Annual Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference Focuses on Policing Asian Women Migrant Workers


Elena Shih, assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies, delivered the annual Elizabeth Munves Sherman ’77, P’06, P’09 Lecture on Gender and Sexuality Studies Thursday afternoon at Pembroke Hall.

His lecture, titled “The Trafficking Deportation Pipeline: Asian Massage Work and the Policing of Racialized Poverty”, discussed the policing of Asian female migrant workers and Asian massage work. The conference was held “in light of a year-long memory of the shootings at three massage businesses in Atlanta in 2021,” according to a Announcement March 24 [email protected].

“Last year, Asian massage work in the United States became synonymous with human trafficking,” Shih said. “And it’s not accidental, but an active target and communication campaign by anti-trafficking organisations.”

According to Shih, the confusion of massage businesses and human trafficking causes the policing of massage businesses and reinforces “entanglements between state power, vigilante justice, white supremacy and its counterpart, the white backup”.

Ultimately, she said, “the anti-trafficking movement enabled relief organizations to speak out on behalf of the victimization of Asian migrant communities, raising millions of dollars in funding and profits to perpetuate the surveillance and policing of our communities”.

These forms of power are often disguised using “the extraordinarily profitable and popular Global Anti-Human Trafficking Project,” Shih said. Many anti-trafficking organizations receive millions dollars with the stated aim of freeing victims of trafficking, she added.

The resulting policing of Asian massage therapists is leading to raids on their workplaces as well as detention and deportation, according to Shih.

Shih referred to the “anti-trafficking industrial complex,” describing a system of anti-trafficking organizations and law enforcement “engaged with profit-seeking objectives” in efforts to end trafficking.

According to Shih, some sex workers are classified as “rescued victims of trafficking” and are placed in rehabilitation organizations that teach them how to make and sell jewelry in the United States.

Many people turn to sex work – and are subsequently subjected to this rehabilitation – after finding that “work in the garment industry, in restaurants (and) as domestic workers (gives them) much less dignity and autonomy than sex work,” she added.

Shih concluded by asking questions about the relationship between anti-trafficking movements, labor rights and violence. “How do we expand our view of violence to include not just individual attacks on the subway, but also wage theft, deportation, rescue, forced rehabilitation… (while) recognizing autonomous modes of community care?”

Attendees, including Monica Zhang ’25, praised Shih for discussing an issue they were previously unaware of.

“As an Asian-American woman, you come in thinking you know a background” on the police of Asian massage therapists, Zhang said. “But I (had) never heard of what she was talking about.”

“The most impressive thing for me was how (Shih) was able to connect all these transnational movements which… are very intimidating, huge and complex,” said Zoe Fuad ’23, another attendee at the event. “It really helps to articulate exactly… how much of our policing here is very intertwined with the colonial apparatus.”

Faud added that she was surprised at how much joy the conference had brought her.

“It wasn’t a super dreary, dark conversation,” Faud said. “I think (Shih is) someone who understands the need not to burn out during the revolution.”

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