Statement on Massage Parlor Raids

WBUR has been running a series on massage parlors in the Boston area. We were recently contacted for comment in this five part series. As of writing, parts one, two, and three have been published, but the perspectives in the stories are still limited. We’ve sent this to WBUR, but we’d like to offer it to the public, unedited.

SWOP-Boston believes that all people working in the sex industry–including those working in massage parlors–should be accorded the same dignity, respect, human rights, and recourse to the justice system as other individuals in the US, regardless of their immigration status. These basic rights are often denied the sex worker population, particularly by those usually carrying out the raids—the Boston Police Department, Homeland Security, and ICE—who have a long history of intolerance and abuse towards the sex worker population.

Recently, in New York, Yang Song fell to her death out of her window during a raid on a massage parlor. In light of this tragedy and many others, we must be very careful how we conduct raids on businesses suspected of sex trafficking. While human trafficking is a real and tragic phenomenon, additionally problematic are the assumptions upon which the mass spate of massage parlor busts are based and the manner in which they are conducted. There are allegations that Yang Song had been raided before and was sexually abused by a police officer at that time, causing her to make the decision to risk death rather than another encounter with the police.

When considering these raids, we cannot deny the fact that the majority of them involve people of Asian descent. We must acknowledge institutionalized bias, particularly pertaining to Asians and Asian-Americans in the sex industry. In these raids, we see clearly at play an assumption that Asians as a race are broadly fetishized; also, that owners of massage parlors exploit their employees; additionally, that many of the employees of the massage parlors work against their will. We encourage the agencies involved to interrogate these assumptions so that they can better serve their communities. 

SWOP-Boston holds firmly that sex workers deserve and should be accorded the same rights under the law as those of any other person: namely, the right to work under conditions of their own choosing. We do not see the existence of non-coerced sex workers (who make up the majority of the sex worker population, as we see among our members and contacts in the greater Boston community) acknowledged by law enforcement.

We are troubled by the perpetuation of a narrative of victimization among all sex workers with whom law enforcement comes into contact. Above all, we are disturbed by the myriad of harms that sex workers—whether they be citizen or immigrant, coerced or voluntary—frequently experience at the hands of law enforcement officers. It is clear that these officers are not being trained in how to interact with traumatized individuals and are not familiar with the diversity of the sex worker population and their unique needs. These raids may rescue some individuals from a dreadful reality, but, in our experience, the social services needed to aid this often-traumatized population are simply not in place, and these individuals are not given access to the services they need; there are often no provisions made under the auspices of these raids to help these previously employed individuals find work in other sectors, forcing them into an economic limbo that can be exceedingly dangerous.

The risk of traumatization, injury, or even death, is ever present and likely in the course of raids on massage parlors. We encourage law enforcement to face the human cost of their actions. While maintaining the order of law is necessary, the system must provide for the human beings whose lives they disrupt in the course of their actions, regardless of their intent.

SWOP-Boston and the Massachusetts Sex Worker Ally Network stand ready to assist and educate the public and service providers about the unique needs of the sex worker population.