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March 25, 2021
What A Day
Standing Up For Sex Workers

In This Episode

  • In light of the Georgia shooter’s claim that his attack was intended to “eliminate” “temptations,” activists have talked about the killings in the context of violence targeted at Asian migrant sex workers, an often dehumanized and stigmatized community of AAPI women. We spoke with Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and massage parlor workers called Red Canary Song. She told us about police abolition, the harmful repercussions of criminalizing sex work, and more.
  • And in headlines: an elderly Chinese woman who was the victim of a recent racist attack in San Francisco will donate nearly a million dollars to fight anti-AAPI racism, a cargo ship gets stuck sideways in the Suez Canal, and Montana’s governor gets in trouble for shooting a wolf.


For a closed-captioned version of this episode, click here.
For a transcript of this episode, please email and include the name of the podcast.





Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, March 25th. I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the only podcast that’s allowed in the quiet car of trains.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, we worked out a deal with trains, so don’t even worry about the details.


Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, we talked to an organizer about the shootings in Georgia and a part of the story that deserves more attention, then some headlines.


Akilah Hughes: So it’s been just over a week since a gunman killed eight people at three spas in the metro Atlanta area, and three days since another gunman killed 10 people in Boulder, Colorado. Both of these horrific mass shootings have renewed the American tradition of talking about the gun violence epidemic that we have here, and hoping once again that there’s any action at all. And while mass shootings get headlines, gun violence overall didn’t go away with the pandemic. Data from the Gun Violence Archive shows that gun deaths and injuries actually increased last year, making 2020 the deadliest gun violence year in decades. We’ll be covering that issue more in the coming days. But today, we wanted to take a moment to return to the victims in Georgia, six of whom were women of Asian descent, targeted at massage parlors in spas.


Gideon Resnick: We don’t know much more about the details of these individuals’ work, but at least one location had reportedly been the subject of prostitution stings by the Atlanta Police Department, according to The Washington Post. The shooter allegedly told law enforcement that he needed to, quote “eliminate” quote “temptations” and so advocates have talked about the shootings in the context of violence targeted at an often dehumanized and stigmatized community of AAPI women. Their point being, he viewed their lives in that manner, no matter what their jobs actually were. To better understand this and how to dismantle it, we spoke to Yves Tong Nguyen of New York City’s Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and massage parlor workers. They provide mutual aid, advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, and have been speaking out about the shootings in Georgia last week. Here’s our conversation:


Gideon Resnick: Yves, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.


Yves Tong Nguyen: Thank you for having me.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, we’re really privileged to talk to you. So, while we don’t really know if the victims in the shootings participated in sex work themselves, the shooter targeted them at spas and massage parlors where they worked, and reportedly talked about eliminating temptation. So can you explain the intersection between massage parlors and sex work, and how you’re thinking about that and responding to the event?


Yves Tong Nguyen: Sure. So partially, we have to acknowledge that some people who work in massage businesses do engage in sex work. Some of these businesses do offer like, sex trade services and so that is an acknowledgment that we have to make. But also that even if they didn’t engage in sex work and they never sold sex, even if these businesses never advertised these services, they are linked to sex work and are harmed by the expansive harms of the criminalization of sex work. And we keep saying this, but even if they didn’t engage in sex work, the racialized and gendered assumptions that are made about these women, and about where they work, and the fact that they’re migrant Asian women, made the killer think that they were.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, absolutely.


Gideon Resnick: And in response, I guess, in the last week or so and even before that, police departments across the country, in New York and other cities, have been vowing to increase their presence in AAPI communities as a response to the shooting and the rise in hate crimes overall. How do you feel about that response broadly.


Yves Tong Nguyen: Awful. So the police are not a solution at all, in fact, are very much so a part of the problem. Police are themselves a lot of violence, and we think that the criminalization is violence itself and a lot of problems stem from this criminalization, which is of course linked to the police. Police are often people who exploit these massage workers, who often exploit sex workers, especially if they’re vulnerable. If they’re undocumented migrant women who work in these places, they are often exploited. They are asked to comply with the police and if they don’t, then they suffer even greater punishment at the hands of the police. They have been assaulted by the police. We don’t think that they’re is solution at all. And also as a part of talking about it, right, our goal is for the decriminalization of sex work, and that’s not going to happen as long as the police exist.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Akilah Hughes: Mm hmm. Obviously, with all of the violence that’s happened, I think it’s a really important time to reiterate what some of the demands that people who work in massage parlors and sex workers have been, you know, advocating for. So can you speak a little bit to that?


Yves Tong Nguyen: Yeah. So obviously there’s diversity throughout the community, like, every sex worker is different and people in different areas of sex work are different. But also specifically, we’re talking about migrant massage workers, the massage workers that we work with here in Flushing specifically just really want basic things, right? Basic survival needs we feel, as to have respect for their work, to be protected in their work, to feel safe that they can do their work here without facing violence. And also for the community to stand up for them because it’s not just violence from outside people, it’s not just violence from the police, it’s also the community and also partially right—some of those police calls come straight from the community, come straight from their neighbors. And so we want to move people so that people in the community would not do that, and that they would care for each other, right?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I mean, I think the least people can do is not call the police on something that has nothing to do with them, and is also not violent or bad or shameful in any way. It’s like: stop calling the police on people. How hard is it?


Yves Tong Nguyen: I mean, it is difficult in like, the grand scheme of things because partially, there’s so much history of having sex workers be viewed as undesirable—which is really how a lot of people in the community and otherwise, view a lot of the Asian migrant women who work in massage businesses, and is also the narrative that is constantly pushed. Right? Which makes it a much larger issue that we could talk about for days. But, you know, we see calls coming from the community to clean up the streets. We see landlords in the community trying to close down massage businesses because they want to develop new buildings. Right? And this also comes straight from people in the community—I really want to highlight that, it’s like partially in that. Because policing is community directed. Right? People in the community make the call. If they didn’t want it, it wouldn’t necessarily happen. Right?  And we employ people. And this is what we’re talking about when we see for all of these calls for increased policing—that comes directly from the community.


Akilah Hughes: That’s right.


Gideon Resnick: Mm hmm.


Akilah Hughes: So our listeners are very active. They want to be helpful. So what are some really concrete ways that our listeners can help protect or stop the stigma or even, you know, provide for those vulnerable people who are being racially or sexually abused?


Yves Tong Nguyen: Well, first, I think that, when I say this, I know that a lot of people think that it’s intangible, that it’s hard. Right? But I think that people really have to reckon with some of the racialized and gendered assumptions that they make about Asian women in particular in this case. Right? They really have to reckon with their own internalized whoreophobia and how they think about sex workers. Because a lot of what we’ve been doing recently is pushing back against the way that people talk about this, because, no, we don’t know that the women in Georgia who were killed were sex workers, but we do know that they are absolutely harmed by the criminalization of sex work, regardless of whether they engaged in it. And the people who would tell us to not bring that up, or that we’re further stigmatizing them, need to consider how they view sex workers. Because a lot of the assumptions, right, that people make, they say: oh, we don’t want to victim-blame or we don’t want to say this, because if we say that there are sex workers, the underlying assumption is that they deserved it. Which sex workers don’t deserve violence more than anybody else does and they didn’t ask for it either. Right? They are also deserving of not being harassed and not being subject to violence in their workplace. And so I really want people to reckon with all of that, and also to be able to hold all of the nuance that this requires. Right? You can’t just talk about it as if they were just Asian and you can’t just talk about as if they were just women. And also they weren’t just Asian women. They were migrant Asian women who worked in a business that was highly related to the sex trades. Right? And this all plays into it. So if you’re not doing that work, if you’re like a middle-class, upper middle-class Asian person who works an office job or whatever, right, you cannot fully relate to the experience of these women or other massage workers and you need to also hold that. And then other tangible things, right, is that massage workers, the very women that we are talking about, other women who are very similar, also exist in your community. There are massage workers, there are migrant Asian women, there are Asian sex workers, all over the country, in every country, actually, right?  In every community, in every city. And people often look away or don’t acknowledge it. And I think that you need to, like, show up and take care of people. You need to develop relationships with people and actually care about them. And it’s not enough to do it just now. It’s not enough to be a savior and say: oh, I’m going to do this thing right now. Or even like: I’m going to give them a lot of money right now. You need to show up consistently, be a community and actually support people. And that’s a really tangible thing that I think people kind of think is very hard. And I have also said this right: if this moment moves you, then you should study, then you should plug in to your local community, find an organization to work with—whether that’s an abolitionist organization, whether that’s an Asian sex worker organization, whether that’s a sex worker-led organization, find someone, plug in. And if it doesn’t exist, then you should create it.


Gideon Resnick: Mm hmm. And just sort of round this out here, this has been a really terrible week after a really scary year of violence on the rise, targeting Asian-Americans throughout the country. You are on the front lines advocating for change here. How are you feeling, and what is helping you stay in this fight, and what would you say to other organizers right now?


Yves Tong Nguyen: Well, thank you for asking. I mean, I am very tired, and angry, and I’ve said this in other interviews, it’s partially very sad and upsetting that violence towards Asian women necessitates that other Asian women and fems have to do more labor. And that’s upsetting. And I also am partially kind of afraid for what this moment might mean, because of the hyper visibility, it can positively and negatively affect the work. But in this moment, I think that for other organizers who are already doing the work, right, I would hope that everybody is finding time to hold themselves, to hold others in their community, to grieve—whether or not I’m doing that right? I think that people need to find the time to do that, as it’s an active process, an important process to us doing this work.  And to try and keep it together because this work is going to go on for a long time. I know that it seems like we have to do all the work right now, and it seems really important to say all of these things, to take all of the media requests, and to answer all of these calls, but we are going to be doing this work far past this moment. And if you are always trying to get to the roots of violence, the work will be relevant regardless.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, wow that’s a word.


Gideon Resnick: That’s a really great way to help frame the way that our listeners can think about everything. Well Yves, thank you so much again for taking the time to talk to us.


Yves Tong Nguyen: Yeah. Thank you so much.


Gideon Resnick: That was Yves Tong Nguyen, an organizer with Red Canary Song. We’ve put a link on our show notes to read more about them and their work.


Akilah Hughes: It’s Thursday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we’re talking about work from home technologies. Slack rolled out a new feature called Slack Connect yesterday, which makes it possible for Slack users at different companies to communicate. People quickly pointed out, though, that this feature could be used for harassment. Slack users can now receive hateful messages from anyone else on Slack, and there’d be basically no way to filter those messages out. Slack quickly realized they messed up, and updated the feature to make it so you couldn’t message someone unless they accepted your request. So, Giddy, my question for you, do you want open Slack?


Gideon Resnick: No, of course not. Why would I want more Slack? With people that I—Slack is a workplace device.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: And if we need to, like, add to communication—we don’t need to add more communications to like work from home setups. We’re already communicating a lot. And the barriers are—


Akilah Hughes: Too much.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, yeah. The barriers are—what I’m saying is: I want no communications. No, the barriers are barriers are thin as, as they are. So, no, I wouldn’t want that. And if there was somebody that you were communicating with in a separate context, they’re either your friends so you can text them, or they are, you know, some other sort of professional acquaintance or something that you could maybe send an email to. This didn’t really need to exist. But same question for you Akilah, how are you feeling about this?


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. I think it sucks, objectively, like everything you said, but specifically the fact that, like, this is what I use for work, and I don’t need to hear from people I don’t work with on Slack. Like that’s why I have Slack. [laughs] Like, it’s an easier way to communicate with them that’s like instant versus email. And so I think that, you know, I wasn’t in the pitch meeting because I probably would have been like: bad idea, everyone. [laughs] If we’d gotten past that point, I would have made the point that, like, we already have email, we already have to text.


Gideon Resnick: We do.


Akilah Hughes: Like, if somebody doesn’t know me and they want to get in touch with me, they usually just like @ me on Twitter or they like DM me, if I ever, you know, check the requests on Instagram.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah.


Akilah Hughes: Like, that to me works. I’m not out here in the streets like: oh man, I know there’s someone out there who wants to get to me and I just wish it was so much easier. Like, no. I don’t want that. Yeah, and I also just like, I don’t know why I would be talking to people from—like wouldn’t I just make a Slack with the people that I want to talk to from other places? Like you can also have a not professional Slack if you’re really that desperate to communicate with people from other companies. I don’t know.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, look, if you need to hear that knock brush sound, you can make it your ringtone. Like that’s, that’s also an option that is available to you.


Akilah Hughes: I don’t see me using it. [laughs] But just like that, we’ve checked our temps. Stay safe. Don’t let people get in touch with you, if you don’t want them, do. All right. That’s the last thing we have and I think that you should on hold on to it. But stay safe, and we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: An elderly Chinese woman who was the victim of a racist attack in San Francisco says that she will donate nearly one million dollars people sent her online to charity. 76-year old Ziao Shen Xie was brutally punched in the face by a white man last week. During the attack, she fought back with a wooden board and the man was later arrested. Video of the man being taken away on a stretcher while she was left bloodied and holding an ice pack over her head went viral. Her family launched her GoFundMe to cover medical expenses, but it went way over its $50,000 goal. Xie’s family says the extra money will go back to the Asian-American community with the goal of fighting anti-AAPI racism.


Akilah Hughes: Wow, a real hero. The Senate held a hearing yesterday on H.R.1 or the For the People Act, which aims to make voting more accessible, end gerrymandering, and enact new campaign finance laws. The Democrat-backed bill passed along party lines in the House earlier this month. Yesterday, senators heard from voting experts and anti-corruption advocates about how H.R.1 is necessary to fight efforts to limit voting rights across the country. Any decent person would agree that allowing more people to vote is a good thing. But not a single Republican has expressed support for the bill. Wonder what that means? Ted Cruz spoke up at the hearing and wrongly claimed that the bill would register undocumented immigrants, even though that would definitely be illegal. Republicans also brought up two officials who wanted to overturn Biden’s victory—presumably as comic relief at this point, [laughs] I don’t know, maybe I have to get their five minutes in. Who’s to say? But the bill is still slated to have a 50-50 split along party lines in the Senate. So, Kamala, do ya thing.


Gideon Resnick: It is time. A cargo ship crew must have been texting and driving yesterday, because their boat got stuck sideways in Egypt’s Suez Canal. Now, we are not nautical experts here on WAD, but our rule for boats is to move them forwards like fish instead of sideways like crabs. The issue with blocking the canal is it’s one of the world’s main shipping arteries and carries 10% of global shipping traffic. On Wednesday morning, more than 100 boats were stranded behind the main one. The ship had been, quote “partially refloated” but still turned sideways as we went to record. And if it remains in place for more than a few days, it could seriously disrupt world trade. Crews have attempted to dislodge the ship using tugboats and front loaders. I mean, that would be my first suggestion, too. But according to one engineer at the scene of the pile up, quote “from the looks of it, that ship is super stuck.” Obviously, canals can’t talk, but if they could, we can be pretty sure what they’d say to this boat: look at me, look at me, I am the captain now.


Akilah Hughes: It would definitely say that. I have two pitches for solving this. You either take everything off the ship and sink it, let all the boats just go over it, you know? RIP to that boat.


Gideon Resnick: Ok.


Gideon Resnick: Or why don’t you guys dig out the side of the canal, just make it wider, right there. And then sink it.


Gideon Resnick: I feel like there are geological disasters that would result maybe, I don’t know. But we could try it.


Akilah Hughes: Hey, like I said, not an expert. [laughs]  Montana’s governor was embroiled in a uniquely Montana scandal: killing a wolf without getting proper permission first. Last month, Governor Greg Gianforte trapped and killed a wolf that lived in Yellowstone National Park. Since the kill happened about ten miles outside the park, it was legal to hunt according to state regulations. Governor Greg wasn’t technically eligible to make the kill, though, since he hadn’t completed a three-hour online wolf trapping certification course, a.k.a. the absolute worst quarantine binge watch, would not recommend. And as a result, he was issued a warning but no fine. News of Gianforte’s wolf problems comes as Montana’s majority Republican legislature is set to pass bills to drastically reduce the state’s wolf population through hunting and trapping. If that doesn’t get signed into law, Montana hunters can always follow the governor’s lead and just do it anyway.


Gideon Resnick: There’s a wolf that’s going to be elected governor now. That’s just what happens. That’s how it works in Montana.


Akilah Hughes: Man-O-Man. Well, I’m not visiting. And those are the headlines.


Akilah Hughes: One last thing before we go: this week on Hysteria, Senator Amy Klobuchar will be joining Erin and Alyssa to talk about the For the People Act and face some of their hard-hitting questions on what it means to be Minnesota nice. Check it out and subscribe to Hysteria wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, don’t say elections are fake for comic relief, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just boat directions like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And stay safe, wolves!


Akilah Hughes: You know, look out for each other. Be kind.


Gideon Resnick: It can be hard out there, especially when the moon is full.


Akilah Hughes: What a day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon is our system producer.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producers are Katie Long, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.