On March 16, a white man walked into several massage parlors in Atlanta operated by people of Asian descent, and he shot and killed eight people. Six were Asian women, some immigrants, most of whom were workers at these parlors. Predictably, the shooting set off a frenzy of news and speculation: Was the killer motivated by his religious fervor? Were these killings a harbinger for even more horrific anti-Asian violence yet to come?
Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian sex workers, massage workers, and allies, quickly mobilized in the wake of the shooting. They organized an online vigil that nearly 3,000 people attended, released a statement cosigned by many grassroots organizations that rejected policing as response to the violence, diverted an outpouring of donations back to local sex work advocacy organizations in Atlanta, and went on panels and news programs to help the nation understand how we got here. The collective began in 2017 after Yang Song, a Chinese migrant massage worker, fell to her death during a police raid; since then, Red Canary Song has been building worker power in these highly stigmatized industries and doing outreach in Flushing, Queens, where there is a substantial Asian immigrant population.
I had the privilege to speak with Wu, a sex worker, organizer, and member of Red Canary Song, over FaceTime this past week.
I also want to make it very clear that we don’t know whether or not these women were performing any kind of sex work. Still there are a lot of policies that are rooted in whorephobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism that deeply, deeply affect the way that these women were (a) murdered and (b) how women like them are currently criminalized in the United States. There are a lot of people who do perform sexual services, but there are also things like anti-solicitation laws that are based on whether you look like somebody who would be soliciting or not to a law enforcement officer. When you break that down, that’s very obviously rooted in racism—that has its own history for Black and brown and Indigenous communities. Elene Lam, who is an amazing organizer with Butterfly, was also talking about how hygiene procedures can be used against massage business owners and massage workers. Licensure is another place where [the state] is only going to go into businesses that they think are risky or look grungy, or where workers don’t necessarily all speak English, in order to criminalize that kind of person.
So there are all these different factors that go into how a massage worker could have been criminalized, how a massage worker could have been put at risk, how Asian-presenting women have been produced and reproduced in American cultural consciousness as hypersexual people.
That is absolutely coming out in the way that the media has taken on specific narratives around the Atlanta shootings. There’s a lot of press that is really interested in investigating the massage industry and is really interested in questions like: Are these women trafficked? Do they need to be rescued? Which comes with the assumption that (a) women need to be rescued and (b) migrant women need to be rescued! Migrant women in massage labor are just doing work; all they’re doing is work so that they can feed their families and go the fuck home, just like the rest of us.
If you ask any restaurant worker whether that’s their dream job, they’re not going to say yes. They’re gonna say, no. They do this job because they get paid to do it, and then they can go home. Nobody’s trying to say like, “Oh, let’s take a look at the restaurant industry. They’re being paid $2.13 an hour so they’re obviously being trafficked.” Those conditions are very exploitative, and we should be paying restaurant workers at least minimum wage, but nobody’s arguing restaurant workers need to be rescued. It always is a labor rights issue for them instead of a moralistic, “We need to save them” type of issue.
RH: My sense is that a lot of Asian American organizations, writers, and activists have been emphasizing the anti-Asian racist nature of the murders and linking that to “stopping Asian hate.” Is that adequate framing around these attacks?
W: So you’re basically asking, all the people who are saying things like, stop Asian stuff—whether or not they’re having an intersectional view of what’s happening. The answer is no.
Race is a common thread that is happening that is being pulled through all of this, and that is something that should be acknowledged, but something that’s really, really crucial—and I think a lot of Asian people are not acknowledging—is the fact that class and immigration status are also fucking huge. There are a lot of Asian people who are interested in speaking about oppression as it relates to them, but they’re not interested in speaking about oppression as it has to do with somebody who doesn’t have as much privilege as they do. They are interested in ignoring that intersection of class, race, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. If they can ignore it, then they can also feel this is hurting me, and I don’t have to acknowledge that I’m also complicit in certain ways, or that I am actually like benefiting off of this in certain ways, because I have proximity to whiteness.
RH: Why can’t increased policing protect sex workers?
W: These women sit at the intersection of multiple layers of criminalization. An increase in policing just means there’s a heavier amount of surveillance that is happening in that neighborhood. It also feeds into this narrative that the police and social services are going to be the ones to save you, as opposed to we want to give you the resources so you can either stay in the conditions that you’re in if that’s something that you want or you can move out if that’s something that you also want to do—offering them the autonomy to choose whatever it is the fuck they want. Heavier policing would mean bigger crackdowns on businesses that might be precarious or businesses that are operating without licenses or migrant communities or communities of color. It actually puts them in higher danger, because the police are not your friend.
RH: Various self-identified feminists have argued that sex work is a form of patriarchal coercion, and in that sense cannot be voluntary and is a form of rape. Red Canary Song disagrees. Can you walk me through the argument that sex work is work? Why link workers’ rights to sex work?
W: Literally all workers are exploited. The fact that anybody has to participate in work is exploitation, that anybody has to participate in work in order to survive is coercion. There are very clear cases in which somebody is voluntarily doing the work, and there are very clear cases in which people are trafficked, because that does happen. But a lot of the time, people don’t acknowledge the fact that very often we land somewhere in the middle. You can’t escape the fact that all sex is patriarchal in some way. There’s sex that is deeply rooted in pleasure and joy, but there’s a lot of sex that’s happening that is rooted in choices around your safety and your survival, even when it’s not paid.
The only reason why people specifically look at sex work the way they do has to do with how it’s associated with femme-presenting people—very often women and trans people. It takes a look at that population’s decisions around the way they want to use their bodies. It falls within patriarchal reasoning of why somebody would want to use their body, that women would never want to have sex, so why would she want to have sex for money? Obviously she’s being raped and obviously she’s being coerced—when that is simply not the case. Sex workers see that as the best option considering the circumstances that they have.
RH: Red Canary Song is a member of the New York–based coalition Decrim NY. Can you walk me through what that means? Why decriminalize sex work? How does that help sex workers? And how is that different from other models of legislation surrounding sex work?
W: We have criminalization, we have legalization, we have the Nordic model, and we have decriminalization. Criminalization is currently the default in a lot of different places; it just means that if you were doing sex work, you can get arrested for it.
A lot of people think that sex work should not be criminalized, that it should be legalized. But there’s a lot of issues with legalization as it is implemented, such as the fact that it requires a lot of regulation, like licenses for example, which is super prohibitive for a lot of people who are operating as sex workers, even if they are privileged. A lot of people who are operating just to survive would probably not take the time to go get a license, and legalization actually puts them at the risk of being criminalized. We can see that from places like Germany and Nevada.
The Nordic model is decriminalizing sex work for workers, but then also criminalizing buyers of sex work, which is still very harmful. The legal liability that the clients are taking on just turns sex work into a buyer’s market, and then that would just like be passed on to the market of people who are actually doing the work. It would opens up sex workers to a lot of exploitation.
If you do not want the most marginalized communities to be harmed, then you have to eradicate the police from that area. Even in the Nordic model, if you’re seeing somebody who is a john or a client, a police officer would still be involved in that interaction, because there’s a client that is being criminalized. That’s why decriminalization is actually the best option for sex workers or anybody who’s doing any kind of body work. Red Canary Song is an organization in favor of abolition and prison abolition; decriminalization just happens to be the only solution. It’s not a perfect solution. It’s a step forward towards a solution without the police, who have historically been the most fervent enactors of violence against sex workers.
RH: Besides prison and police abolition, what would make sex work safe? What would be the ideal situation for sex workers?
W: All of it is situational; all of it is super interdependent. The first thing that I can think of—aside from the complete and total downfall of capitalism—is access to health care. Things like employment services or immigration services would make sex workers safe. Things like mental health resources would help make sex workers safe. Very localized approaches to the community help keep the community safe. Also just generally, reduce stigma against sex workers and acknowledge that it’s just labor.
RH: My impression of Red Canary Song in 2017 was that it was very much and it still is local New York organizing, but it has since become transnational. Can you walk me through why you guys choose to organize transnationally? Why is advocacy for sex work tied to advocacy for immigrant workers?
W: When we say that we’re organizing transnationally, we primarily mean that we organize in coalition with other organizations that take on massage work, Asian sex workers, and of migrant labor, so organizations like Butterfly Project in Canada and EMPOWER in Thailand. These are all organizations that cover sex work in their country specifically. There’s a lot of stigma about sex work from within the Asian community itself, and so for us, it’s really crucial to be able to be in communication, and to be in coalition with organizations that are talking about sex work in an Asian country itself, so that we can understand how that stigma travels through the diaspora, and how it travels into these different immigrant pockets all around the United States. In this age of globalization, the way that things go down in one country is going to heavily impact the cultural conditions and the cultural consciousness in like New York. We can’t just say, “Oh, we’re organizing for migrant workers,” without acknowledging that they are migrants from somewhere else. You deem these conditions better than where you were before, or maybe you’re sending aid back to like where you were before. We have to acknowledge all the different contexts that might go into the decision to do this type of labor.
RH: Alright, let’s shift gears a bit: This is a meta question, but what has it been like for Red Canary Song since the shooting—with all this attention suddenly falling on the organization?
W: Yeah, I think that the primary thing that we wanted, especially with the statement, was platforming the voices of migrant workers. In that statement we have six demands from different migrant workers on the way that they should be listened to. There are a lot of people who are focusing on us, because we happen to be one of the few in the nation that are hitting this specific intersection of being Asian, being sex workers, or dealing with migrant workers who do massage work. We do heavily encourage people to get involved in local organizing because local organizing is going to be what keeps our communities safe.
This is also kind of a meta answer, but I think something that I’ve learned particularly is just how lucky I am to be organizing with the people that I’m organizing with. Everybody in our core—and even people who have not been in our core, but have been dipping in and out of our collective for a really long time—just really stepped up to the fucking plate. It has really taught me a lot about how to rely on other people. It’s so incredible to see that our work has slowed down in a way that allowed us to be really sustainable for a really long time, so that all of us could jump on board when it came to a crisis like this.
A co-organizer, Yves, brought in the issue of how to make sure that your organization is anti-racist. In the summertime we went through one by one the different elements of it; we were like, oh, how do we feel about this? Are we acting upon urgency, or are we taking things in a way that is sustainable and allows us to do the work over a long period of time? We completely shifted our mindset after that. I think operating like that is something that really allowed us to be present and available and respond in the wake of such a horrible tragedy.
RH: I’m actually really curious about this. In New York City at least, paying for BDSM sessions is legal so long as there is no sexual contact. As a BDSM practitioner yourself, how do you build solidarity across professions that are criminalized to varying degrees, across people of varying minoritized statuses?
W: The definition of sex work is like very much a spectrum, and legality itself is also a spectrum—what is considered like legal or decriminalized so to speak versus what is not. I feel like BDSM is like a very in-your-face example, where there’s a lot of interpersonal contact, but a lot of times, there is no genital-to-genital contact, so there are a lot of people who don’t self-identify as sex workers when they’re pro-dominatrices in New York. There are a lot of people in Red Canary Song that are BDSM practitioners. We talk a lot about what does it mean to identify as a sex worker, because a lot of older pro-dominatrices will not identify as a sex worker. They distance themselves from that terminology. At the same time, there are a lot of massage workers who do sex work but don’t identify as sex workers, and that’s also something that we need to respect.
Something that we do think that is very important is the fact that whorephobic legislation will affect them. It’ll affect people who don’t do sex work at all, who don’t have any proximity to sex work just because whorephobic legislation affects anybody who could be seen as a sex worker. For example, the passage of SESTA-FOSTA didn’t actually criminalize sex workers themselves. It criminalized companies that could be seen as facilitating prostitution. It affects those companies’ content guidelines and content moderation, which affects the sex workers’ ability to work—their ability to market themselves, to express themselves, to receive payments, to send payments.
RH: How has the pandemic affected sex work and massage parlor work? And how has Red Canary Song mobilized in response to that?
W: That’s a hugely important question, because the coronavirus itself is racialized. Not to go on a tangent, but there’s the essay I really, really like, “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections” by Mel Chen. It’s one of the best essays I’ve ever read in my life. It’s about this period where there were a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine trains that had lead paint on them Because a lot of these trains were being manufactured in China, they basically assigned this foreign invader persona to lead, and lead became associated with Chinese manufacturers, even though it’s not a Chinese chemical or anything! But when you say lead paint, in the same way that you say MSG, it’s associated with a very specific race, and the same thing happened with coronavirus.
There is no foreign invader motive for the virus, and yet like there are a lot of people who are treating it that way. That’s a sentiment that was exacerbated by the past presidency, and that sentiment has trickled down into all these different communities. That intersects with body workers of all types, whether that’s massage workers, whether that’s in-person sex workers, BDSM practitioners, escorts, because a lot of these people are now operating in a space that is deemed dangerous. I remember the first two months of the pandemic. It felt it was illegal to go out on the street. It criminalizes the very public space that allows us to work, while it doesn’t have that kind of impact on someone in corporate America who can work from home. People who are working throughout the entirety of the pandemic had to make certain risk assessments based on X, Y, or Z every time they work. There’s a lot of moralizing around people who decided to work throughout the pandemic, or people who just need to see people throughout the pandemic, even though for some, it is very necessary.
The last thing is that the alternative to working in person is working online, which itself presents a series of risks. If I have to work online, that means I have to put my face online, is that something that I want to do, or do I put in the extra labor to shield myself from surveillance? Do I want to put in the extra labor where every time I receive a payment? Do I want to push this person to give me this payment in this specific fashion? That payment could be the one that shuts down my bank account.
To answer your question specifically, Red Canary Song has created an outreach routine for workers. During the pandemic we’ve been doing biweekly Flushing drop-offs, so we would do things like give out straight-up cash aid and groceries and things like that.
RH: How can interested people help support the work of Red Canary Song?
W: The first one that we recommend people do is just like, go to an Asian massage, and then tip your massage therapist very well. The thing that we advocate for more than anything is if you want to do something, go offer literal support to the people that you want to support. So, frequent that business. The second thing is find an organization that is doing the work on the ground. We’ve received a lot of support from all over the nation, and we really appreciate that, but if people can dedicate some of that energy to finding grassroots organizations that are near them, that kind of energy and effort would be very well spent. It would be well utilized doing work in your community.