Suspect in Atlanta spa shootings allegedly said he was motivated by a sex addiction, not race.
However, experts say that the shootings tie into America's history of violence against Asian women.
"It's impossible to take race out of the equation," Ellen Wu, expert in Asian American Studies said.
Police say that the 21-year-old white man responsible for the the Atlanta-area shootings that left eight people dead - including six Asian women - told them he was motivated not by racism, but by his sex addiction.
In a Wednesday morning press conference, Cherokee County police confirmed that Robert Aaron Long, "took responsibility" for the shootings. Long told police that he previously visited the massage parlors where the shootings took place. Police said he may have been "lashing out" by trying to eliminate temptation, but declined not comment on whether sex work took place at the massage parlors.
While police say the investigation so far indicates the shootings may not be racially motivated, experts say sexualization and race are intrinsically linked to violence against Asian American women. Asian women, and especially Asian sex workers, have long been sexualized, objectified, and dehumanized in a way that makes them especially vulnerable to violence.
"There's a perception that [Asian] women should be sexually available to men"
Grace Kao, Chair & IBM Professor of Sociology at Yale University, told Insider she has no doubt that the shooting was motivated by race and gender.
"He targeted Asian American women working at establishments catering to people who wanted contact with Asian American women," Kao said.
Kao said that the shootings tie into a long American history of violence stemming from the sexualization of Asian American women. That history goes back to the mid-19th century, when many of the Chinese women who immigrated to America were either sex workers or perceived as such. The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from entering the US for "lewd and immoral purposes," and laid the groundwork for the passage of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act just seven years later.
"There's a perception that [Asian] women should be sexually available to men," Kao said. "I think it would be really dangerous to assume that race had nothing to do with it."
Ellen Wu, Associate Professor of History and the Director of Asian American Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, says that the sexualization of Asian women historically goes hand-in-hand with other dehumanizing stereotypes about Asian Americans.
"All these ideas we see now have a long history going back to the 19th century," Wu told Insider. "Women were assumed to be immoral or loose. Chinese in general were thought of as sneaky, deviants, undermining the American way of life, and possibly disease-carrying."
Nancy Wang Yuen, an associate professor of sociology at Biola University, told Insider that these early thoughts and policies, including the Page Act, shaped the anti-Asian tropes and narratives that still play out in society and Hollywood today.
"There's a whole history of not just violence against Asian women, but a framing of Asian women as prostitutes and fetishized objects of exploitation," said Yuen, who authored the book "Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism."
"There's actually a sort of systemic framing of east Asian women as both objects to be desired, and objects to keep out," she added. "They're fetishized, but we shouldn't let them in because, right?, because they're going to corrupt us."
Resentment and outright hostility towards Chinese immigrants led to in multiple racially-motivated massacres during the Gold Rush Era, including the Chinese massacre of 1871, which resulted in the death of 10% of the Chinese population of Los Angeles at the time.
The sexual stereotypes associated with Asian women were reinforced through over a century of US military activities in Asia. Military men in Asian countries usually encountered Asian women in the context of romance or sex work, and those experiences quickly influenced mainstream stereotypes of Asian women, Wu said, especially in media depictions.
"Because of the US's long history of military engagement in Asia, there's a historical pattern where white Americans do not value Asian people as equal human beings," Wu said. "It's impossible to take race out of the equation."
Hate against Asian Americans has skyrocketed since the beginning of COVID-19
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders - including former President Donald Trump - have blamed the pandemic on China, because it was hit with the earliest outbreak.
Trump referred to the virus as the "Wuhan virus," "the China virus, "the China plague," and even "Kung Flu" with the racist terms quickly catching on among right-wing Americans.
"Asian-American bodies are seen as carriers of this disease that came from Asia," Kao said.
This month, an 83-year-old Korean woman was spat on, punched, and knocked unconscious in White Plains, New York. On March 9, police arrested a California woman was arrested on anti-Asian hate crime in connection with several instances where they believed she spit at, yelled racial slurs, and made racist comments to Asian-Americans on several occasions.
Yuen told Insider, that a combination of age-old anti-Asian racism, linked with recent rhetoric linking the virus to China - which the CDC and WHO advised against - have played a role in the recent attacks.
"Asia has always been seen as exotic and foreign, and I think as a result of that is Asians are never fully accepted as Americans," Yuen said. "There is a scapegoating of Asians for a variety of reasons - economic, political, cultural, medical. Whenever there is something negative associated with Asia proper, Asian Americans suffer."
The reporting center Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks hate incidents against Asians and Pacific Islanders around the US, has been closely following attacks that have happened since the start of the coronavirus-related shutdowns.
Among the reports the group created last year was one that specifically tracked incidents in Georgia. From March 20, 2020 and October 28, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received 32 reports of hate that occurred in the state, according to a report. While 80% of the reports were related to verbal harassment and shunning, 20% involved physical assaults.
Women have experienced hate at three times the rate of men in Georgia, according to the coalition, highlighting the vulnerability to violence that Asian women face.
Kao said that although many people initially linked the Atlanta shootings to the COVID-era rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, she "very quickly thought it had more to do with the objectification of Asian-American women.
Yuen told Insider that it's much too soon to rule out that the suspect in the Atlanta-area shootings wasn't motivated by racism - conscious or not - in addition to sex.
"All we know about the motivation so far is from the murderer himself. How can we use that as evidence as his motive?" she asked.
"Why is there a kind of targeting of Asian women at this specific time?" she added. "Is it just a coincidence? It's hard to imagine that its just coincidence even if it's just subconsciously."
At the press conference on Wednesday, reporters asked officials whether there was any indication that Long previously had sex at the massage parlor he is accused of attacking.
"We are not about to get into victim blaming, victim shaming," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in response.
Yuen told Insider that whether or not the women were sex workers is not important. To her, it's clear that the victims were seen as sexual objects by the shooter.
"He obviously kind of insinuated that by saying he wanted to get rid of the temptation as someone who is addicted to sex," she said. "I think the problem is, of course, that people may use the sort of moral argument to somehow belittle the crime. But at the same time, nobody, no matter their occupation, deserves to be murdered."
Wu said a combination of factors, including gender, class, wealth, and legal status, position Asian women to be "vulnerable to violence in some distinct ways."
In a Tweet, Red Canary Song, -- a nonprofit that advocates for employees of Chinese massage parlors and sex workers -- said that the conversation around the Georgia attack shouldn't be centered around the recent uptick in pandemic-related violence, but rather on the long history of policing Asian sex work, "which so many Asian Americans and those speaking up against anti-Asian hate endorse."
"This is horrific, and is indicative of the violence that massage workers face daily," the group tweeted. "We are saddened and angered to learn of this, and we are sending our love to the workers in Atlanta."
Yuen said that she hopes that investigators deciding whether to prosecute the attacks as hate crimes dig a little deeper than simply allowing long to describe his motivation to them.
"Just because he's not conscious of his racism, it shouldn't take away from the fact that it could be both sexually and racially motivated," Yuen said. "I feel like we've come further in our understanding of unconscious bias than to only prosecute a hate crime if someone is blatantly saying something racist. It discounts that that's not how racism operates always."
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