A makeshift memorial is seen on Friday in Atlanta, following the mass shooting of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, at three different massage parlors.

A makeshift memorial is seen on Friday in Atlanta, following the mass shooting of eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, at three different massage parlors. / AP

The man accused of killing six Asian women told police that he attacked the Georgia massage businesses because they contributed to his "sex addiction."

The spas, police said, were a source of "temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate."

Although authorities have not said whether sex work occurred at the businesses, the spas he targeted were reported sites of law enforcement prostitution stings and reviewed online as places where sex work occurred.

For Yves Nguyen — an organizer for Red Canary Song, a New York City-based group that supports Asian sex workers and allies — whether the women victims provided sex services is beside the point. To her, the gunman's target was clear — and part of a history of race and gender-based violence against Asian women, immigrants and sex workers.

"If these women weren't sex workers, the person who killed them certainly thought that they were," Nguyen said in an interview with Weekend Edition's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

"It is a reality that some people who work in massage businesses do engage in sex work ... and obviously some people don't," she said. But the racist and fetishistic perceptions around women of Asian descent, she said, especially immigrant Asian women involved in low-wage work, "make it so that people think that they're sex workers anyways."

"If they were not Asian women, they probably wouldn't be viewed as sexual objects of desire, and they wouldn't be automatically assumed to be sex workers," Nguyen said. "There's a hatred for both sex workers and immigrants and being Asian and being women, and they all intersect. It would be irresponsible to not talk about all of those parts."

As more information surfaces about the mass shooting, sex worker advocates like Nguyen are uneasy about how law enforcement and the news media might reinforce dehumanizing stereotypes of the victims and their work, considering the entrenched stigmas that exist around sex work and massage businesses.

"People want to be like, 'Don't assume that they're sex workers,' because they think that there's shame attached to it," she said, "even though we're simply naming the very expansive harm of criminalizing sex work and criminalizing immigrants."

"Say that one of those women was a sex worker, then is that person meant to be shamed in their death? Would they have deserved it? The answer is no."

Nguyen has worked with her group to lobby for the decriminalization of sex work, an industry that law enforcement frequently targets in sting operations that lead to arrests of vulnerable sex workers.

According to past police reports obtained by The Washington Post, employees of Gold Spa, one of the businesses attacked by the gunman last week, have been arrested as the result of prostitution stings. Police made 10 arrests, all of women, in sting operations at Gold Spa, between 2011 and 2013, the Post reported.

All three spas that the gunman attacked are listed with recent reviews on a popular erotic review site, reported USA Today, that lets users peruse and rate illicit massage businesses.

The illicit nature of such businesses makes the workers there particularly vulnerable. Researchers who interviewed more than 100 Chinese and Korean women who have worked at illicit massage parlors, in New York City and Los Angeles County found in a 2019 study that most participants saw the work as "the best alternative among very limited choices for meeting economic needs," or they were otherwise coerced into the work.

Violence reported by women in the industry is widespread. An "alarming" 40% of the women said that a client had forced them to have sex in the last year, while 18% said that a client had hurt them physically in the last year.

"They want to be able to do their jobs safely," Nguyen said. "And if they want to not do the job anymore, they want the support and the resources in order to leave and not do that work anymore, right, and to not be policed, to not be surveilled. And that includes from the community."

Hiba Ahmad and Barrie Hardymon produced the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.