America’s Issues with Sex is Getting Women Killed.

Ending the “war on sex workers” is the only solution.

A group from Duluth, GA, gathered outside Gold Spa in Atlanta. Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

On a chilly Tuesday evening in Georgia, eight lives were tragically cut short at three different massage parlors. Six of the victims were Asian women.

The killer drove from Acworth to Atlanta on his spree. He drove south down I-75. It’s a busy interstate; I’ve traversed it many times. He passed by the university I graduated from, my parent’s home, darting from one murder scene just to create another. He was caught hours later, fleeing south to Florida in the hopes of taking more lives.

After his arrest, reports broke that the killer blamed his sexual addiction for his actions. A Cherokee County Sherrif’s spokesperson was quick to make excuses for the killer, insisting he was “having a bad day.”

Law enforcement’s hesitation to label this act a hate crime spurred outrage and demonstrations from Asian communities nationwide. Asian, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have spent this pandemic increasing fear due to a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. In contrast, some conservative entertainers chose to focus on the alleged sexual nature of services provided at these massage parlors.

This narrative quickly gained traction in conservative circles because it distracts from any racial motivation behind the killings and the lax gun laws in Georgia that quickly allowed the shooter to obtain a firearm.

To some Georgians, even the allegation of sex work happening at these massage parlors gives them enough of an excuse to tune out and move on. As if someone allegedly trading sex for money is less deserving of justice or outrage since they do not fit a warped version of morality.

While dueling media diets continue to argue about whether this depraved act of violence is technically a hate crime (or, more likely, move on to the next mass shooting), the stigma that accompanies sex work continues to be ignored.

In the United States, the illegality and stigma surrounding sex as a profession exacerbates a culture of disrespect and violence towards these workers.

While you may only see sex workers portrayed on shows like Law and Order SVU or in the Grand Theft Auto series, prostitution is a more popular profession than you may think. There is “no comprehensive effort” to track the numbers, but experts estimate 1 million to 2 million prostitutes are currently working in the United States.

No comprehensive effort. That phrase doesn’t just apply to the statistics around sex work. Because of the negative reputation sex work has in the American consciousness, the women who work in this field are incredibly vulnerable, and little to no effort has been made to protect them.

This lack of protection is, in some ways, is by design. A theme of American domestic policy has been, “if you make it illegal, people will stop doing it.” This line of thinking is untrue, of course, and the failed war on drugs has shown that.

Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs shares many similarities with this less-formal “war on sex workers.” Both successfully stigmatized unwanted behavior, which only compounded harm and demonized “others” in a country with no patience for the downtrodden.

Worldwide, most young women become involved in the sex trade out of a place of desperation. When they feel that they have been forgotten by society and have nowhere else to turn, coercion tactics from bad actors can be incredibly effective.

The continued criminalization of sex work ensures that both coerced and consenting prostitutes are easy targets for sexual and physical violence. The chances of a prostitute receiving retribution or justice after experiencing violence are low, a reality both abusers and victims are aware of.

In instances where sex workers do go to the law for help, they are frequently dehumanized and treated like criminals. They are simultaneously portrayed as victims the police “saved” from sex trafficking operations in press releases. Occasionally, police officers contribute to the abuse sex workers experience.

Crabapple Baptist Church in Milton, GA, was the home church for the Atlanta shooter. Photo: AJC.

The suspect in the Atlanta shootings consistently worried about falling “out of God’s grace” when discussing and attempting to treat his sexual addiction.

He grew up in a small town in Georgia, one not so different from my own. He spent most of his life attending Crabapple Baptist Church, which strictly prohibits sex outside of marriage. I doubt they have any out gay or lesbian members either. If I had to guess, they never openly discussed sex at all, outside of repudiation and reprimand.

This man’s failed attempts to curb his natural sexual urges, to live up to unreasonable expectations of “morality,” resulted in him purchasing a gun and going on a bloody rampage at the massage parlors he allegedly frequented.

This alleged addiction in no way excuses his depraved behavior. It isn’t a smoking gun that shows his attacks were unmotivated by race. No, the killer’s state of mind lays bare the horrors of a certain elk of Christianity, one with no tolerance for moral transgression.

This puritanical strain of American ideology and the hypocrisy that often accompanies it have motivated both the war on drugs and the war on sex workers.

We punish people for using some substances (like heroin or cocaine) but not others (alcohol, nicotine, legal prescription drugs). Similarly, we incarcerate a consenting woman for selling a sexual service to a consenting man — but only if they’re not filmed to have the video sold on the internet later.

We also allow people to capitalize on their sexuality to get ahead in their careers. Yet, we have a real problem with individuals “selling sex” for themselves rather than for a corporation.

Or, as Sue Bradford, a member of the New Zealand Parliament, put it in a 2005 speech:

“We believed, and still do, that it was completely wrong to go on living with an archaic law which criminalized generations of sex workers, mainly women, for a victimless so-called crime in the name of antique moralities shared by only some of the population.”

It is so clear to me that in the aftermath of this shooting spree, we should spend our time protecting disenfranchised women rather than legislating a warped sense of morality.

To protect our most vulnerable neighbors, we have to decriminalize sex work. More than that, we must start talking about sex more. We must do whatever we can to remove the stigma that resulted in eight lives lost in a disturbed man’s attempt to wash away his supposed sins.

Nick Lozier.

Writer and artist based in Seattle. Discusses culture, politics, and the environment. Volunteer for SJEI.

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