Atlanta Spa Shootings: Decriminalizing Prostitution Cannot Make It Safer

Fully decriminalizing an inherently bigoted and violent system of disparity can never make it safe. In March 2021, our nation once again faced a terrible mass shooting as eight victims (seven women and one man)—six of whom were women of Asian descent—were murdered while working in massage parlors in Atlanta.

It took no time for the pimp lobby to come out in full force to decry the police for their investigations into the possible true nature of the business (the businesses may have been illicit massage business) and to make their usual facile calls for full decriminalization of the sex trade to prevent the harm of stigma against “sex workers.”

This is dismaying and cruel for a multitude of reasons.

For one thing, if the businesses in question are illicit massage parlors then they are already de facto decriminalized. Everyone usually knows what is going on, reviewers don’t hesitate to hint at it, and the police regularly turn a blind eye at what goes on inside unless a major event like this forces them to get involved.

So how is it that decriminalization of prostitution is supposed to help?

Fully decriminalizing an inherently bigoted and violent system of disparity can never make it safe. Click To Tweet

Contrary to what the pro-sexual exploitation lobby says, in every jurisdiction where sex buyers and pimps are decriminalized or legalized, demand increases, police ignore the buyers, and sex trafficking increases. Then there’s the reality of the harm experienced by the prostituted. The situation is so bad in Germany that leaders there are desperate to put the genie back in the bottle. Legalization in New Zealand is touted as successful but really only provides cover for the trafficking and abuse that are rampant.

Then there’s the bigotry that needs dealt with on multiple fronts.

The pimp lobby loves to put forth a narrative about how law enforcement officials are white supremacists and target women of color in “sex work,” but it’s a misleading narrative that lets the prime culprits off the hook. It is true that the Atlanta spa shootings were a horrific hate crime. America has an incredibly problematic intersection of race/gender-based violence and sexual exploitation that must be urgently addressed. The prime culprit behind said horrific targeting of women of color? Sex buyers.

No population on earth is more frequently subjected to violence than women and girls in prostitution, and women and girls of color are disproportionately victimized by said systems of sexual exploitation. Click To Tweet

The men who buy sex are disproportionately financially advantaged White men who take advantage of and exploit women of color and of poorer classes. The racial disparity is in fact, alarming. In King County, WA, 80% of buyers are White men and 52% of sex trafficking survivors are Black, when Black people comprise just 1% of the population. In Louisiana 54% of survivors are Black while being only 19% of the population.

The situation for Asian women is just as exploitative.

Sex buyers specifically seek out Asian women at illicit massage businesses, and many of these businesses are directly linked to trafficking rings. In New Zealand, trafficking victims are disproportionately Asian or indigenous. In Germany, most are immigrant women and girls.

The issue of racism and sexual violence towards Asian women is not external to American society—nor is it new. The Page Act of 1875 was passed to limit the arrival of Asian women in the United States out of fear that they were prostitutes who would corrupt the sexuality of America. This stereotype continued in the 20th century with novels such as The World of Suzie Wong—a story that featured a Chinese woman as a submissive prostitute who at one point begs to be beaten by her buyer (Luk n.d.).

Today these stereotypes persist and are peddled for profit by the modern online pornography industry, among other places, with material depicting Asian women as docile with strong sexual appetites and, tragically relevantly in this case, as prostituted women working in massage parlors. Gail Dines said it this way in her 2011 book, Pornland:

“Depicted as perfect sex objects, with well honed sex skills, Asian women come to porn with a baggage of stereotypes that make them the idealized women of the porn world. In most sites and movies specializing in Asian women (Asian being used in porn as a shorthand for a whole range of ethnicities), we see a mind-numbing replaying of the image of Asian women as sexually exotic, enticing, and submissive, in both the text and pictures. Using words such as naive, obedient, petite, cute, and innocent, the websites are full of images of Asian women, who, we are told, will do anything to please a man, since this is what they are bred for. It seems however, from these sites that Asian women are only interested in pleasing white men because Asian men are almost completely absent as sex partners.”

It must be said outright: these racist and misogynistic themes stereotypes are far from harmless. Although the details have yet to fully come to light, the context surrounding the Atlanta spa shootings appears to indicate that the murderous rampage that targeted the victims was far from the first act of racist-and-misogynistic bigotry and violence perpetrated by the culprit.

To quote from The Washington Post:

“Of course the shootings were racially motivated, she thought. Of course they were motivated by gender. They were both.

‘Imagine — a world in which it could be both,’ sighed Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. ‘I’m frankly floored by how difficult this is for people to understand.’”

Prostitution in all its forms (everything from stripping, massage, brothels, pornography, streetwalking, escorting or other online mediums) is sexually exploitive and results in inequality for prostituted people, most of whom are women. There is no evidence that full decriminalization or regulation makes it safer. Prostitution fundamentally targets women and highlights the inequality and disparity of women of all walks of life. Women are not public sexual commodities to be bought and sold, and selling women’s bodies is not simply a job like any other.

But the pimp lobby attempts to co-opt social justice rhetoric as a means for hiding the fact that what they really want is for men to legally cement their entitlement to buy women. And let’s be clear on the pro-sexual exploitation lobby’s broader purpose—keeping all women sexually subservient to men. Because when one woman can be bought and sold, so can all women, and the collective worth and power of women is degraded.

America has an incredibly problematic intersection of race/gender-based violence and sexual exploitation that must be urgently addressed. Click To Tweet

There is no denying that racism, sexism, and class are all issues that may have contributed to the tragic deaths of these women. It would be disingenuous and dangerous to ignore that reality. Disturbed men (e.g. Robert Hansen, Gary Ridgway, Samuel Little, etc.) targeting marginalized women and prostituted people is not new and, tragically, it’s not rare.

No population on earth is more frequently subjected to violence than women and girls in prostitution, and women and girls of color are disproportionately victimized by said systems of sexual exploitation.

Behind the complex intersections involved is the demand of the privileged for access to and control of the bodies of the marginalized, and that demand manifests itself through and is pervasive in all forms of bigotry—racism, misogyny, and more—that the commercial sex industry and its buyers profit from and perpetuate.

The underlying issues are demonstrably complex, but the path forward is clear: As we work to build a more just society, we cannot afford to ignore the bigoted and violent systems of disparity that are fueled by the demand of commercial sex buyers and profited on by the wealthy and privileged behind the commercial sex industry.

The Numbers


NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.


NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.



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