Atlanta shooting highlights sex industry abuse
Traffickers use businesses like those Robert Aaron Long targeted to hide illegal activity
Less than 24 hours after Robert Aaron Long’s arrest, sheriff’s deputies noted the connection between the Atlanta-area massage parlors he targeted and commercial sex, though not international trafficking. Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Long told them he “has some issues, potentially sexual addiction” and he might have frequented some of the businesses in the past.
Long’s true motive remains uncertain, with speculation still swirling about addiction, religious fanaticism, and racism—six of eight victims were of Asian descent. Regardless of Long’s individual motivation, the shooting has shined a fresh light on the problem of sex trafficking of immigrant women in massage parlors and spas, a harmful practice that authorities struggle to regulate.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said initially after the March 16 shootings that the three spas Long attacked appeared to be operating legally and were not on police’s radar. But subsequent reports showed police previously targeted the three spas for sting operations that led to prostitution arrests. A website featuring reviews of sexual services at massage parlors also showed recent posts for all three.
Georgia has laws and a board to regulate the massage parlor industry, but the board rarely takes disciplinary action, a 2018 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found. In 2020, an undercover operation exposed prostitution at a spa in Hall County, but the board only suspended the owner’s license for half a year and fined him $500. The Secretary of State’s office told the Journal-Constitution that the state Board of Massage Therapy “issues licenses to qualified massage therapists and disciplines licensed therapists if they do not comply with applicable rules and regulations. … The board does not license facilities or have any authority to shut down businesses offering illicit activities.”
Thousands of illicit spas operate in the United States, according to the Polaris Project. Many of them have back or side entrances, blacked out windows, and extra security at the doors to protect customers who want to avoid recognition. Some offer legitimate services as well as sex, making them more difficult to identify and regulate. Authorities need warrants and probable cause to search the businesses, and even if they find evidence that particular workers engaged in sexual acts with customers for money, the owner can often blame and fire those workers, escaping further scrutiny.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline keeps statistics about the calls it receives from trafficking victims and concerned community members. It does not have nationality data on every report it receives, but the information it gathered in 2019 indicated more than half of its calls involved sex trafficking of a foreign national. Law enforcement officials blame organized crime networks in China, Korea, and Russia for supplying trafficking victims to the United States.
Most women who are trafficked from overseas are between 30 and 50 years old, according to the Polaris Project. Traffickers promise them the chance to work in the United States and earn money to send their families. They often arrive knowing no friends and speaking no English. The traffickers take their passports and tell the women they must work in spas and provide sex to customers to repay the large debt of travel expenses. Traffickers also instill fear of the police and threaten to tell their families back home about the work they do.
So far, authorities have reported no evidence that the spas Long attacked harbored international trafficking victims. Beyond their nationalities—four had Korean lineage, and one was Chinese—and their affiliation with spas, most of them did not fit the profile of trafficking victims. Soon Chung Park was 74 years old and spent most of her life in New York City, the BBC reported. She cooked for the workers at Young’s Asian Spa. Suncha Kim, who worked at Gold’s Spa, was a 69-year-old married grandmother who came to the United States from Korea in the 1980s.
Not all massage parlors hide illegal activity, so it can be difficult to distinguish those that do and hold them accountable, said Dani Pinter, senior legal counsel for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. States with the appropriate ordinances and the will to enforce them can regulate aspects of the businesses that are conducive to sex trafficking: Banning workers from living on the premises, for example, or restricting entrances or visibility limits. Even when authorities have direct evidence of sex trafficking, the victims are often unwilling to trust police and testify against their traffickers. Pinter said the women need service providers who understand their language, culture, and complex situation.
She pointed out that men who buy sex almost universally also consume pornography. While the average customer is a white male, most sex trafficking victims are minorities. She believes the racism inherent in pornography and sex buying is missing from conversation about the Atlanta shooting. “One of the biggest racist elements of this is this fetishization of Asian women by white men. We see that in our culture, we see that in our pornography,” she said. “Men who purchase sex are almost universally consuming this material, and then that’s playing out in their commercial sex buying.”
Educating the public about sex trafficking and reducing demand is key, Pinter said: “Making it completely inexcusable in our society to buy someone for sex, I think that solves not only this aspect of sex trafficking, but sex trafficking as a whole.”