On March 16, 2021, a lone gunman killed 8 people in a shooting spree targeting Asian-run massage parlors. Two people killed were patrons but 6 were the workers: women of Asian descent. Lots of speculation about the killer’s motives have been posited. Most see this as a clearly racism-fueled incident. Others are less willing to make this claim. They counter that just because the victims were Asian workers at an Asian-run establishment, that doesn’t mean his murderous actions were spurred on by race. After all, the killer said he killed them because of his sex addiction ... so there you have it.
Some people wonder why his motives matter at all. But for anyone remotely familiar with the current laws, we know that if he is convicted of murder, having it be deemed a hate crime would ratchet up the consequences. So it’s disturbing that some are willing to simply take the killer’s explanations at face value when he has an obvious incentive to lie. Since when are mass murderers the paragon of honesty and credibility? Even the police have officers among their ranks willing to extend sympathy to the shooter. The sheriff's office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker contended that the gunman was “pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” To the surprise of no one, that officer was found to have made racist posts at the expense of the Asian community.
As disgusted as I am with those quick to accept the murder’s “explanation” I don’t necessarily believe that it is out of the realm of possibility that his “sex addiction” actually did contribute to his motivation to murder those women. To clarify: I’m not saying that his actions weren’t racist. To me it’s very clear that this was race based: he quite obviously passed by several other similar establishments in the same vicinity that are not Asian-run just to target these particular massage parlors. However, racist machinations and sexist ones are not mutually exclusive. I have no hard data documenting precisely how often racism and misogyny co-occur, but anecdotally I can testify that they appear together quite often. Undoubtedly this act of violence was driven by intersectional bigotry.
I am sure the shooter would like people to think that these factors are mutually exclusive. Not only would casting this in the light of “a sex addiction struggle” detract from the racist component, but it would make him appear more sympathetic. It’s no coincidence that Captain Baker was ready to chalk it up to a “bad day.” Hey, the shooter was struggling! Who hasn’t struggled. Amirite? The language of “struggle” is widely used within church circles and is immediately familiar to Christian ears. We frequently talk about the “struggle” with sin. Paul even wrote extensively about it in Romans: battling against the self. People of faith know this language and can empathize. And the struggle of sexual sin is one of the Church’s favorite preoccupations. There is an entire cottage industry of books, videos, seminars, and conferences devoted to the topic. And there is no shortage of resources tailored particularly to men who need to overcome this vice.
I don’t want to minimize or trivialize such struggle or the need for help in this area. Discussing and seeking to address it is not bad in and of itself. However, a survey of these Christian self-help resources reveals an alarming theme: women are the root cause of men’s lack of self-control. I’ve written many times on the objectification of women and the continual definition of women as props in men’s sexual lives. Women are either cast as objects of desire to entice and please their husbands, or as objects of temptation and stumbling blocks to be avoided by the “righteous” man. This is the type of thinking that leads to the Billy Graham rule and Mike Pence’s habit of not being around women. Recently, it was the motivation behind disqualifying a woman from a fishing trip she won at a church raffle. The church extols this mentality as virtuous. In its most extreme form it encourages the elimination of the temptation. That was the sentiment expressed by the Atlanta murderer – he murdered those women to eliminate temptation.
Although the through-line is very clear, some might think the connection is extreme. But it follows very popular Christian thought. Despite Christ’s unambiguous teaching that those who lust have the onus to control themselves (even being hyperbolically instructed to pluck out their own eye), somehow church discussions are more often focused on shifting this burden to women. Women are somehow responsible for men’s fantasies. Even when the church discusses “dress reform” we forget that the subject, as taught by the Adventist pioneers, had been focused on health, not aesthetics. Our early church leaders encouraged women to wear shorter dresses that didn’t drag on the ground to collect dirt; women were warned against wearing corsets that would affect breathing and internal organs. But this has largely been forgotten. Instead, today’s dress reform messages are focused on whether women are overly enticing to men and causing them to lose control. An art exhibition called What Were You Wearing seeks to disabuse people of this notion. It began at the University of Kansas in 2013 and has been featured in dozens of cities since then, inviting women to display the outfits they had been wearing when they were sexually assaulted. The outfits run the gamut: from bikinis to saris, to prom dresses to army uniforms, to – heartbreakingly – little girls’ dresses. We know rape and other gender-based violence has nothing to do with what women wear. So when our churches send messages focused on female attire, we reinforce this harmful narrative. And it teaches men that if only they get rid of women, it would solve their problems. Instead of doing the work to master their own thoughts, they will avoid women, ignore women, refuse to work with women, not promote women, provide women with inadequate care and service by not spending enough time with them to attend to them, punish women, subjugate women, and altogether eliminate women.
Is it true that the Atlanta murderer was – even partially – motivated by wanting to curb his addiction by eliminating these women as objects of temptation? There are two options. Either he was telling the truth and he honestly believed that killing them was worth it to assist in overcoming his struggle with sin. Or he was lying, but he fabricated this explanation because he believed it would resonate with people who heard it. Either of those possibilities is an indictment on the Church’s teachings about how we view women.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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