In 2017, Song Yang, a 38-year-old masseur and Chinese immigrant, died when police raided a massage parlor in New York City. Four years later, a man shot and killed eight people at three massage parlors and spas in Atlanta. Six of them were Asian women.
These attacks on Asian massage workers have drawn national attention, but progress to protect them has yet to materialize.
New York has one of the largest populations of massage therapists in the nation, and licensing laws make workers especially vulnerable to harassment by police and the public. Conflating consensual sex work and sex trafficking only exacerbates these tensions — but they are not the same.
New York City banned unlicensed massage work, but advocates are now pushing to reintroduce the decriminalization bill to provide safer and fairer working conditions.
New York, which enacted stricter education laws in the 1970s, made unlicensed massage work or aiding or abetting unlicensed massage work a Class “E” felony, punishable by up to four years in prison, while unauthorized use of a professional title A Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. But successfully obtaining a massage license can be difficult.
According to the New York State Education Department’s Occupational Office, to become a massage therapist, a person must show proof of employment in the United States, demonstrate proficiency in English, and complete at least 1,000 hours of education, with massages costing up to $15,000 in tuition and fees.
Barriers to permission are especially high for Asian immigrant women who face economic, criminalization and deportation risks. Some workers self-reported that due to the pressure to obtain a license, they were “defrauded by scam massage licensing agencies popping up to take advantage of these licensing regulations.”
“This allegation is legally more damaging than prostitution charges,” said Yin Q, a sex work activist and director of the documentary “Fly in Power,” which centers on Asian massage workers. “Over the past five years, as national attention has focused on the legalization of sex work, arrests for prostitution have decreased, but arrests of Asian massage workers for unlicensed massage have increased .”
Q added that the surge in regulation of Asian massage parlors may have something to do with law enforcement using the businesses as “low hanging fruit” to meet ticket and arrest quotas.
Jared Trujillo, a policy adviser at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the arrests had locked workers into a “cycle of criminalization and systemic poverty.”
In a 2022 press statement, Trujillo explained that massage remains “one of the few unlicensed professions whose staff and associates are subject to frequent arrests and police violence, with More than 90% are Asian women and non-binary people.”
Advocates have urged that the arrests stem from misguided efforts by anti-trafficking groups and can be fatal.
“These targeted attacks are inextricably linked to misinformation by the anti-trafficking movement, which often claims it is save Asian massage workers, in fact, are subject to various forms of state and state-sanctioned privatization violence,” said a 2022 report co-authored by Red Canary Song, Massage Parlor Outreach Project and Butterfly, in collaboration with Bowen Public Affairs and Brown University Slavery and Justice Human Trafficking Research Cluster Research Center Collaboration.
The report points to first-hand accounts shared with Red Canary Song outreach members that “during raids, workers and survivors were almost always handcuffed and their money and other assets confiscated. Massage workers complained of police touching them , soliciting sexual favors prior to arrest, and in some cases denying them clothing prior to arrest.”
Cynthia, an unlicensed massage therapist in New York City whose name has been changed to protect her identity, voiced the same concern.
“In New York, very few Korean massage and sex workers hold a massage license because only those with citizenship or a green card are eligible for a New York state license,” Cynthia said. “I never leave New York because I’m afraid of encountering the police in a different state with stricter laws.”
Does legalizing sex work really reduce harm?
A growing number of policy and public health experts believe that decriminalizing sex work is critical to keeping sex workers safe.
A 2021 study by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that decriminalizing or legalizing sex work could lead to safer working conditions, reduce violence by clients and police, and change how sex workers report violent crimes when they occur. Propensity.
The study also pointed to the negative health and financial impacts of criminalization. For example, limiting sex workers’ ability to negotiate on issues such as requiring clients to use condoms could increase the risk of HIV and STI transmission and lead to less income stability.
Q added that decriminalization would only strengthen key labor rights and offset the overwhelming stigma surrounding the industry.
“It’s almost impossible to speak out against bad guys when you yourself are under the threat of incarceration,” Q said.
In February 2022, New York State Assemblyman Jessica González-Rojas, along with advocates and legal aid organizations, first introduced the Massage License Decriminalization Act, which would Eliminate criminal penalties for individuals charged with unlicensed massage and prevent police from confiscating workers’ property. Massage therapy remains “the only occupation singled out” by local authorities out of 36 licensed occupations, Next City reported.
Advocates and city officials who support the bill argue it will add protections to working-class and vulnerable immigrant New Yorkers, allowing them to safely participate in the economy without fear of scrutiny from law enforcement.
The bill was reintroduced in January as Assembly Bill 1112 and referred to the Higher Education Commission. It’s still waiting to get to the floor.
“That’s where the propaganda comes in,” said Councilman González-Rojas. “The goal now is to really build a co-sponsor and get people on the board of education to support it.”
Gonzalez-Rojas represents the city’s 34th District, which includes Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside, where 26 percent of the population identifies as Asian.
“I just really want to level the playing field and make sure this community isn’t disproportionately targeted,” González-Rojas said.
Organizers of the grassroots group Red Canary Song and other artists have also taken those concerns to the big screen, releasing a new documentary called “Fly in Power,” which premiere March 9. The film follows Charlotte, a Korean massage worker and organizer of Red Canary Song, and offers a glimpse into her work.
Q Urge cannot stop supporting after the movie is over.
“Send this movie to all the white celebrities who spout anti-trafficking rhetoric without knowing what harm they’re doing to BIPOC, immigrants, working class women, and queer communities,” they said. “Go for a massage and tip the provider.”