Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

Atlanta Asian massage parlor murders are a warning to the anti-trafficking sector

Playing fast and loose with stories of ‘sex trafficking’ is a good way to get innocent women hurt

Jamison Liang
29 March 2021, 11.50am
The Gold Spa in Atlanta on 16 March 2021
Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Less than two weeks ago, a white man went on a shooting spree at three Asian massage parlors in Atlanta, killing eight people – six of them Asian women. The horrific murders sent shockwaves across the United States and raised fears among the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, which was already reeling from the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes linked to xenophobia exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the nation grieves and rallies around movements to #StopAsianHate, the spotlight is now on Asian massage parlors, which the murderer claimed were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate” because of his “sex addiction”.

We don’t know if any of the victims were sex workers or if they would have even self-identified as sex workers. But this has now become a conversation about sex work due the murderer’s “sex addiction” claim and the assumption by many anti-trafficking organizations and the police that Asian massage parlors are rife with sex trafficking. We also can’t ignore the long-standing history of fetishization of Asian women, anti-Asian racism, misogyny, and hatred towards Asian immigrants and sex workers at play in this case.

According to Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, the murderer “was pretty much fed up and at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” Such statements wrongly center and attempt to humanize the killer, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the role of anti-Asian racism and misogyny. Apart from the killings themselves, these are found both on Baker’s social media feed, where he posted a picture of racist T-shirts blaming China for the pandemic, and in officials’ misspelling of the all the Korean victims’ names. Law enforcement still says there is no evidence that this constitutes a federal hate crime, despite the fact that the majority of victims were immigrant Asian women and all three of the massage parlors were Asian-owned.

As upsetting as these statements from the Atlanta police have been, it is equally troubling that stories are emerging in the media about likely links to sex trafficking. These rehash the assumption that thousands of Asian massage parlors across the US are hotbeds for sex trafficking of immigrant Asian women. Several organizations supporting Asian massage workers fear that the increased scrutiny will lead to harmful anti-trafficking ‘raids and rescues’ by the police, ensnaring sex workers in the process. Although a minority of these women may be trafficked, police raids are not the answer, and we must make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking.

Don’t let these murders fuel support for misguided police raids and increased surveillance of Asian massage parlors. Don’t let history repeat itself.

In the aftermath of the Atlanta killings, police departments across the US sent out police forces to patrol Asian neighborhoods. This was exactly what many AAPI activists and community organizers did not want to happen. Policing does not stop the root cause of anti-Asian racism, and this development is concerning given the history of police raids targeting Asian massage parlors. If we are truly looking out for the best interests of low-wage immigrant Asian women working in massage parlors, some of whom may engage in sex work, we need to be talking about what will make their work safer.

That includes supporting full decriminalization of sex work for workers, clients, and third parties, including massage business owners and managers. Furthermore, we must recognize that this isn’t just about sex work; this must also be a larger conversation about interconnected factors such as violence against workers, economic mobility of low-wage immigrants, precarious immigration status, racism, misogyny, and the hypersexualization of Asian women in the US. Supporting Asian massage workers means addressing all of these issues collectively, thereby affording them agency, protecting their rights, and increasing their resilience to trafficking.

Speaking as an Asian-American, I urge the AAPI community to realize after the tragedy in Atlanta that we need to do better. We need to fold Asian massage workers, low-wage immigrant Asians, and Asian sex workers into our activism and root out stigma towards these communities. Still, this isn’t just our responsibility. This is a reckoning moment for the US in which it will decide which concrete steps it will take to stop hate crimes against the AAPI community. It should also be a warning to the anti-trafficking sector. Don’t let these murders fuel support for misguided police raids and increased surveillance of Asian massage parlors. Don’t let history repeat itself.

Robert Kraft: A case study in caution for the anti-trafficking sector

Two years ago, Robert Kraft made national media headlines. The owner of the New England Patriots had apparently been linked to a massive, multimillion-dollar sex trafficking ring spanning from Florida to New York. Authorities claimed immigrant Chinese women working in massage parlors had been trafficked, brought to the United States under false promises of legitimate spa jobs, and then forced to provide sexual services to customers. The media and a curious public descended on the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, a small massage shop tucked away in a strip mall in Jupiter, Florida, to get a glimpse of the alleged crime scene that Kraft had visited.

The only problem? There proved to be no evidence of human trafficking, and the ‘victims’ law enforcement and some prominent American anti-trafficking organizations sought to help said they were not coerced into providing sexual services. With this, law enforcement did a 180-degree turn. If these immigrant Chinese women would not admit to being victims of trafficking then they would be prosecuted for prostitution to the fullest extent of the law.

The case wrapped up in January 2021. Four Chinese women working at Orchids of Asia Day Spa were slapped with criminal records for prostitution and were ordered to pay some $45,000 in fines. A former manager of the spa pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of soliciting another to commit prostitution, while three other women accepted plea deals. All face months of probation.

This case should serve as a warning to the anti-trafficking sector and the media. Jumping to conclusions before an investigation is completed and indulging in sensational stories of sex trafficking can backfire tremendously. Working immigrant women, who were erroneously assumed to need rescuing from a sex trafficking ring, have instead only ended up being criminalized. Those anti-trafficking organizations and ‘experts’ that cheered on the sex trafficking narrative in the media must take responsibility for the repercussions of their actions.

Too often these types of ‘raid and rescue’ operations are based on misguided cultural assumptions about Asian communities. And when it becomes clear that no trafficking has occurred then immigrant women like those in Florida are demonized, transforming in an instant from ‘victims of sex trafficking who deserve support’ to ‘prostitutes who must be punished for committing a crime’.

Criminalizing adult, consenting sex work is not the path to address sex trafficking. Furthermore, anti-trafficking organizations should not accept criminalization and punishment of sex workers as the result of failed sex trafficking investigations. If the sector truly wants to do no harm then it must recognize that instinctually alleging sex trafficking can have real, negative consequences for immigrant workers who are there on their own volition. Nobody gets ‘saved’ in that scenario. They get prosecuted instead.

While it is true that some immigrant Asian massage parlor workers may be trafficked for sexual exploitation in the US, recent research points to many choosing this line of work as their best option considering their limited economic mobility. Rather than approach all Asian massage parlors as hotspots for trafficking, where victims and consenting sex workers can be swept up together in police raids, we need to clearly distinguish between trafficking victims and agentic women who choose this work. And we need to contextualize all of that by acknowledging the challenges immigrant communities face in accessing economic opportunities. The focus should be on removing those barriers and improving working conditions to prevent abuses, not on criminalizing people for selling sex.

The story unfolds and a sex trafficking narrative takes off

At the end of February 2019, the New York Times published an article titled ‘‘The Monsters Are the Men’: Inside a Thriving Sex Trafficking Trade in Florida’, which detailed how authorities came to the conclusion that they had busted a sex trafficking ring operating out of Asian massage parlors in South Florida. Criminal charges for soliciting sex were brought against high-profile figures, including Kraft, John Havens, the former president and chief operating officer of Citigroup, and John Childs, the founder of the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates.

The New York Times took the sex trafficking narrative as fact and propelled it to a national audience by writing:

Beyond the lurid celebrity connection, however, lies the wretched story of women who the police believe were brought from China under false promises of new lives and legitimate spa jobs. Instead, they found themselves trapped in the austere back rooms of strip-mall brothels — trafficking victims trapped among South Florida’s rich and famous.

Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County, whose office opened the investigation, told the New York Times, “I don’t believe they were told they were going to work in massage parlors seven days a week, having unprotected sex with up to 1,000 men a year. We saw them eating on hot plates in the back. There were no washing machines. They were sleeping on the massage tables.”

He added, “I would never consider them prostitutes — it was really a rescue operation.”

Health inspectors had raised concerns that the immigrant women were living at the spa. A police report noted that "Inside the kitchen of the business, [the health inspector] located a refrigerator filled with foods and condiments consistent with individuals living inside." Officers also found napkins in the trash containing seminal fluids.

Some American anti-trafficking organizations added their voice to the sex trafficking narrative, asserting that the South Florida raid was a textbook case of human trafficking. Many explained that immigrant Asian women, largely from China, were struggling to pay off debts and were tricked into working at massage parlors – from those in big city Chinatowns to suburban strip malls in Florida – where they were forced to provide sexual services to customers by ‘mamasans’.

The greatest hole in the sex trafficking claim? The Chinese women working at the spa wouldn’t say they were victims.

Yet all of these reported ‘red flags’ of human trafficking did not add up for Freedom United. We suspected that this would ultimately turn out to be a ‘raid and rescue’ operation that risked ensnaring immigrant Chinese women in prostitution charges. While it is true that some immigrant Asian women working in massage parlors in the United States are trapped in debt bondage and trafficked for sexual exploitation, too often the experts quoted by the media made gross generalizations of Asian massage parlors as sites of sex trafficking. Even the search warrant from Martin County racially profiles Asian massage parlors as it refers to their operations as the “standard Asian model”, where “the establishment is as a place to operate prostitution under the guise of a massage therapy business. This is very common in crimes involving prostitution and the Asian community.”

Moreover, while the health inspection may have indicated that the women were living at the massage parlor, that in itself is not evidence of human trafficking, which requires an element of force or coercion in exploitation. It was especially concerning that authorities pointed to the hot plates used for cooking as an indicator of abuse, a claim that has racial undertones to it. As any Chinese immigrant in the United States can attest, cooking with hot plates is an entirely common activity, and one that should not raise suspicion any more than an employee microwave.

But the greatest hole in the sex trafficking claim? The Chinese women working at the spa wouldn’t say they were victims. This was a problem that police and anti-trafficking organizations chalked up to fear of retaliation and a limited proficiency in English. It did not help that Snyder reportedly asked the women why they would “go and allow themselves to be trafficked . . . They had the ability, they could’ve walked out into the street and asked for help. But they didn’t.” Yet rather than seeing this as an indication of consensual sex work, the authorities continued to press ahead with the investigation into human trafficking.

Kraft’s lawyer, William Burck, quickly pushed back on the solicitation charges, saying "There was no human trafficking and law enforcement knows it.” Attorneys for Kraft and nearly a dozen other men facing charges filed court paperwork in March 2019 to ask that evidence not be publicly released.

This would mark the unravelling of the sex trafficking narrative and the beginning of a public spat between Burck and Snyder. In an interview with WPTV, a local Palm Beach television station, Snyder admitted that “It looks like trafficking. It feels like trafficking. It sounds like trafficking. I believe it is human trafficking. But we are just a little short of being able to prove that.” Burck capitalized on that admission in his response, saying “He lied about it. His officers lied about it. I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”

Snyder and Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking expert witness in criminal and civil court, went on the defense, penning an op-ed in USA Today on 4 April 2019 titled “Robert Kraft spa scandal: Sex trafficking is hard to prove, that doesn't mean it's a lie.” They argued that the evidence in the case was simply not enough to result in a conviction for human trafficking, stressing that sex trafficking cases are difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

The attempt to salvage their reputations aside, it was clear that the case was falling apart. On 16 April, less than two months after the story first broke, Florida’s assistant state attorney, Greg Kridos, announced that there was not enough evidence to suggest that women working at the spa were doing so against their will. “No one is being charged with human trafficking. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” he said.

The change in tone signaled a complete reversal from the February press conference announcing the arrests, where the Florida state attorney, Dave Aronberg, decried human trafficking as an “evil in our midst”, adding that the women at the spas across South Florida were there against their will.

By mid-May, Kraft and other men charged with solicitation would win a string of legal victories due to the authorities’ missteps in the investigation, from obtaining sneak-and-peek warrants to install hidden video cameras to questionable traffic stops. Leonard Hanser, a judge for Palm Beach County, accepted that planting cameras was necessary to infiltrate crime, yet concluded that the warrant broke federal law because the police didn’t do enough to ensure that they only recorded crimes. Hanser called the five days of secret videotaping “unacceptable”, as “some totally innocent women and men had their entire lawful time spent in a massage room fully recorded.” This decision raised the scrutiny on the traffic stops the police conducted outside the spa. Prosecutors argued that no traffic violation need occur to stop someone, and that it was a legal way to obtain the identities of people videotaped in the spa. Kraft’s lawyers argued that since the videotaping was illegal then the identification of Kraft must also be thrown out, and Hanser agreed.

In the end, judges in Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties would all rule that the warrants were illegal and that the videotapes could not be used to prosecute Kraft or any of the men facing charges. Aronberg dropped all charges against Kraft and the other men in September 2020, as without the video evidence they could not be convicted. A different judge later ordered the videotape to be destroyed.

The backlash against immigrant Chinese women workers

As it became clear that the sex trafficking claim was unravelling, authorities focused their efforts on interrogating the Chinese spa workers, pushing them to admit that they were victims. In June 2019, the Associated Press obtained a video of one Chinese masseuse being questioned by officers for Martin County. In this video she refused to say that she was forced to provide sexual services. She refused to say she was a victim. As the AP report explains:

The Chinese masseuse shrinks into her chair as the Florida sheriff’s detective tells her deputies installed hidden cameras in her spa’s ceiling. He knows she and other women had sex with men for money.

But you can save yourself, Martin County Detective Mike Fenton and others tell her. We will give you an apartment. We will provide food and education. We will bring your children to the United States.

Just tell us you are a human-trafficking victim and testify against your captors.


“We know what goes on in the spa. It is not just massages,” he tells her. “I know this is not the funnest thing to talk about, but we know this is what happens. I don’t think this is the kind of work you want.”

He assures her she is not in trouble — yet. But we must know: Are you forced to prostitute yourself?

No, she responds, shaking her head.

Would someone be angry if you quit? No.

Then why do it?

She pauses, then responds softly, “I don’t know.”

“You know. You are intelligent,” Fenton says. “The reason why you got into this line of work is because somebody told you about it. Is this your dream job?”

She says she does it to support relatives in China. Would they be proud? She doesn’t know.

Over four hours of questioning, the spa worker repeatedly told a Mandarin-speaking police officer that she was not a victim and felt like she was being treated like a criminal. Blanca Chang, a representative from an anti-trafficking organization who was allowed into the room, told the masseuse that the raid was “was very bad luck. Good luck, too. Otherwise you would be suffering more. You were rescued.”

While this spa worker would be free to go after questioning and her identity kept anonymous by the press, other Chinese spa workers linked to Kraft were not so fortunate.

What began as a human trafficking probe evolved into a crackdown on prostitution.

By the end of 2020, four women from the Orchids of Asia Day Spa would ultimately face extensive charges and fines related to prostitution. In what began as a human trafficking probe evolved into a crackdown on prostitution. Lei Wang, the manager of the spa, would plead guilty to the sole charge of soliciting another to commit prostitution, though the conviction will be withheld from her record if she fulfills her yearlong probation conditions, including a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. Hua Zhang, the owner of the spa, pleaded guilty to a count of soliciting to commit prostitution and a count of renting a space to commit prostitution.

Lei Chen and Mingbi Shen, both masseuses at the spa, would also face prostitution charges, tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and probation sentences. Prior to entering her plea deal, Shen had her bank account frozen and passport taken away. Now she must pay $20,000 to the city of Jupiter’s police department and $5,000 in other fees. If that wasn’t enough, the women must undergo STI tests as part of their sentences.

Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County that had originally pushed the sex trafficking narrative, celebrated the charges, saying "Orchids of Asia Day Spa was a notorious brothel in a family shopping center.” It had all come full circle. Snyder’s remark at the outset that “I would never consider them prostitutes” would foreshadow the precise opposite conclusion to the case.

A lesson in caution (and anti-racism)

The claim that a vast sex trafficking ring was operating out of Asian spas across South Florida was problematic for several reasons, though the underlying issue is the support for the ‘raid and rescue’ model among authorities and some anti-trafficking organizations. Combined with the fact that Asian spas were singled out as likely sites of sex trafficking or prostitution, as evidenced by the search warrant lamenting the “standard Asian model”, we cannot ignore that race played a role in how “victims” and “prostitutes” were framed by the authorities. Raids premised on saving immigrant sex trafficking victims can go two ways in the United States — either victims are identified and given assistance, or they are found to be consenting sex workers and thus eligible for prosecution, jail time, criminal charges, and immigration violations.

As Jill McCracken, a professor at University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and cofounder and co-director of SWOP Tampa Bay, told Rolling Stone, “We tend to see Asian massage parlors in general through a very prejudiced lens,” adding that they are often targeted as a result of a sort of “racial profiling”. Similarly, an article in Vanity Fair noted that “It was somehow easier for law enforcement officers in South Florida to believe that the women had been sold into sex slavery by a global crime syndicate than to acknowledge that immigrant women of precarious status, hemmed in by circumstance, might choose sex work.”

Admittedly much of the problem boils down to the conflation of sex trafficking – which requires an element of force, coercion, or deception as well as an intent to exploit – with adult, consenting sex work. The ‘raid and rescue’ model accepts that consenting sex workers may be rounded up alongside victims of sex trafficking and views any charges of prostitution for the latter as simply collateral damage. That is a long way from ‘do no harm’.

A policy path forward

At Freedom United we recognize that sex trafficking and sex work are not the same thing. We recently responded to the Scottish Government's 'Equally Safe: challenging men's demand for prostitution' consultation, arguing that criminalizing the purchase of sex was not an effective strategy for tackling human trafficking, that criminalization puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, abuse, and HIV infection, and that full decriminalization of sex work was needed. Under the ‘Nordic model’, which criminalizes the purchase of sex, sex workers are pushed into less safe working environments and accepting clients they may not have chosen otherwise.

As UNAIDS points out, “The legal status of sex work is a critical factor defining the extent and patterns of human rights violations, including violence against sex workers. Where sex work is criminalized, violence against sex workers is often not reported or monitored, and legal protection is seldom offered to victims of such violence.”

Full decriminalization of sex work should apply to immigrant Asian massage parlor workers in the United States as well. It is unconscionable that the raids in South Florida resulted in criminal charges for prostitution and massive fines for women workers, not to mention the trauma of being profiled by the national media. Furthermore, criminalizing their customers – the ‘end demand’ strategy – ignores the reality that immigrant massage parlor workers often choose sex work from among their limited options to make ends meet.

While the immigrant Chinese women at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa were clearly not victims of sex trafficking, it may be true that they did not have safe working conditions or know their rights. Finding out why may help us reform public policy so as to not further victimize or penalize immigrant Asian massage parlor workers. We also recognize that some frontline counselors have reported some women only come to recognize their exploitation after months of building trust.

With this in mind, one critical need is to better understand the lived experiences of immigrant Asian massage parlor workers. We need to center their voices in discussions about addressing the challenges they face. A recent in-depth research report, “Illicit Massage Parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City: Stories from Women Workers,” aimed to do just that. Authored by Professor John Chin from Hunter College and Professor Lois Takahashi from the University of Southern California, they interviewed 116 immigrant Chinese and Korean women massage parlor workers who had provided sexual services, listening to their experiences and concerns without judgement.

In the report’s policy recommendations, the researchers point to four areas for reform:

  1. Modify police practices and court services to protect the safety and rights of illicit massage parlor workers, including a scaling back on arrests

  2. Increase employment options

  3. Increase access to healthcare, prevention education, and health screening

  4. Work with key community institutions, such as religious institutions and local neighborhood organizations, to reduce stigma of illicit massage parlor work

Notably, the study found that “women often chose illicit massage parlor work from a very small number of employment options; some women described being coerced or deceived into this work, but most women said that they chose this work as their best alternative among limited options.”

Though it is true that a minority of the women interviewed may qualify as victims of trafficking, approaching the entire Asian massage parlor industry as inherently suspicious, and assuming that all workers are trafficked or oppressed, is misguided. There must be space for discussing the challenges facing immigrant Asian massage parlor workers through a labor and immigrants’ rights lens, especially given the fact that most women chose this work, albeit from limited options.

While sex work may not be their ideal job or one they necessarily want to tell their families about, given limited economic mobility and a desire to support their families, these women are choosing what makes sense for them based on limited options.

Indeed, as the study points out, there are benefits and drawbacks to this line of work:

On the positive side, the pay was higher than in other industries and could provide opportunities for self-employment.

On the negative side, there were risks to physical health (HIV, STIs) and mental health (isolation, stigma); risk of violence from clients and owners, and robbery in this cash- based industry; and possible arrest, fines, and jail, as well as deportation in the case of undocumented immigrants.

Researchers also highlighted that the “fear of arrest almost always superseded fear of robbery or assault”, noting that women workers were reluctant to seek help from the police and that those with limited English proficiency were often unaware of what was happening after their arrests.

It may not be their dream job and they may lack labor protections, but it is their choice based on limited economic mobility, especially if they are undocumented or have limited English proficiency. The aim should be to make their work safer and improve working conditions, not eliminate their means for economic survival.

A previous version of this piece was published 10 February 2021 on the Freedom United blog.

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