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The Long History Of Sexual And Physical Violence Asian Women Face In The U.S.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Stop Asian hate. Stop Asian hate. Stop Asian hate.


A crowd of mourners in Atlanta, Ga., yesterday rallying in support of the Asian American community there in the wake of the shooting spree that killed eight people on Tuesday. The suspect targeted three different Asian massage businesses and six of the women who were killed were of Asian descent. There is a long history of sexualization and physical violence against Asian women in the United States, and our next guest says all of the elements of this attack - the massage businesses, the sexual nature of the motive and the rise of Asian American violence in the U.S. over the last year - are connected. Yves Nguyen is an organizer with Red Canary Song based in New York City. The group is made up of Asian migrant sex workers and their allies who support these workers and lobby for the decriminalization of sex work. I asked her what the best way to talk about the women who work in these massage businesses is.

YVES NGUYEN: Well, we don't assume that they're sex workers and we never have. It is a reality that some people who work in massage businesses do engage in sex work and some massage businesses do engage in sex work as a whole, and obviously some people don't. But there are many conversations around the racist and fetishistic perceptions around Asian women, especially migrant Asian women who do low-wage labor, and those perceptions make it so that people think that they're sex workers anyways. And if these women weren't sex workers, the person who killed them certainly thought that they were.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there something that we should understand about the link here between Asian Americans and spas and sex work?

NGUYEN: Well, yeah, there's a lot of historical context for this in that these businesses exist everywhere, all over the world - right? - massage businesses run by Asian people, specifically Asian migrant women. And they also exist in our homelands - in our - in Asia, right? And it's natural that when people migrate, for whatever reason that they would come to the U.S., these businesses would come with them - right? - and that some people might engage in sex work, especially if they're marginalized, right? As we know, like, historically, people often engage in sex work when they're cut out in other ways because it's like a form of labor that pretty much anybody could do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You engage with sex workers, massage workers, low-wage Asian laborers, generally. What do they tell you?

NGUYEN: In terms of their experience, many of them are really concerned about very basic things, right? They want to have protection. They want the community to support them. And they give back to the community consistently. They're a part of the community. They want to be able to do their jobs safely. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like your thoughts on sort of a point that you made early on in our interview about the sort of toxic mix between racism and gender stereotypes of Asian women here in the United States. Can you talk to me a little bit more about how you feel this attack has really highlighted that?

NGUYEN: Well, we think that the women in Georgia were subject to a very specific kind of racialized gender-based violence on the fact that they are not only Asian, but they're also women. And that's seen really clearly by the perceptions around them and the conversations that are happening around them and the way that their killer talks about it, right? 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. And then on top of that, these women, if they were immigrants, this comes into play. And then the way that they're viewed as well. There's a hatred for both sex workers and immigrants and being Asian and being women, and they all intersect, and it would be irresponsible to not talk about all of those parts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are you seeing that play out in the attacks that just happened? I mean, are you seeing within the community itself a sort of varying responses?

NGUYEN: Oh, absolutely. Even mentioning sex work, people want to be like, don't assume that they're sex workers because they think that there's shame attached to it, even though we're simply naming the very expansive harm of criminalizing sex work and criminalizing immigrants. There's a problem with this, right? Because 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. But there's a really quick turnaround for people to try and minimize it and try to be like, oh, oh, oh, they definitely weren't sex workers. They definitely weren't sex workers, anything but a sex worker, because there's just a lot of shame attached to it, even though that's just the reality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you hope people will take away from this moment? Is there something that you feel that this moment provides - perhaps an opportunity for more understanding?

NGUYEN: I hope that people will be able to start caring more about the massage workers in their community, about the Asian migrant women in their community, the Asian women who do vulnerable low-wage jobs. We hope that people will start caring about the sex workers in their community because these are people who have always been on the margins, even in their own community, that so many people don't care about them, that so many people don't do anything. And it's really big that people are talking about massage workers right now, right? It's really big that people are even talking about our work because for a long time they didn't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is also horrific that it has come on the heels of such a great tragedy. Yves Nguyen is an organizer with Red Canary Song in New York City. Thank you very much.

NGUYEN: Of course. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.