Worthy of Life

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This guest blog post was written by Mikhaela Gray-Beerman, an anti-trafficking advocate, researcher and educator.

Author’s Note: I acknowledge that I am not writing this article from the perspective of an individual with lived experience. I recognize the importance of uplifting the voices of those who have been impacted by the sex industry and I believe that their perspectives are central in our understanding of these issues. We must listen to their stories, insights and knowledge. I am writing this article as an advocate and ally for those who have experienced or are currently experiencing exploitation in the sex industry.

Soon C. Park is worthy of dignity and respect.
Soon C. Park is worthy of life.

Hyun Jung Grant is worthy of dignity and respect.
Hyun Jung Grant is worthy of life.

Suncha Kim is worthy of dignity and respect.
Suncha Kim is worthy of life.

Yong A. Yue is worthy of dignity and respect.
Yong A. Yue is worthy of life.

Delaina Ashley Yaun is worthy of dignity and respect.
Delaina Ashley Yaun is worthy of life.

Paul Andre Michels is worthy of dignity and respect.
Paul Andre Michels is worthy of life.

Xiaojie Tan is worthy of dignity and respect.
Xiaojie Tan is worthy of life.

Daoyou Feng is worthy of dignity and respect.
Daoyou Feng is worthy of life.

My heart is heavy with the murders of these individuals. I extend my deepest condolences to, and prayers for family members and friends of these ones who are no longer with us.

I have read news headlines that indicate that this was a misogynistic attack. And another headline that cites this is a hate crime insulated against Asian Americans. And while I believe there is truth to both of these claims, the murders are linked to a system and structure within society where both misogynistic and racist ideologies are cultivated and celebrated. How are all 8 of the individuals who were murdered connected? While it is not known if each of the individuals worked in the sex industry, advocates agree that they were, in fact, targeted because of the assumption that they worked in the sex industry.

I have met many women who have been engaged in the sex industry through massage parlours and I have had the honour to learn from them and to hear their stories. Each of them are unique individuals with unique experiences. Some chose to engage in the sex industry independently, and others were forced through coercion, deception or blackmail. I hope that in light of this tragic event that we do not miss the lessons to challenge us, change us, and re-examine our attitudes, beliefs and misconceptions. Colonial violence, misogyny and racism are in fact the very fabric of the sex industry. The purpose of this article is to help shed light on how these societal challenges are interwoven and what can be done to further prevent injustices like this from taking place in our society and in our world. Each of the highlighted topics could have independent articles on them, so I would encourage you to do further research and learning beyond what is shared here.

 

1. The sex industry reinforces colonial ideas of power, domination and subordination.

The purchasers of sex exercise power and domination over the person they purchase sexual services from. When someone is paid, there is an implied power imbalance. The transaction situates each party into one side or another of a dominance hierarchy. According to a recent New York Times article, “Yvonne Chen, an advocate for [people who have been trafficked for sex] who works with Asian women who work at massage businesses said not all of them are willing to provide sex to their clients, but those who refuse are often attacked by their customers.” She also highlights how the violence that comes from buyers is rarely discussed. Women who are abused in these spaces are often silenced (subordination), and people who enter these parlours have the mindset that they are entitled to purchase sexual services. Dominance is asserted through the buyer demanding particular services and in some cases, enacting violence to demonstrate their power.

The sex industry reinforces ideas of power, domination and subordination. The purchasers are often white males, and they most frequently purchase from women and girls, many of whom identify with an additional minority group. A 2017 study on sex buyers in Minnesota found that the majority of buyers in their state are white, middle-to-upper class, married men. In Canada over 50% of people impacted by the sex industry are Indigenous, while less than 4% of the population identify as Indigenous. In the United States, a two-year review of all suspected incidents of human trafficking across the country highlights that 94% were female, 40% were Black and 24% were Latinx¹. The power imbalances being perpetuated through gender and race cannot be ignored. This is a reenactment of colonial ideas where white men view women from other backgrounds and ethnicities as hypersexualized and disposable. The sex industry is a place where white men continue to exercise power over women. It is a space where racist ideas are perpetuated. It is a colonial structure and system that must be challenged.

 

2. The sex industry fuels misogyny. 

99% of people impacted by sexual exploitation globally are women and girls.

The majority of people who purchase sex are men.

The majority of traffickers are men.

Most of the people who are controlling the space where sex is sold are men.

It is a male-dominated industry in which women are used, abused and exploited.

Comments on ‘Buyer Review Boards’ shed light on the misogynistic attitudes that are celebrated by the men purchasing sex in these spaces. “On the boards, women are compared to beaten down dogs and free-range chickens, their breast sizes among a list of physical descriptors available to the public.” The sex industry fuels ideology that says that women are less than. It degrades and undermines the value and worth of women. The Review Boards are filled with toxic and hateful ideas about women and girls. It is an aspect of society that goes unchecked, ignored, and swept under the rug while sexist ideology runs rampid. Thankfully, Canada’s current laws tackle this often forgotten side of the sex industry. Purchasers of sex are criminalized, while people who sell sex are decriminalized. In some provinces, there are programs to help men learn the realities of the sex industry, in an effort to prevent them from purchasing sex again. More education is needed to shift mindsets and challenge the misogynistic beliefs of purchasers of sex. They need to be held to account.

 

3. The sex industry and racism are interconnected

An anti-trafficking advocate recently told me that her son received a text message from their friend inviting them to go to a local illicit massage parlour. Her son said no and his friend’s response was: “Why not? Asians like it.” This troubling story highlights the racist beliefs and attitudes that are fostered among purchasers of sex that demean and degrade women who identify as Asian.

According to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, of the 3,636 survivors of human trafficking whose race or ethnicity was known, the second largest group was Asian (27%). Suzanne Jay, a member of Asian Women for Equality recently said in a CBC news article that “Asian women are over-represented in [the sex industry], particularly in storefront establishments like massage parlours…[The sex industry] markets and brands Asian women. It has a real investment in cheapening racism and increasing sexism.”

The sex industry reinforces harmful ideologies about Asian women by hypersexualizing them. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium and an expert witness in criminal and civil court cases related to human trafficking says “Asian women are highly sought after because they are perceived by American men as being more submissive….”  Minority groups are overrepresented in the sex industry and buyer review boards are filled with offensive ethnic and racial stereotypes. Education and accountability are needed to challenge racist beliefs and attitudes that are being cultivated in the industry.

 

4. The sex industry is violent and exploitative.

An advocate (whose view on the response needed to the issues raised in this article differs from my own) also highlights the inherent violence and abuse in the industry. In a recent interview she shared, “This story is getting a lot of attention because eight people were killed at the same time. But physical and sexual violence is always happening to Asian workers in massage parlors. Many are now concerned that after this shooting, there may be copycat crimes. Every day, every year, massage-parlor workers face violence. One woman told me going to work is like going to war — she doesn’t know if she’ll come back home. She’s told her 20-year-old daughter that if she calls her and doesn’t say anything, it means she’s in danger.”

Women’s choice can be compromised in the industry as it often operates within a large network of illicit businesses where people are threatened, abused, and manipulated. A 2018 report by Polaris Project entitled Human Trafficking in Massage Parlours indicates that, “The average massage parlor is part of a larger network of illicit businesses, with networks including shell companies that obscure identities of the real trafficking profiteers that are often laundering money.” The complex criminal system that is behind the industry, and that is gaining financially from the exploitation of (mostly) women, must be addressed.

The sex industry often preys on the most vulnerable people in society. Some individuals² are lured or coerced into the sex industry by traffickers. They are targeted for various vulnerabilities including social or economic need. Systemic racism and anti-immigrant culture often creates the disparities and vulnerabilities that traffickers prey upon. According to the Polaris Project, “The women trafficked in massage parlors are typically immigrants from China or South Korea, usually mothers between the ages of 35-55 who are looking for a way to support their families. They are often lied to or seriously misled about the type of work they’ll be doing, by traffickers who know they have debts they need to pay or are otherwise in no position to say “no” to a source of income.” In some cases, passports and documents are withheld to exercise control, direction and influence of a person. “Women are controlled through fraudulent information about how America works and extreme cultural manipulation and coercion, such as threats to tell their families and friends in home countries that they are working in the commercial sex industry. Due to culture shame, [individuals who are trafficked in parlours] rarely self-identify as [someone who has experienced trafficking] but virtually all attest to experiencing labor trafficking.”

The sex industry includes sex trafficking and the exploitation of persons. It is a space where criminals manipulate, coerce and take advantage of individuals in order to exploit them for their own financial gain. Wherever the sex industry flourishes, it is known that sex trafficking also increases.

 

Conclusion

Each of the individuals who were murdered were in spaces where customers would enter and view people as a commodity to be bought, sold and used for their individual gain and pleasure. The lives of eight people were taken by someone who is a purchaser of sex.  People have intrinsic value and worth, yet we live in a society where bodies are taken by force, paid for and in some cases, sold for another’s financial gain.

Women’s agency is always compromised in the sex industry because of the colonial systems, structures and societal beliefs that continue to degrade, racialize, sexualize, stigmatize and oppress women and girls.

There needs to be alternative education and employment opportunities, such as through freedom businesses³, for individuals who want to exit the sex industry. Wrap-around support services are required to help people who decide to exit and need counselling, food security, immigration and legal assistance. Combatting colonial structures begins by listening to people with lived experience to understand how and what should be done. What are their hopes, dreams, aspirations and plans? How can we come alongside people in the sex industry, meet them where they are at, and support them based on their own self-determination, goals and desires?

In order to prevent further harm and to advocate for those who are currently being impacted by the sex industry there needs to be collective efforts to dismantle systems that reinforce colonial ideas and perpetuate racism. The voices of those who have been impacted by the sex industry need to be central in decision-making, policy making, and anti-trafficking responses. Education can be a tool used to challenge stereotypes, shift mindsets and reconstruct attitudes regarding race, gender and the sex industry. Buyers of sex need to be challenged and held accountable. We must confront the systems and structures in society that cultivate racist and sexist ideology, like those that are prevalent within the sex industry. We need to speak out against injustice and equip the next generation to recognize that the lives of people in the sex industry are not disposable. They are not commodities. They have intrinsic value and worth.

These eight lives that were taken were eight lives too many. Each of these individuals are worthy of dignity and respect. Each of these individuals are worthy of life.

 


Mikhaela Gray-Beerman, MEd, is an anti-trafficking advocate, researcher and educator. The work she does is informed by the many inspiring women and girls who have entrusted their stories with her. Mikhaela is the host of a RogersTV television program on human trafficking called Freedom Fighters: Code Gray and she is the Chair of Untied Freedom, an anti-human trafficking committee.


 

¹“Latinx purposefully breaks with Spanish’s gendered grammatical tradition. X signifies something unknown and is used in Latinx to connote unspecified gender” /www.merriam-webster.com

²It is important to note that not all women who engage in the sex industry are trafficked, but that sex trafficking operates within the sex industry.

³A business that exists to fight against human trafficking and commercial exploitation” (Freedom Business Alliance, n.d.).

 

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