Atlanta Shootings: Sex, Race & the Politics of Repression

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair


… in nothing doth the raging power of original sin more discover itself

 … than in the ungoverned exorbitancy of fleshly lust.

– Samuel Willard, Puritan minister, 1640-1707

Robert Aaron Long’s killing of eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in three Atlanta-area “spas” on March 18th makes one wonder how far the country has come from the early Puritan settlers who first colonized the New World.

As has been extensively reported, Long, a 21-year-old man from Woodstock, GA, “did take responsibility for the shootings.”  He first attacked the Youngs Asian Massage Parlor, in Acworth, GA, killing four people; he then drove to Atlanta where he attached the Gold Spa killing three people and then, crossing the street, he killed one person at the Aroma Therapy Spa. Long was captured fleeing the shooting sites apparently heading for a “porn industry” location in Florida.

Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesperson for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, declared, “He apparently has issues, what he considers a sex addiction,” he said. “(He) sees these locations as … a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”  Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said Long “frequented these places in the past and may have been lashing out,” though he also said the attacks might have been “targets of opportunity.”

Much attention has been rightly focused on the six Asian-American women killed in the horrendous episode.  Many have linked the Atlanta-area spa shootings to the enormous increase in physical attacks against Asian people taking place across the country. This upsurge has been attributed to former Pres. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric around the coronavirus.  He repeated referred to the Covid as the “China Virus,” “Wuhan Virus” and “kung flu,” sparking anti-Asian racist attitudes that culminated in physical attacks and, now, mass killings.

Not unlike the ripple effect of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements that preceded it, the current rage against Asian-Americans that has resulted in nearly 4,000 reported physical attacks (especially of the elderly) has fostering a strong grassroots movement challenging yet another deeply held all-American prejudice.

A closer look at Robert Aaron Long sexual repression can provided additional insight into yet another aspect of American cultural prejudice. An unasked – and unanswered – question is whether Long would have killed these people had they been Black or white and not Asian?

***

One of the earliest media reports about the Atlanta-area shootings quoted the Cherokee County spokesperson Baker who said that Long “apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations … [as] a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”  He noted that Long was “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope.”  And added, “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

Baker’s comment about it being a “bad day” for Long was repeatedly assailed by the media, implying that it somehow denied the reality of the killings or that the killings involved six Asia women.  He also claimed that Long’s actions were not racially motivated.  This assertion was challenged by reports that Baker promoted a T-shirt with the racist logo, “COVID-19 imported virus from CHY-NA.”

Long was a member of the Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, GA, baptized there as an adult in 2018. According to the New York Times, the Crabapple is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and its bylaws include a lengthy passage on marriage and sexuality that condemns “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, polygamy, pedophilia, pornography, or any attempt to change one’s sex.”  It is on a list of Baptist churches that are “friendly” to the mission of Founders Ministries, “a group within the denomination that has criticized what it characterizes as a leftward drift within evangelicalism.”

The church adheres to a belief that sexual activity is only permissible within the bounds of marriage.  It strongly opposes masturbation, pornography and sex with a sex worker. It’s lead pastor, Jerry Dockery, preached a sermon about gender roles in September, drawing on a passage in 1 Timothy that instructs women to dress modestly and to “learn in quietness and full submission.”

In the wake of the shootings, the church elders released a statement saying that we grieve for the victims and their families, and we continue to pray for them. Moreover, we are distraught for the Long family and continue to pray for them as well.” The Times notes, the church was in the process of expelling Long, calling the shootings “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.”

A series of recent media reports have begun to reveal Long’s deep sexual repression that fueled his “bad day.”  One of his former roommates, Tyler Bayless, who lived with Long for six months in 2019 and 2020 at Maverick Recovery Center in Roswell, GA, reported that Long had sought treatment for sex addiction. “In the halfway house, he would describe several of his sexual addiction ‘relapses,’ as he called them,” Bayless, who was receiving treatment for drug addiction at the time, told Reuters. “He would have a deep feeling of remorse and shame and say he needed to return to prayer and to return to God.”

Bayless reported that Long would say, “’I’ve done it again’ and it just ate away at him.” “He felt absolutely merciless remorse.”  In weekly therapy sessions he would confess his indiscretions and say how guilty he felt about what he had done. After his relapses, Long would spend hours in prayer, Bayless added.

Bayless’ account was echoed by another former housemate, Bronson Lillemon, who said he lived with Long for three months in 2020.

“He felt a lot of guilt, and a lot of shame,” Lillemon said. “I don’t know the specific massage parlors that he went to, but I would assume that the ones he shot up were the ones he went to.”

The Daily Beast reported that a student who graduated from Sequoyah High with Long in 2017 claimed the tagline for an Instagram account belonging to Long read, “Pizza, guns, drums, music, family, and God. This pretty much sums up my life. It’s a pretty good life.”  Going further, the student claimed, “He was very innocent seeming and wouldn’t even cuss. He was sorta nerdy and didn’t seem violent from what I remember. He was a hunter and his father was a youth minister or pastor. He was big into religion.”

Long also sought treatment for his sex addiction at HopeQuest, a facility operated by an evangelical group.  Its website announces, “Our mission is to help individuals and families impact by addition to experience freedom, hope and life.”  It claims that “through a clinically-effective and Christian-centered approach, many people like you are finding the hope and help they need ….  ” Among the conditions it treats are sex addiction” and “pornography addiction.”  Indication of sexual addiction includes “crossing lines’ of personal beliefs or values in his/her behaviors, which result in extreme emotional distress and feelings of guilt and shame.”  “Sexual addiction” is not an established psychiatric diagnosis.

***

The U.S. has come a long way since the Puritan settlers first colonized the New World.  In New England four centuries ago, two sexual offenses were most upsetting: bestiality involving young men and sexual witchcraft among older women.  And for women identified as witches, sex with the devil was the gravest of all sins!  Puritan sexual scandals were a terrain of struggle that illuminates, if only in its exaggeration, America’s most formative era of sexual identity.  It is an identity that, like a threatening shadow, continues to hover over America today

Today, sex has been commodified, fully integrated into the market economy.

A host of traditional sexual prohibitions — including masturbation, premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality and interracial sex — are no longer considered sins by civil authorities, most moralists and a significant proportion of the public. Prostitution – rebranded “sex work” — has become a discreet business activity, regulated in an increasing number of states and “accepted” with a wink-and-a-nod and relatively free from moralistic and police harassment. The limits to acceptable sex are based on consent among adults or among similarly aged adolescents over 16-years. Strong prohibitions, both legal and ethical, attempted to halt nonconsensual sexual acts like rape, pedophilia, incest and bestiality.

Little has been reported as to the nature of the “therapy” Long received for his alleged “sexual addiction.”  One can well imagine that it only intensified the puritanical edicts of Baptists and the Crabapple Church.  Had he received more humane (and, likely, non-moralistic) psychotherapy he may have come to terms with his sexual demons and not acting out by killing eight people.

And the six Asian women – “sex workers” – that he killed?  Esther K, a co-director of Red Canary Song, a grassroots Chinese massage parlor worker coalition, said, ““Even if they were providing non-sexual massages, this ends up being a sex work issue.”  She added, “the women are de facto being seen as sex workers and being scapegoated as such.”

As she explained to The Guardian, “Removing the anti-sex-work component really removes the crux of what this specific kind of racism is about: the fetishization of Asian women’s bodies, the objectification of their bodies and the assumption that Asian women are obviously going to be providing sexual services at massage parlors.”

Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterfly, a Toronto-based group for Asian and migrant sex workers, furthered this analysis.  She argued, “the whorephobia created the hate and discrimination that makes them subject to violence.”  A 2020 report published by Butterfly found that over half of workers at these businesses have experienced some kind of threat to their safety at work.

Robert Aaron Long’s “bad day” bespeaks a deeper crisis that the commodification of sexuality only makes more egregious, exploding as yet another aspect of American cultural prejudice.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

[CDATA[ $('input[type="radio"]
[CDATA[ $('input[type="radio"]
[CDATA[ $('input[type="radio"]
[CDATA[ $('input[type="radio"]