The Atlanta Spa Shootings Are Fueling Far-Right Attacks on Porn and Sex Work

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In the wake of the Atlanta massage parlor shootings last week, in which eight people were murdered, there was much anguish and sober-minded discussion on social media placing the attack in the context of increasing rates of anti-Asian violence, the exploitation of Asian massage workers, and the historical fetishization of Asian women in general, who comprised a majority of the victims. This discussion was complicated by the fact that officials later revealed the shooter, 21-year-old Robert Long, was an evangelical Christian who reportedly claimed he targeted massage parlor workers because he blamed them for his self-professed “sexual addiction,” sparking further discussion about the deep roots of sexual shame and anti-sex work stigma, or whorephobia.

A few things are important to note here: As Rolling Stone reported last week, sex addiction is an extremely controversial and dubious diagnosis, and the intersection of anti-Asian sentiment and whorephobia are impossible to extricate from each other in this specific case. Further, although the establishments he targeted were reviewed on the erotic services database Rubmaps, not everyone employed at such places provides sexual services, and authorities have refused to comment on whether Long’s victims engaged in sex work. But as the Asian sex worker advocacy group Red Canary Song noted in a statement, their actual job was beside the point: “Whether or not they were actually sex workers or self-identified under that label, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants.”

But as the shootings sparked a difficult and necessary conversation about the intersection of race, misogyny, and whorephobia, the far-right rushed in to blame an entirely different culprit altogether: porn. “So it wasn’t ‘white supremacist neo-nazi Trump supporters’ who were responsible for the spa shootings, but porn and sex peddlers who have poisoned our society,” someone wrote on the 4chan forum /pol/ immediately following the shooting.

Reports that Long had also intended to target the Florida porn industry, and that he had been in rehab for porn addiction, added fuel to the fire. Anti-porn activist Laila Mickelwait, who spearheaded a 2020 campaign to shut down Pornhub, pounced on the opportunity to redirect the discussion to her own agenda, tweeting: “Pornhub shills seem almost gleeful today that a hate filled man tragically killed women in a massage parlor citing the sex industry. They found a chance to point to another criminal’s heinous violence to distract from Pornhub’s own horrific crimes. Disgusting & degenerate tactics.” 

In isolation, such comments could have easily been dismissed as the ravings of online trolls. But in the context of a far-right war on pornography that has been steadily mounting, the supposed connections between porn, exploitation, and violence are all too familiar. Anti-porn discourse has been “dramatically on the rise,” says Dr. David Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction“My sense is that the killings last week and the dialogue around sex addiction just increased the degree to which people are talking about it….my sense, really, is that we’re entering a new stage in the war on sex.”

Anti-porn discourse has always been prevalent among members of the far-right, who have long equated the adult industry with Jews attempting to sap Christian men of their masculinity; adherents of other conspiracy theories like QAnon have also long alleged the adult industry is a bastion of child trafficking and abuse. But such beliefs have gradually shifted from the fringe toward the mainstream, with real-world consequences.

As examples, Ley cites the evangelical organization National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE)’s lawsuit against the parent company for the porn site XVideos, alleging child pornography and human trafficking violations; NCOSE also launched a campaign to dismantle Pornhub last year, gaining widespread media attention from none other than the New York Times and prompting Visa and Mastercard to sever their relationships with the website. A recent wave of anti-porn laws, such as a Utah bill requiring all phones and tablets to install anti-porn filters, also recently passed the state legislature and is pending approval from the governor. “It is very easy to try to blame every modern sexual dilemma on pornography,” says Ley. “It’s a hell of a good scapegoat. People get distracted from dealing with real, complex, frustrating social issues.”

There’s also a long history of members of the religious right and anti-porn groups linking porn addiction to violent crime, most notably Ted Bundy, who blamed his killing spree on porn addiction in conversations with the anti-porn crusader James Dobson. This is despite the fact that researchers like Ley believe that sex and porn addiction have no underlying physiological basis, and that such diagnoses are more often linked to sexual shame and repression. Indeed, some research indicates that religiosity is strongly linked to whether one feels they have a sex addiction, a description that appears to apply well to Long, a devout member of the notoriously anti-porn Baptist church who reportedly went to rehab to seek treatment for porn addiction and his reliance on massage workers.

The conflation of the sex industry with nonconsensual sex trafficking has also permeated mainstream coverage of sex work or sex work-adjacent issues. Indeed, in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, both the Washington Post and the New York Times published stories linking the massage parlors Long targeted to sex trafficking, even though Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement that as far as officials knew, they were “legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, not on the radar of A.P.D.”

In addition to further stigmatizing massage workers and leading to the increased policing of such communities, such stories have the effect of further fueling anti-sex work discourse and endangering sex workers, says independent adult content creator Saya Song, who uses they/them pronouns. “People think it’s OK to just throw terms like ‘trafficking’ around and not realize the negative impact it has on the whole industry,” they say. “People push anti-sex work rhetoric under the guise of saving people.”

Within the context of a larger war on sex and sex work, sex workers and sex worker advocates are concerned that the attack could yield a continuation of the cycle of surveillance, increased policing, and violence. “At the end of the day, getting rid of sex work isn’t going to help anything,” says Song. “The problem is society and what these men are being taught.”