sex work exclusionary feminists support the police and the carceral system to ‘rescue’ (punish) sex workers, or to arrest sex buyers, or both. Their end goal is to abolish the sex industry, and it is irrelevant to them if sex workers die in prison, or after deportation, or from the myriad pitfalls that come with economic oppression and stigma in the process. As Mandy Porter, who in 2015 was coordinator of the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking, told Slate at the time: “FAAST and all of our partners are very intentional in that we say that all prostitution is inherently harmful. … Whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not they want to do it, if it's high-end or streetwalking, it’s harmful, and it’s not good.”
White American evangelicals have long used anti-trafficking and ‘feminism’ as cover for their attacks on the sex industry, and Asian women have been in their sights since the mid-19th century. The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from entering the country on the assumption that they were likely prostitutes. Seven years later the Chinese Exclusion Act ended immigration from China entirely. Chinese sex workers were said to carry disease, and brothels in Chinatowns were singled out for immigration raids and public health controls. Meanwhile, White suffragettes like Rose Livingston and Donaldina Cameron made it their mission to ‘civilise’ Chinese ‘sex slaves’ – women whom they saw as needing rescuing in order to have their female virtues restored. These events created a pattern of policing Asian immigrants around sexuality and public health that continues today and that feeds the perception that Asian women are hypersexual beings.
Asian sex workers and massage workers in the USA today labour under the shadow of a long history of anti-Asian racism.
Asian sex workers and massage workers in the USA today labour under the shadow of this long history of anti-Asian racism. In addition to all that, since 2020 they must also contend with anti-Asian attacks brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, which former president Donald Trump insisted on calling the “Chinese virus”. It’s an uphill battle. As an organiser with Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian & migrant sex workers, I have learned first-hand that migrant massage workers in Flushing, NYC are heavily policed due to fears that they are victims of sex trafficking. In my work to connect RCS’s work with Chinatowns across North America, I have learned that this sort of policing occurs throughout the country. Trafficking isn’t the only reason either – Chinatowns are rapidly gentrifying and police and lawmakers alike are seeking to ‘clean up the streets’. In Flushing, our work advocating for sex workers’ rights is directly tied to the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance’s calls for an end to displacement due to rising real estate costs.
The broader #StopAsianHate movement misses the mark when it erases sex workers and massage workers from the conversation and calls for increased policing as the solution. Sex workers and massage workers need rights, not rescue. They need bodily autonomy, labour rights, legal support, and their own voice. They also need support from people they trust who understand what they’re going through, which is why it is so important to fund sex worker-led organisations that do anti-trafficking work. They understand far more than someone at a non-profit or a faith-based organisation ever could.
As for the evangelicals, it’s heartening to see that some churches are waking up to the harms they’ve done. Forefront Church in New York City recently held a reading group on Revolting Prostitutes to discuss the complicated relationship sex work has with the church. They also stopped donating to Sanctuary for Families, a NYC anti-trafficking group that has called for the partial criminalisation of sex work to ‘end demand’. If others follow their lead then perhaps the Atlanta shootings won’t repeat themselves. It is time for the church to rework what is sacred, to dive deep into what embodied solidarity looks like and to open up to the idea that it’s possible to do theology in underwear. To see the that sexual experiences of the poor can be sacred too. Massage workers' lives are sacred. They deserve to exist.
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