Aaron Long was visiting Atlanta’s massage parlors, or spas, for explicitly sexual reasons. Several people have attested to this fact. Atlanta has a considerable sex industry. There are many Asian sex workers there. Some of the workers are part of the large and complex networks of human trafficking enabled by globalization and progressive immigration policy. Long targeted the massage parlors because he believed they were a source of what he described as “relapses.” Long was being treated for sex addiction. He spent months at Maverick Recovery, an Atlanta halfway house that provides space for those with addictions of various sorts. His parents were tracking him with a GPS device. There’s a history here.
What Long did was horrific and wrong obviously, but there is no evidence that his actions were driven by anti-Asian bias or were acts of terrorism. Some suppose that the fact that the majority of his victims were Asian (Korean, specifically) builds racism and even terrorism into his act (his mug shot helps their narrative). This supposition is a product of a particular ideology presently prevailing in the West. We know that Long did what he did because he held beliefs that shamed him for desiring and being intimate with women. He was obsessed with sex and pornography. Long would feel remorse after acting on this obsession. He targeted the source of his shame and remorse. He blamed women for what he was taught and what he believed was moral indiscretion and perversion. He felt guilty in the eyes of God and, in a perverse attempt to remove sin, he removed the temptation to sin. He was an ambitious agent of his religion. Had law enforcement not stopped him, he would have killed again and again. He was a sick person.
I am now reading articles attempting to associate sex work with exploitation (see, e.g., The Washington Post) and racism (e.g., The Independent), depicting sex workers as victims, with Asian-American sex workers depicted as the special victims of racist exploitation (paradigms from the usual suspects Buzzfeed and CNN.) Abstract theories of the exotic. Talk of fetishes. Etcetera. While it is certainly true that some sex workers are exploited—and that immigrants and the victims of human trafficking are superexploited—exploitation under capitalism is hardy special. Rather, it is systemic (a word progressives very selectively apply). Capitalism is an exploitative mode of production. So the questions we should be asking are these: Why is sex work per se portrayed as specially exploitative? Why is the exploitation of immigrant labor assumed to be intrinsically racist? Why is Asian and Asian-American bias crime assumed and depicted in a manner than shifts attention from the actual character of the crime and identity of the perpetrators to a narrative politically-useful to suppressing criticism of China? Whose interests are advanced by the prevailing narrative and who is harmed by it?
I am troubled by the way in which women, especially racialized women (we should see people as individuals and women as universally human first), are depicted as having no agency, as if no women would engage in sex work if they were not in some way victimized by the desire of those who purchase their services. The suggestion here is that women in pornography, for example, who occupied Long’s consciousness, never enjoy their work, that they are compelled for some reason to engage in sex work against their will. (We should not forget the men in porn and other sex worker. What compels men to perform porn? Are men to be granted agency but not women? What about so-called “ladyboys,” otherwise known as kathoey or phuying, or other genders in porn? A lot of stories deploy the word “fetish” to describe these things. Is that fetishism in a Freudian sense or a Marxist one? Why is finding Asian women attractive a fetish and not a preference?)
If we are going to talk about exploitation, then why is renting one’s body for sex any different than renting one’s body for any other exchange relation? Labor is exploited when a portion of the surplus value produced by that labor is appropriated by somebody who did not perform that labor. This is no less true for somebody working the assembly line at a manufacturing firm than somebody working in the back rooms of a massage parlor. The owner of a temp agency is analogous to a pimp; he rents to clients the labor he controls and derives his income from this practice. If prostitution is wrong because it is exploitative, then most work in a capitalist economy is wrong for the same reason. If voluntarily selling one’s labor, i.e., renting one’s body to another person is not exploitative, then how is voluntary sex work exploitative?
Why is prostitution illegal while pornography is legal? Pornography is prostitution that enjoys a First Amendment pass. Whether in front of a camera or not, a woman or a man is paid for having sex either way. Why isn’t porn merely photographic evidence of a crime? Because it’s acting? So what is prostitution? According to Statista four percent of websites are porn and 13 percent and 20 percent of Internet searches and mobile searches are for porn respectively. Assuming the Marxist view of things, is sex work always exploitative? What about independent contractors? Cooperatives? What if I decide to receive money for sex on my own? What if I form a cooperative with other men and women to sell sex for money and distribute the proceeds among us on the basis of who has need?
Why is prostitution depicted as wrong and immoral but other forms of work consider dignified and virtuous really? The characterization of sex work as immoral apart from its presence under capitalism and in human trafficking is not because it is intrinsically exploitative but because of religious notions of women that still haunt modern secular society. We need to have this conversation. Or, more accurately, people need to get over their sexual hang ups. Puritanical values inherited from our Christian past and sustained by our Christian present inform the loathing of women and sex. It’s not sex that makes a person feel guilty. Sex is a natural pleasure of our animality. Thank evolution for that. Animals like to fuck. It’s man-made religious strictures that make a person feel guilty for having sex. It’s what makes a young boy feel shame for masturbating or for having sex with other boys in route to discovering his sexuality. It’s likely why women have trouble achieving orgasm. Etcetera. Puritanism denies men and women their animality and their experiences. That is what is perverse in all this.
These are the same religious notions that moved Aaron Long to commit these heinous acts. A social construction prepared the crime and mental illness propelled it. To be sure, there are many people with possessed by the same religious notions. It moves them to decry pornography and criminalize prostitution. Sex workers are rounded up and their clients publicly shamed. Many of the people advocating oppressive social control over sex are unaware of how deeply such religious ideas have penetrated their moral and political attitudes and actions. It’s how the right and left can come together to develop law and policy in a desire to dictate human behavior. Yet, of course, they do not commit homicide. They ruin lives in other ways.
However, these beliefs combined with certain psychiatric maladies may result in the horror of Atlanta. One of the hallmarks of paranoid schizophrenia is hyper-religiosity and an obsession with sexual morality and heightened sexual self-perception. Given Long’s age and mental health history and especially the presence of extraordinary parental surveillance, it is shaping up as a fairly typical story of paranoid schizophrenia. Long’s parents apparently knew exactly what was happening. They gave the police the GPS info they had. They were tracking him. Long, on his way to Florida to deal with the porn industry, was delusional. (Most schizophrenics are not violent. At the same time, aggression and impulsivity is common and, combined with delusions and paranoia, make this disorder potentially dangerous.) Maybe it is not such a good idea to fill the heads of young men with notions that sex is sinful?
While establishment and progressive voices make Atlanta about race to serve their political ends of smearing Trump and the populist critics of China—tying Long’s crimes to COVID-19 and the January 6 “insurrection”—in a move that hides the actual dynamic that lies behind anti-Asian bias crimes (see “The Rise in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes. Trump-inspired? Not Quite”), other things are also being hidden: the misogyny and objectification of women, that is the treatment of women as things and not as human agents, as human beings incapable of deciding for themselves how they will use their bodies, as well as progressive immigration policy that enables transnational human trafficking.