On Nov. 25, 2017, Yang Song, a massage worker in Flushing, Queens, fell four stories to her death during a police raid. New York Police Department officers were attempting to arrest her for alleged sex work, and she had climbed out of a window while trying to flee law enforcment. In the aftermath of Song’s untimely death, her family shared that she had allegedly been sexually assaulted by an undercover police officer, and NYPD officers were harassing, blackmailing, and coercing her into becoming an “informant.”
Now, Red Canary Song works to support and assist Asian American and migrant massage workers and sex workers in whatever way they need — be it providing information about their legal and civil rights, finding ways to organize and unionize, advocating for workers’ rights, or working toward relevant policy initiatives to decriminalize sex work and defund police departments nationwide.
“Currently, we have between five and ten core organizers and we work in coalition with other sex working organizations and organizations that deal with migrant labor,” says Wu, a sex worker and core organizer with Red Canary Song. “We also work with organizations that deal with massage labor and other sex worker organizations based in New York. We also have a rotating group of satellite organizations that dip in and out based on their capacity as well.”
After the recent mass shooting at three Asian American-owned massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia that left eight people dead, including six Asian American women — as well as a year of increased hate crimes towards Asian and AAPI people — Red Canary Song has seen an influx in both public attention and financial donations. But the issues facing massage workers, nail technicians, acupuncutirsts, Asian sex workers, and other AAPI women, queer people, and immigrants who engage in labor of the body has existed long before the previous administration labeled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the “China virus,” and a 21-year-old white man murdered eight people with an AR-15-style weapon.
“When we think about the conditions of the first Chinese immigrants into America, it was to replace cheap labor after the abolition of slaves,” says Esther Kao, an organizer with Red Canary Song. “So already Asian bodies were seen as expendable. In a lot of ways, they’re always seen as not of this country.”
Other damaging tropes and stereotypes about Asian women and immigration laws such as the “mail order bride” narrative, or the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States under the assumption that they would work as prostitutes, have contributed to the idea that Asian women use their sexuality for nefarious reasons. They’ve also particularly endangered those who work in massage parlors and other such spaces.
“I think hyper-sexualization is a problem for women of color in general — Black and brown women have to suffer through similar if not the same thing or parallel experiences being hyper-sexualized and having that hyper-sexualization being codified into law and then being hyper-criminalized by the fact that they were sexualized in the first place,” Wu explains. “But there is a very specific racism that Asian American women have to experience that’s at the intersection of hyper-sexualization and immigration.”
Kao says the narratives that swelled in the aftermath of the shooting, which is still being investigated as a hate crime, highlight the deadly impact of hypersexualizing Asian women’s bodies. Assumptions were made about the women targeted and murdered based on the shooter claiming he has a “sex addiction” and targeted the businesses not because they were Asian-owned, but because they were sources of “temptation.”
“The majority of massage businesses are legitimate businesses that don’t provide sexual services,” Koa explains. “The reasons why there’s so much opacity around whether or not these women were sex workers or providing sexualized services is because they don’t disclose, and they often don’t disclose among each other. And this is not just due to the criminalization factor, but also the stigma around it.”
“But this becomes a sex workers’ issue beause they’re viewed as sex workers and that’s a unique kind of racism that Aisan women face,” she continues. “We are viewed as these hyper-sexual objects and we are killed for that.”
It has been estimated that women who engage in sex work are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than those who do not. And, the risk of being killed is exponentially higher for sex workers of color and those of varying immigration statuses. Erroneous sex trafficking narratives that work to form policies and pass laws that criminalize sex work and increase policing of sex workers or spaces assumed to house sex workers only increases the risk for violence and death, Wu says. It’s also continued and an ongoing threat, especially now that police departments across the country are vowing to increase their presence in AAPI communities as a result of the shooting.
“It has been proven time and time again that police response to violence in marginalized communities and police ‘intervention’ in marginalized communities is not an effective mode of ‘curbing the violence’ that is occuring in that community,” Wu says. “And in actuality, the police force is the one that is instigating a lot of the violence that they claim to be curbing.”
A 2003 analysis of police violence against street prostitutes working in New York City found that 30% of sex workers interviewed had been threatened with violence by police, and 27% had actually been assaulted by police. These numbers are undoubtedly higher, because most instances go unreported, especially by Asian Americans as language barriers and prevailing stereotypes already make it unsafe for them to report hate crimes carried out against them, never mind the consequences of reporting crimes perpetrated by those with power and authority.
“I know my fellow organizers and I are going to do our very best to make sure that as people on the ground working closely with massage parlor workers, their voices are heard and that their needs are met,” Kao says. “Especially when so much of this conversation is detached from their lives. This includes the police. This includes non-profits who don’t have relationships with these women. And to be honest, in my experience, the fight is always uphill and it’s always difficult and there’s always very few wins.”
Still, it’s a fight Wu, Kao, and the organizers at Red Canary Song are dedicated to — no matter the personal cost.
“I wish that people would pay attention before somebody had died,” Wu says. “Unanimously, across the board, everyone on the team could just describe this moment as overwhelming. Like, ‘Oh, f*ck. There is so much happening all at one time and it’s really, really intense.’ Luckily, we are really structured very intentionally to do slow, sustainable work so that when crises like these show up we have the energy to engage in them.”
If you would like to support the ongoing work of Red Canary Song and the organizations they work with and alongside, you can donate here, volunteer here, take a free bystander intervention training here, contribute to the aid funds to support the families of the victims — all listed here — and continue and/or start to support community-led solutions and resources, such as in-language support for mental health, legal aid, employment services, immigration services, and “know your rights” services.