Sex Work Is Care Work

sex-work-is-care-work

The day of the Atlanta massage parlor shootings, I had an appointment to microblade my eyebrows. That morning, I took the 10 East to Alhambra; the permanent makeup studio was a sun-filled room on the second floor of a nondescript office building on the same block as an 85C Bakery and a 1950s-style diner with a FINALLY OPEN banner over the awning. For two and a half hours, a Chinese American woman named Judy touched my face—she drew on me with a brown wax pencil, held a length of black thread to my forehead, measured each of my brows with a bendy plastic ruler, rubbed numbing agent into my skin, and at last, she tattooed me—while I lay on the padded table with a view of the cerulean sky through the window.

By the time I walked back downstairs, a twenty-one-year-old white man had shot his first four victims at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia. Two were Asian women workers; two were clients. I sat in my parked car in California, unaware in those minutes as to how the unfolding tragedy would soon become a ruthless flashpoint on the anti-Asian animus that has attended the COVID-19 pandemic (news out of Georgia wouldn’t hit the internet for another couple hours). I was a little dazed from my microblade session. Not because it hurt. The opposite: I hadn’t been touched by another person, in months.

Here and there in the last year, I’ve high-fived friends, bumped elbows as a new form of greeting and goodbye. I’ve cautiously hugged my mother. The last time I recall someone touching me for longer than five seconds happened in November, when the infection rate in LA County declined (the numbers surged again, after Thanksgiving). In that small window, I’d booked an appointment with Misun, the woman who’s been cutting my hair at the Kim Sun Young salon in Koreatown for years. Double-masked and face-shield clamped on, she shaped my scraggly bob into graduated layers. I paid Misun for her aesthetic expertise, for her attention, and care. I paid her to put her hands in my hair, to touch me. And because we are in a global pandemic, I paid her for the risk she took to do all of the above. She was the last person to touch me, prolonged and sustained, before Judy.

News of the Atlanta shootings broke Tuesday night, not long after I had, per Judy’s directions for aftercare, cleaned my wounded skin and applied antibacterial gel. Following the spree at Young’s, the shooter headed south for Atlanta. He killed four more women there, all Asian, at two different spa locations. After his arrest, he confessed to the murders but denied any racist, anti-Asian bias. He blamed “sex addiction” for the violent overtures, the public executions a means to exercise power over his compulsion.

Both Misun, my stylist, and Judy, the microblade artist, are care workers. Their bodies—their hands—are necessary to their labor. Massage parlors like the ones targeted by the white gunman exist in a similar realm of personal care, like hair salons and permanent makeup studios. These are all places where clients can pay for the intimacy of touch, the pleasure that touch affords. 

The difference, of course, is that what we call sex work—a kind of care work that is criminalized and socially opprobrious—happens here. And because it is labor that carries the threat of penalization, the burden of stigma and illegitimacy, the women who do this work become simultaneously more vulnerable while their essential contributions to society remain invisible, devalued. One substantiation of Asian American melancholy lives in this intersection. This paradigmatic conundrum might be applied, more broadly, to the assailing Asian Americans have experienced in the last year, from verbal assaults and racist epithets to grotesque, physical altercations. 

Journalists are just beginning to tell their stories: the six Asian American women who died this week. Xiaojie (“Emily”) Tan, 49. Daoyou Feng, 44. Hyun Jung Grant, 51. Suncha Kim, 69. Soon Chung Park, 74. Yong Ae Yue, 63. These women were daughters, sisters, and mothers. They were care workers, made victims, along with Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, and Paul Andre Michels, 54, customers at the scene.

The growing movement to eradicate racism, to create an anti-racist America, may yet exalt these women into martyrs to the cause. But for now, for this moment, I want to love them. I want the families and friends who survive them to know these women were valuable. For all the care they gave, all the times they administered or yielded touch. I want to touch back.

As I lay there on the padded table, Judy told me about her two young children. The older one is a four-year-old girl. Since her daughter has learned to speak words, Judy has repeatedly drilled her with this exchange: “What’s the most important thing to know in this whole world?”

“I love myself,” her daughter replies. “I love myself!”

“I might be teaching her to be selfish,” Judy said to me, with a laugh.

The story made my eyes tear up, and Judy dabbed them away with tissue. Then she continued making tiny, delicate cuts into my skin. She said she wants her daughter to grow up with a strong sense of self-esteem—to know that she is valuable, no matter what.

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