While the tragic events of March 16 in Atlanta further exposed the Illicit Massage Industry (IMI) to the world, press coverage of the murders understandably focused on the shooting victims rather than the illicit nature of the businesses. As Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms put it: “We are not about to get into victim-blaming, victim-shaming here.” Media reports covered the three massage businesses as immigrant-owned, small businesses which were attacked in a rampage of racial hatred, placing this shooting in the context of nationwide reports of racism, harassment, and discrimination against Asian-Americans and their places of businesses.
Much of the motivation for avoiding the nature of the businesses is likely rooted in a well-intentioned respect for those who died. The locations of these attacks, however, were illicit businesses, selling sex and placing their workers in a particularly vulnerable and exploitive situation. Allowing the businesses to pass themselves off as simply immigrant-owned small businesses trying to make it in a tough economy, is not only disingenuous, it fails to honor the victims and hides the truth of their exploitative circumstances.
It is clear that these were illicit businesses, and an honest dialogue about the workers’ circumstances is necessary for society to successfully address this type of exploitation. As important voices in the anti-trafficking field recognize, illicit activity breeds violence and that violence is directed at the most vulnerable.