color photograph of an outdoor protest. in the foreground, an asian femme person wearing a dusty pink hoodie and a medical mask holds up a picket sign that reads "cops can't protect us #StopAsianHate"
Members and supporters of the Asian-American community attend a "rally against hate" at Columbus Park in New York City on March 21, 2021. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, 38-year-old massage worker and Chinese migrant Yang Song died during a police raid at a massage parlor in New York City. Four years later, a man killed eight people during a shooting spree at three massage parlors and spas in Atlanta. Six of them were Asian women.

These attacks on Asian massage workers have captured national attention, but progress toward protecting them has yet to take shape. 

In New York, which employs one of the highest numbers of massage therapists in the country, licensing laws have kept workers especially susceptible to police and public harassment. These tensions are only heightened by the conflation of consensual sex work and sex trafficking—but they are not the same. 

Unlicensed massage work is outlawed in New York City, but advocates are now pushing for the reintroduction of a decriminalization bill that would provide safer and more equitable working conditions.

The legalities

New York enacted stricter education laws in the 1970s, categorizing unlicensed massage work or aiding or abetting unlicensed massage work as a class “E” felony, punishable by up to four years in prison, and the unauthorized use of the professional title as a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. But successfully obtaining a massage license can be difficult.

According to the New York State Education Department Office of Professions, to become a masseur, a person must show proof to work in the U.S., prove English proficiency, and complete a minimum of 1,000 hours of education, which can cost up to $15,000 in massage school fees and tuition costs.

The hurdles to licensing are stacked especially high for Asian migrant women facing financial, criminalization, and deportation risks. Some workers have self-reported that, due to pressures to get licensed, they were “frauded by scam massage license agencies that have popped up to capitalize on these licensure regulations.”

“This charge is legally more damaging than a prostitution charge,” said Yin Q, a sex work activist and director of the documentary “Fly in Power,” which centers Asian massage workers. “In the past five years, while arrests for prostitution have decreased following nationwide interest in decriminalizing sex work, the arrests of Asian massage workers for unlicensed massage have increased.

Q added that the surge in policing Asian massage parlors could be linked to law enforcement targeting these businesses as “low hanging fruit” to meet ticket and arrest quotas. 

Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, says these arrests have left workers trapped in “cycles of criminalization and systemic poverty.” 

Trujillo explained in a 2022 press statement that massage remains “one of the only unlicensed professions where its workers and associates are frequently subject to arrest and police violence, and over 90% of those arrested are Asian women and non-binary people.”

Advocates urge that these arrests stem from misdirected efforts from anti-trafficking organizations and can be deadly.

“These targeted attacks are inextricably linked to the misplaced advocacy of the anti-trafficking movement, which often claims it is saving Asian massage workers, when it is, in actuality, subjecting them to varied forms of state and state-sanctioned-if-privatized violence,” noted a 2022 report co-authored by Red Canary Song, Massage Parlor Outreach Project, and Butterfly, in collaboration with Bowen Public Affairs and the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice Human Trafficking Research Cluster. 

The report pointed to firsthand accounts shared with Red Canary Song outreach members that “during raids, workers and survivors are almost always handcuffed, and their money and other assets are seized. Massage workers complain that officers fondle them, solicit sexual favors before arrest, and in some instances will not even let them dress before arresting them.”

Cynthia, an undocumented massage worker in New York City whose name has been changed to protect their identity, echoed those fears.

“Very few Korean massage and sex workers in New York hold massage licenses because only those with citizenship or green card are eligible for the New York state license,” Cynthia said. “I never leave New York because I’m scared of encountering police in different states with more strict laws.”

Does decriminalizing sex work really reduce harm?

A growing number of policy and public health experts agree that decriminalizing sex work is critical to keeping sex workers safe. 

A 2021 study by the American Civil Liberties Union suggested that decriminalizing or legalizing sex work can lead to safer working conditions, reduce violence perpetrated by clients and police, and shift sex workers’ inclinations to report violent crimes when they happen. 

The study also pointed to the negative health and financial impacts of criminalization. For instance, limiting sex workers’ negotiation abilities on issues like asking clients to use condoms may increase the risk of HIV and STI transmission and lead to lower income stability. 

Q adds that decriminalization would only reinforce critical labor rights and counteract the overwhelming stigma surrounding the industry. 

“It’s near impossible to speak up against bad operatives when you are under threat of incarceration yourself,” Q said.

Taking action

In February 2022, New York State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, together with advocates and legal aid organizations, first introduced the Massage License Decriminalization Act, which would remove criminal penalties for individuals with unlicensed massage charges and prevent police from seizing the property of workers. Next City reported that massage therapy remains “the only profession singled out” by local authorities among the 36 licensed professions. 

Advocates and supportive city officials argued that the act would add protection for working-class and vulnerable immigrant New Yorkers, allowing them to participate safely in the economy without the fear of scrutiny by law enforcement. 

The bill was reintroduced as Assembly Bill 1112 in January and referred to the Committee on Higher Education. It is still waiting to advance to the floor.

“This is where advocacy comes in,” Assemblymember González-Rojas said. “The goal now is to really build co-sponsors and get folks who are on the education committee to support it.”

González-Rojas represents the city’s 34th District encompassing Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside, where 26% of its population identifies as Asian.

“I’m just really looking to level the playing field and ensure that this community is not disproportionately targeted,” González-Rojas said.

Organizers from the grassroots collective Red Canary Song and other artists are also bringing these concerns to the big screen with the release of a new documentary film called “Fly in Power,” which premiered March 9. The film follows Charlotte, a Korean massage worker and organizer with Red Canary Song, providing an intimate glimpse into her work. 

Q urges that support can’t stop once the film is over.

“Get this film to all the white celebrities who spout anti-trafficking rhetoric without knowing the harms they are causing BIPOC, migrant, working-class women and queer folk,” they said. “Get massages, and tip the service provider well.”

Kimberly Izar is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist, storyteller, and graduate student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. You can find her on Twitter @kimizar1.