The Atlanta Spa Murders Were Motivated by Sex, Not Race

On March 16, a man entered three Atlanta-area “spas” and killed eight people, seven of them women, six of them Asian women. A massacre. 

I knew right away that these establishments were Asian massage parlors. I’ve researched the sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls for 30 years. The exteriors of the buildings, the signs, and the lights show all the trappings of places that sell sexual massages and sex acts. Two of the three spas, the Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa, advertise they are open 24 hours a day. These are not the kind of places a woman goes for a manicure. 

The killer admits to “visiting spas”—a euphemism for buying sex, an illegal act—in the past, and he wanted to punish the women. The killer told police that he had a “sex addiction.” Instead of getting help to end his compulsive behavior, he killed the victims of his sexual obsession. He killed them because they were women, not because they were Asian. According to the Cherokee County Sheriff,  the killer said his murders were “not racially motivated.” 

In the research and activism world, we call these men “sex buyers.” There are several research studies that have found that sex buyers are more violent and misogynistic than men who don’t buy sex. Andrea Heinz, who previously worked in massage parlors, knows sex buyers very well. She often hears people argue that lonely guys who can’t forge healthy sexual relationships with women need places like the spas. She says people with this view are ignoring the callous, often cruel, behavior of sex buyers. 

According to the Polaris Project, more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operate in the United States. Many of the women are victims of human trafficking from China and South Korea who are under financial pressure, meaning they owe large debts in their home countries. Six of the murdered women in Atlanta appear to have been Korean. 

Most illicit massage businesses are part of Asian criminal networks. Police Chief Magazine in November ran an article about combatting human trafficking. They showed that many of the illicit massage businesses are connected to just a few addresses. One of the well-known hubs is in Flushing, New York. 

I noted the news coverage of the murders with interest. There was a studied effort to ignore that the “spas” were likely illegal sex industry operations. Instead, the focus was on the race of the victims, although two of the victims were non-Asian. Presumably, that means they were white. Early Wednesday morning, I heard one local Atlanta TV newswoman say they weren’t sure why the Asian women were at the spas. 

With the shift to progressive politics, we have stopped knowing what it is we used to know. Just a few years ago, all news media knew about and ran stories on sex trafficking. In the new “woke” analysis of the world, the focus is on race exclusively. Even President Biden expressed his concern about Asian victims of the spa killings because “brutality against Asian Americans . . . it’s very, very troubling.”

I agree. I also think brutality against women is “troubling.” So far, I’ve heard no one talk about violence against women, sexual exploitation, illicit massage businesses, or Asian criminal networks. I think the sexual exploitation of women in those 9,000 “spas” across the United States is “troubling.” 

If the murders were racially motivated, they would be hate crimes. If they were motivated by sex, however, they would not be hate crimes, because violence against women has never been taken seriously enough to be labeled a hate crime. And the seventh woman who was killed; who was she? In the “woke” world that only sees race, she must have been white. Same with the murdered man. 

The following evening, the Washington Post was still persisting in saying that “the killings could be the latest in a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans.” This narrative is being pushed onto these crimes, while journalists ignore the central fact that a violent sex buyer killed multiple women, who used to be called “prostitutes,” because he hated them. This is an old, well-known story, but one that is now being ignored. 

The new progressive “woke” movement has new priorities. For Asian women victims being sexually exploited by criminal networks, a focus on race has replaced the criminal sexual exploitation of women. Instead of seeing the obvious—that the women were in sex-industry “spas”—the press is casting these murders as white racial hate crimes against Asians. 

For years, women of color have complained because violence against them was ignored in favor of stories about white women. Now, there is a focus on race, but the sexual nature of the crime is ignored. 

I watch in amazement as the new theme replaces the old. Almost simultaneously, the media has changed the narrative. Crimes against women are ignored or rewritten as hate crimes if they involve women of color. To the Left, a racially based hate crime is more important than the murder of seven women.


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About Donna M. Hughes

Donna M. Hughes is professor and Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island.

Photo: Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images