Asian Massage Stores Says Lawsuit Challenging FOSTA Anti-Prostitution Law on Censorship Grounds Neglects to Also Attack It for Race and Sex Discrimination

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A new federal law that prevents sex-traffickers from advertising online is fueling racism and sexism against Asian and Asian-American women who offer legitimate, licensed massage services, contends a business group representing 100 such providers nationwide—Asian Massage Stores. The law, known as FOSTA, is being challenged in federal court on grounds that it violates First Amendment rights to free speech

This is so demoralizing, not to mention dehumanizing

Asian Massage Stores, a national alliance of providers of therapeutic massage services, said today it believes a court challenge filed June 28 in the District of Columbia to enjoin and invalidate on First Amendment grounds a new federal anti-prostitution law should be amended to include claims that the statute is whipping up race and gender discrimination against people with no connection whatsoever to the sex trade.

The law—Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA)—prohibits online advertising of sex services. The lawsuit contends FOSTA amounts to unconstitutional censorship, but Asian Massage Stores said it also disparately impacts Asian and Asian-American women who own or are employed by massage studios that offer only non-sexual, health-oriented care.

“Asian massage businesses in the U.S. are predominantly minority owned and staffed,” said Asian Massage Stores marketing director Rocco DiBenedetto.

According to DiBenedetto, the legal challenge was brought in U.S. District Court by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of nonprofit Human Rights Watch and Woodhull Freedom Foundation along with others claiming their First Amendment rights to advertise on the Internet have been harmed by FOSTA.

“FOSTA places online publishers in legal jeopardy if they don’t purge ads and reviews about people and businesses involved in the sex trade,” DiBenedetto said. “The plaintiffs see this as a freedom-of-speech issue. We see it as something far worse.”

DiBenedetto argued that FOSTA encourages online publishers to profile legitimate massage businesses owned or staffed by Asians and Asian-Americans—women in particular, since they predominate among Asian massage providers.

“The hurtful, bigoted stereotype is that you must be in the sex trade if you’re an Asian woman or woman of Asian heritage and you provide massage services,” he said. “FOSTA reinforces this ugly thinking. And, in fact, it practically mandates it.”

DiBenedetto explained that Asian Massage Stores members operate law-abiding businesses that provide quality services in upscale salon settings and employ licensed, certified massage therapists, masseuses, and masseurs.

“At my stores, we have a zero-tolerance policy with regard to employees inappropriately touching customers or suggesting any type of illegal activity,” he said. “As part of the enforcement mechanism, we routinely send in secret shoppers to interact with all our employees and report back on even so much as a hint of anything untoward. To lump us in with sex traffickers and prostitutes is wrong on so many levels that it’s difficult to count them all.”

Even so, many Internet sites and review platforms flatly refuse content from or about Asian massage providers, DiBenedetto indicated. “Since it’s assumed we’re in the sex trade because we have Asian women offering Asian massage, platforms that used to run our ads and carry our reviews all the time now want nothing to do with us.”

The loss of those online outlets is devastating to providers of Asian massage services, said DiBenedetto. “They are unfairly cutting our stores off from the consumers we need to attract in order to stay viable. The business model of the typical Asian massage store requires a continual inflow of new customers. That inflow is heavily disrupted by us being profiled.”

DiBenedetto said Asian massage studio owners and masseuses now, “go to work every morning wondering if today will be the day their livelihoods vanish because all the doors have been slammed in their faces. This is so demoralizing, not to mention dehumanizing.”

Ironically, Asian Massage Stores members were initially in favor of FOSTA. Said DiBenedetto, “We did not believe FOSTA would have any adverse impact on us. Why would it? We’re not sex workers. We don’t traffic people. If anything, like everyone else, we thought this legislation would make things better by stopping the exploitation and victimization of women.

“Unfortunately, FOSTA was a well-intentioned idea that paints people who provide Asian massage as bad. We earnestly hope the plaintiffs in this case can convince the court to declare FOSTA unconstitutional.”

About Asian Massage Stores

Asian Massage Stores is a trade group launched in 2013. It represents approximately 100 independently owned-and-operated Asian massage studios in the U.S. The group pools resources to conduct marketing programs and campaigns that promote Asian massage as the healthiest and generally best massage method for helping people achieve physical well-being, emotional balance, and enhanced overall quality of life. For more information, please visit Asian Massage Stores online at https://asianmassagestores.com/.

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Rocco DiBenedetto
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