Massage Parlor Panic
The website Rubmaps describes itself as being devoted to "erotic massage parlor reviews & happy endings." Users who pay for membership can write and read reviews of massage parlors. Some reviews are predictably racy, and some are, perhaps surprisingly, more PG-rated. The site lets clients know what to expect from massage parlors—and also what not to expect, offering clarity about which services are on offer and guidance about how to behave.
Increasingly, however, it also serves another purpose. Police have begun monitoring the site on the theory that, as a 2016 article in the magazine Prosecutor's Brief asserted, a good Rubmaps review "indicates that the location is a brothel." And when police and prosecutors take an interest, so do politicians.
Rubmaps entered the Congressional Record in March 2015, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) was speaking about the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Feinstein cited Rubmaps as one of 19 sites that supposedly "act[ed] as purveyors of child sex trafficking in this country." Those sites, she said, "ought to be ashamed of themselves."
It was Feinstein who should have been ashamed. During her extensive remarks, she offered no solid evidence that these sites were in fact facilitating child sex trafficking. Yet her push to shutter them played directly into a social panic that has been building into a legal crusade against sex work and the web platforms that enable it. Within a few years, Rubmaps—then one of the lesser-known sites Feinstein mentioned—would become a key target in this dubious fight, aided by America's long history of discriminatory opposition to massage businesses operated and staffed primarily by Asian immigrants.
People who coerce or force others into prostitution do exist, and violence against those involved in prostitution happens. Law enforcement should absolutely take these horrors seriously—especially if minors are involved. Yet government estimates of the prevalence of sex trafficking have tended to be wildly inflated and plagued with "methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies," as the Government Accountability Office put it. Known cases in the United States remain incredibly rare.
In 2015, for instance, U.S. attorneys received information on about 750 people suspected of either "peonage, slavery, forced labor or sex trafficking," according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Yet they ultimately filed charges in just 395 of these cases.
Perhaps because of the scarcity of bona fide trafficking cases and disproportionate public interest in the topic, law enforcement agencies frequently go on fishing expeditions, searching for needles in a haystack and then arresting anyone in the vicinity of the barn.
The Wall Street Journal reported in September that agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are investigating Rubmaps and two similar websites. Opponents argue these sites facilitate the sexual exploitation of girls and women. But authorities rarely turn up the horrific crimes they say they're rooting out. Instead, the people most harmed by the attention from law enforcement are the ones cops and advocates claim they're out to save.
Rubmaps' emergence as a digital boogeyman corresponds with a nationwide legal assault on Asian massage parlors and the women who work at or own them. Recent high-profile examples—including the Palm Beach, Florida, investigation that ensnared New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Queens, New York, raid that led to the death of Chinese immigrant Yang Song—highlight a wider phenomenon that plays out around the country on a weekly basis, a carceral charade in which the twisted "help" offered to "exploited" women includes jail, seized assets, and deportation.
These raids, which often overlap with America's escalating crackdowns on unauthorized immigrants, frequently involve Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and FBI agents. Federal law enforcement officials are being enlisted, in other words, to round up women for giving unapproved hand jobs or offering ordinary back and foot massages without the right paperwork.
In a throwback to shameful earlier episodes in U.S. history, these workers—mostly middle-aged Asian immigrant women—are treated as victims long enough to get authorities in the door and then as criminals once law enforcement officials are done playing hero to the press.
Once Upon a Time in Florida
The sting that nabbed Robert Kraft, the CEO of the Kraft Group and owner of the Patriots, on solicitation charges in February 2019 was a perfect storm of sex trafficking panic, xenophobia, prosecutorial showboating, and prurient interest. The bust was part of a monthslong investigation into massage parlors in and around Palm Beach County, Florida. Local police and prosecutors initially heralded it as part of a "human trafficking investigation" that would rescue victims and send a message to the men who patronized them. But it ultimately yielded no human trafficking charges, and the "rescued" women faced more severe criminal penalties than did their clients.
The inability to identify any trafficking victims is especially striking given that law enforcement used every tool at their disposal to get the answer they wanted. In June, the Associated Press reported that Martin Countysheriff's detectives told one masseuse detained in the raid that she would be given an apartment and allowed to bring her children to the United States from overseas so long as she testified that she had been trafficked.
Nonetheless, the woman repeatedly insisted she wasn't forced into sex work. She was doing it to support relatives in China, she said, even as police kept pressuring her to change her story. Eventually she agreed merely to notdeny to law enforcementthat she was trafficked—but not to say she had been, either—and they let her go.
As part of the investigation, police and Homeland Security agents had staked out several local businesses for months, made multiple undercover visits, tailed workers running errands, and used a "sneak and peek" warrant to secretly install security cameras in massage rooms. Two of the women arrested, more than a dozen of the men (including Kraft), and a host of regular massage patrons who were filmed naked as part of police surveillance are suing over the footage.
The men who were picked up received misdemeanor solicitation charges. That doesn't mean they got off scot-free: Even a minor run-in with the criminal justice system can be disruptive and costly, not to mention the reputational damage that comes from having your name in the papers as part of an alleged "human trafficking bust." For his part, Kraft was soon back to having dinner beside President Donald Trump and partying in the Hamptons with Hollywood celebrities. But most of the men arrested were not wealthy public figures.
Massage parlor workers and managers faced much worse, including jail time, seized assets, and sometimes multiple felony charges, despite an utter lack of evidence of any nonconsensual activity.
Eight women were accused of participating in a "prostitution enterprise" as well as engaging in prostitution themselves. Others were indicted on allegations of deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, procuring for prostitution, unlawful transport for prostitution, or keeping a house of ill fame.
Money laundering, racketeering, and conspiracy charges are common in these prosecutions, since doing anything with proceeds from prostitution can qualify. Applying such charges to sex workers who band together and to sex work–adjacent businesses (such as websites that permit escort ads or massage parlors where some workers engage in sex acts) gives prosecutors two things: leverage in eliciting pleas rather than taking a case to trial, and the legal room to seize financial assets.
As of the end of 2019, eight of the 11 spa staffers and associates booked in the stings in Florida's Indian River, Martin, and Palm Beach counties had accepted plea deals after initially pleading not guilty. The one male employee who was involved pleaded guilty to unlawful transport (a misdemeanor), while seven women pleaded no contest or guilty to misdemeanor prostitution charges and sometimes no contest to other prostitution-related charges. In exchange, prosecutors dropped many of the felony counts, and most of the defendants will avoid more jail time than they have already served.
No traffickers or victims ever materialized (thankfully). In the end, police shut down some immigrant-owned businesses, put a dozen or more women out of work, prohibited some licensed masseuses who were also sex workers from doing legal massage work in the future, and that's about it.
This is tragically typical of these operations. A 2017 crackdown in Florida, dubbed "Operation Spa," saw police, immigration agents, and Homeland Security raiding 13 businesses they claimed were engaging in human trafficking. But according to the Fort Myers News-Press, "what transpired was little more than a massage parlor bust of several family-owned businesses." Five women accepted racketeering-related charges, two employees pleaded guilty to "residing in a place for the purpose of prostitution," and one woman pleaded guilty to solicitation.No one was convicted of or pleaded guilty to trafficking. Still, one of the workers was deported to China and more than half of the businesses were shut down.
A July 2019 examination by USA Today of three other Florida busts likewise concluded that "law enforcement's tough-on-trafficking rhetoric fizzled after initial headlines." A supposed crackdown on the unique scourge of forced labor ended up looking a lot more like a series of conventional immigration and vice raids.
Law enforcement operations directed at massage parlors in the name of fighting trafficking have increasingly taken the form of immigration stings that target Asian women.
For years I've been following the uptick in federally backed efforts to target "illicit massage parlors." This included setting up Google Alerts for the term massage parlor, which generates an automated email anytime the search engine registers a new article on the topic. Tracking these alerts over periods of time can offer a snapshot of how such arrests are handled.
Between June 1 and September 15, 2019, a Google Alert on the phrase massage parlor yielded stories about more than 95 cases involving suspected sex trafficking and/or prostitution at massage businesses. This figure almost certainly dramatically undercounts these stings, because not every such operation makes the news, gets indexed by Google Alerts, or uses the phrase massage parlor. Still, the results were striking.
The raids went down in urban, suburban, and rural parts of 31states across the country. But no matter the location or context, the vast majority of those arrested or charged were Asian women. Of 102 identified suspects, 76 were listed as Asian or had typically Asian names.
Of the 97 cases in which this information was given, the average age of those arrested or indicted was 49.8 years. About 80 percent of suspects were in their 40s or 50s, with just two in their 20s and nonein their teens.
No one was accused of abduction, smuggling anyone into the country illegally, or running an operation involving children. Prostitution showed up most frequently—at least 47 times—when specific allegations or charges were mentioned. Nineteen cases cited a charge for some form of practicing massage without a license (a felony in some places). Other arrestees were accused of promoting prostitution (in at least 20 cases), some variation on keeping a prostitution facility (eight cases), or other charges frequently applied to sex work—such as racketeering and money laundering—even when all parties involved are consenting adults and legal residents.
Fourteen people did face some form of charge for sex trafficking or human trafficking, with nine coming from a single investigation in Massachusetts. Most of these cases, however, lack any known victims or any allegations that sex acts were coerced or forced.
In the Massachusetts case, initial reports mentioned potential sex trafficking charges against the nine suspects. But as of December 2019, there is no evidence that such charges were filed or that any victims were discovered. Wisconsin business owner Dongmei Greer, 55, faces a state sex trafficking charge after police got a tip that prostitution was taking place at her business—yet the only "victim" was an adult woman who was also arrested for prostitution. Maryland resident Emily Zhang Lawrence has also been charged with sex trafficking, even though the suspected sex acts at her business were all conducted by consenting adults.
Only three sex trafficking suspects during this period are alleged to have coerced any specific victims. In one case, 60-year-old Rita Law—a Hong Kong immigrant naturalized in 1989—was convicted of exploiting two massage business employees and sentenced to 360 months in federal prison. In another ongoing case, a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant named Sufeng Jiang and her boyfriend, Randy Carl Wittner, are accused of mistreating an employee who had just started working for them when cops raided the place and accused the employee of prostitution.
In none of these cases did victims face bosses who acted violently, kept them in captivity, or stole their earnings. Instead, the employers allegedly used these victims' precarious status as immigrants and sex workers to subject them to coercive arrangements, unsafe working conditions, or unfair financial terms.
These are the kinds of situations that law enforcement should be focused on. Yet they represent an exceptionally small fraction of overall "illicit massage parlor" investigations and prosecutions. These cases also highlight how expanding immigrant and sex worker rights could benefit victims more than these needle-in-a-haystack "rescue" missions. It's the criminalized nature of prostitution and vulnerable position of people with a precarious immigration status that allow exploitation and abuse, not nefarious underground trafficking rings.
In some cases, prosecutors follow up prostitution arrests by seeking civil court orders to shut down the massage businesses. Occasionally, they try to shut down a business without even bothering with arrests or prosecutions first.
In April 2019, prosecutors got a temporary restraining order to shut down TY Green's Massage Therapy in Huntsville, Alabama; to freeze the assets of owner Yuping Tang, her daughter Jiao Liu, and three other businesses run by the family; and to seize their workplaces and homes. In a story that made national news, state Attorney General Steve Marshall called the businesses "fronts for a human-trafficking operation" and bragged about this being the first civil action brought under new state human trafficking laws.
Eight months later, no sex trafficking or forced labor charges have been filed. No prostitution charges have been filed. And the Madison County Circuit Court has denied Marshall's request to make the shutdowns permanent, saying the state failed to make its case.
In April 2019, Columbus, Ohio, City Attorney Zach Klein obtained "emergency" court orders to "vacate and shutter" two massage parlors following stings carried out by county authorities. The emergency was this: During one of the operations, an Asian woman guessed to be age 35 gave an undercover detective an hourlong massage and then, when he asked, "began masturbating the [detective's] penis" for an extra $40, according to the order. Undercover detectives made at least six more visits to the business over the course of as many months, with similar results.
The investigation into the second business started after authorities found it listed on Rubmaps, Klein said; undercover detectives who subsequently received massages there reported that unidentified Asian female masseuses had also attempted "to stroke [their] genitals." Though the monthslong operation ultimately rescued no one, Klein promised in a May 2019 press release: "We're going to continue aggressively going after these businesses that really are nothing more than illegal fronts for human trafficking and prostitution."
"Suspicious behavior," according to police, may include having more male than female customers, being open during nonstandard business hours, employing masseuses who wear high heels, having an entrance in the back of the building, requiring customers to buzz in for entry, keeping window blinds closed, having employees that don't leave the building for lunch breaks, and of course being listed on Rubmaps. In Texas, the Harris County Sheriff's Office works with a group called Project AWESOME that checks licensing department records against businesses on Rubmaps and reports suspected licensing or zoning law violators to the cops.
Media reports of such activity almost always adopt sensationalistic terms, with headlines that nod to "human trafficking rings" even while listing nothing but prostitution or operating without a license among charged offenses.
"Massage parlor owner pleads guilty to trafficking women," declared a Minnesota NBC affiliate headline in September. The owner, a 40-year-old woman, had actually pleaded guilty to two counts of prostitution. The article added that the business was suspicious because in order to get in, customers had to ring a doorbell.
The Politics of Massage Parlor Busts
Even though these cases consistently turn out to be duds, prominent rising political stars on both the left and the right have been active participants in this sort of prosecution.
As attorney general of Missouri, for example, Republican Josh Hawley—now the state's junior senator—presided over a series of massage parlor raids around Springfield in 2017. "Investigators say they spent nearly three years building a case," reported the Springfield News-Leader.
Hawley's office told the media that the businesses were "fronts for trafficking." At a July 2017 court hearing, he said victims had been "rescued" and suggested potential ties to an international sex slavery ring, to "Asian organized crime," and to "the movement of persons from East Asia to here and then out beyond." Not long after, Hawley blamed human trafficking on "our cultural elites, Hollywood, and the media," who had denigrated "the biblical truth about husband and wife" and "the appropriate place for sexual practice and expression within the family."
No one was ever charged with sex trafficking, labor trafficking, immigration violations, or even prostitution following those raids. As of December 2019, the only criminal charges were for misdemeanor violations of Missouri massage licensing law, with seven massage parlor workers pleading guilty to one count each. But that didn't stop Greene County, Missouri, prosecutors from trying to suspend the raided businesses' licenses and seize their assets. Several businesses are still fighting these actions, though a judge did finally dismiss civil asset forfeiture claims against two of the defendants in fall 2019.
Meanwhile, there was no further mention of the victims allegedly rescued, and the announcement of the bust is now gone from the Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Office press release page.
Before becoming a U.S. senator and failed 2020 presidential candidate, Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) presided over crackdowns on San Francisco massage parlors during her time as the city's district attorney. She helped form a human trafficking task force, through which the city inspected "more than 180 establishments and shut the doors of more than 30," as Harris and then–Mayor Gavin Newsom bragged in a 2008 San Francisco Examiner op-ed opposing a local measure to decriminalize commercial sex between consenting adults.
In 2005, Harris assisted ICE, the FBI, and the IRS with "Operation Gilded Cage," which involved raids at 50 locations around San Francisco and Los Angeles. An ICE spokesperson said at the time that 45 arrests had been made, $3 million seized, and 150 illegal immigrants detained. The State Department announced it thus: "U.S. Agents Crack West Coast Human Smuggling, Trafficking Ring."
Twenty-nine people from the San Francisco raids were indicted on federal charges. Yet charges against at least eight of these suspects—including one of two women initially charged with sex trafficking—were later dismissed entirely. The others pleaded guilty to things like conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants; conspiracy to use a facility in the aid of unlawful activity; violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits people from bringing women across state lines for "immoral" purposes; and filing false tax returns. Although no one was ultimately prosecuted for sex trafficking, labor trafficking, or any crime involving coercion or force, the result was more than $2.1 million in forfeited assets.
As for the "rescued" women, most were deported back to their home countries. According to a 2007 article in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by professors Grace Chang and Kathleen Kim, 120 women who worked at raided San Francisco businesses were detained at an undisclosed military base and grilled by federal officials for 24 hours before specialized victim services providers were called in. "By the time advocates arrived, federal officials had already decided that the majority of the women were not legal victims of trafficking, and placed them in immigration detention," Kim and Chang found.
Human Rights Watch reported that Operation Gilded Cage and subsequent Bay Area "anti-trafficking" efforts led to the shutdown of 70 Korean massage and spa businesses between 2005 and 2010, without any noticeable difference in the prevalence of prostitution (let alone any evidence that forced labor or sexual violence was being stopped). But business owners became more reluctant to keep condoms on the premises, a former deputy health officer said, since they could be used by police as evidence of prostitution.
A War on Prostitution—and on Immigration
In some ways, these operations represent a new front in the war on sex trafficking. In another sense, they merely perpetuate a fear of Asian sexuality that has deep roots in American politics and culture.
The first federal restriction on immigration, the Page Act of 1875, explicitly banned Chinese sex workers. The bill's eponymous sponsor, Rep. Horace Page (R–Calif.), said it would "end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women." The law's anti-prostitution provision was used as an excuse to turn away all Asian women, especially the Chinese. Meanwhile, prohibitions on indentured male laborers were mostly ignored.
"The West's perception of Asian women" is "constantly shifting from perpetual prostitute to sex trafficking victim, whichever is most convenient at the time," the writer Diana Lu explained in an August 2019 piece for Hyphen magazine. "The sexualization of Asian women, including their association with sex work and human trafficking, has been a hallmark of anti-Asian propaganda since the first U.S. anti-immigration efforts," used "to stoke public contempt" and to "promote discriminatory policies."
Over the past few decades, calls to crack down on prostitution have been "increasingly unlikely to be justified on the ground of protecting society from libertine degradation," note Aya Gruber, Amy J. Cohen, and Kate Mogulescu in a May 2016 Florida Law Review article on "penal welfare." A new paradigm—one that sees sex work as inherently exploitative and patriarchal, and one that sees all sex workers as victims—has sprung up in its place.
Proponents of this view insist that the push to eradicate prostitution is an "abolitionist" movement aimed at taking out "modern slavery." Under this umbrella, stings on immigrant-owned businesses are promoted as efforts not to control loose women or police U.S. borders but to root out sexual exploitation.
In an era of increased public suspicion of mass incarceration and tough-on-crime politics, Gruber et al. suggest, this approach enables "entrenched institutions of criminal law to continue to function despite a growing crisis in public confidence." It lets authorities continue doing exactly what they've been doing—terrorizing vulnerable populations and collecting handsome fees for it—while framing their actions in a way that's more friendly to contemporary social-justice pieties.
But much of the same old racist and xenophobic fearmongering remains. The political crusade against prostitution still ends up disproportionately targeting Asian immigrant women.
Police on the vice beat have coded many cultural practices common among immigrant groups and low-income workers as red flags. Eating meals at work rather than going out is often mentioned. So is being driven around by an employer rather than owning one's own car, or having a home base in one city while temporarily traveling to others for work. In at least a few instances, authorities have suggested that living in Flushing, Queens, with its large Asian population, is itself suspicious.
Among those who criticize this approach is the activist group Red Canary Song, which has described efforts to arrest and deport Chinese massage workers as "anti-Asian racism." Red Canary Song formed in response to the November 2017 death of Yang Song, a 38-year-old immigrant from China, following a raid on the massage parlor in Queens where she worked under the pseudonym "SiSi."
The New York Police Department (NYPD) had previously arrested Song three times for alleged prostitution, according to her lawyer, Chen Mingli. In 2016, she'd told Chen, a man claiming to be a cop held a gun to her head and threatened to arrest her if she didn't perform oral sex on him.
Song's third arrest happened after a September 2017 raid on her workplace and resulted in her being jailed overnight. Chen later told media that Song had said she would rather die than be arrested again.
No one knows for sure what happened on the day Song fell to her death, though witnesses saw her go flying through a fourth-story window and plummet to the street below. An investigation by the Queens District Attorney's Office concluded that no police wrongdoing had contributed to the death. Yet the raid was part of a much larger wave of operations against similar businesses in the area. Starting in 2012, arrests of Asian New Yorkers for unlicensed massage and for prostitution jumped about 2,700 percent, according to a report from the Urban Institute.
Even if no one in the NYPD was directly responsible for Song's fall, the city's ethnically targeted raids were the backdrop for what happened that day. The police were there to round up immigrant women and collect a handful of misdemeanor arrests. Song may not have been pushed out of the window—but if she leaped, it's because she preferred to chance death than find herself back in NYPD custody.
Exemplifying the "penal welfare" mindset in the massage parlor realm is Polaris Project, an activist group known for trafficking in erroneous and misleading data about sex work while raking in government money. Between 2010 and 2018, the group—which was founded in 2002 by Brown University students who read an article about human trafficking and decided to "raise awareness" about the problem—got more than $12.3 million in public funding.
For years, Polaris was an enthusiastic disseminator of the wild claim that 300,000 U.S. children each year are sold domestically for sex. A number of media and government reports have cited the group as the sourceof this figure. In reality, it's a nebulous stat pulled from a 2001 paper in which researchers "relied on a series of guesses," as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler put it in a 2015 investigation. More than a decade ago, the respected Crimes Against Children Research Center debunked the figure, pleading with people in all caps: "PLEASE DO NOT CITE" it.
Polaris has also aggressively perpetuated the idea that the Super Bowl turns host cities into temporary hotbeds of sex trafficking, a popular myth with no basis in evidence. But lately, the group has turned to warning about "illicit massage parlors," claiming there are more than 9,000 such establishments in the U.S. and the "vast majority" of workers at these businesses are slaves. (Polaris did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
This count is a projection from the number of Rubmaps ads in some cities—hardly a scientific analysis. But that hasn't stopped Polaris from pushing a range of new state and federal regulations based on its manufactured crisis, nor has it stopped the media from running sensationalistic stories pegged to Polaris reports.
On a January 2018 press call, Polaris representatives recommended that city governments begin using "a code enforcement perspective," passing regulations such as bans on back-door entry by customers and requirements that front doors be unlocked at all times during business hours. The group called for "a massive grassroots campaign to get these restrictions passed in as many jurisdictions as possible."
Such recommendations may seem minor and harmless, but enacting and enforcing them could put workers in greater danger. Keeping doors locked and requiring people to buzz in, for instance, can be a way of protecting against potentially dangerous customers in businesses staffed solely by women. Enforcement means more reason to send police into these businesses and gives authorities a way to sanction them even if no sexual activity is found. And shutting down businesses for building code violations leaves employees jobless, sometimes shelterless, and all the more likely to turn to illicit work.
Even as a strategy to stop abuse, this is baffling. An exploitative boss, a rapist, or a human trafficker is really going to stop because massage customers have to use the front door? It's enough to leave the impression that ending actual harm against massage parlor workers isn't the primary goal.
The Epstein Paradox
In 2019, the feds signaled that they might start taking cases of actual abuse and exploitation as seriously as they do paid sex between consenting adults. In a welcome shift from their typical focus, U.S. attorneys indicted finance mogul Jeffrey Epstein and cult leader Keith Raniere for offenses that are both well-documented and tragic, accusing each of activity that had spanned more than a decade.
Epstein was indicted last summer on sex trafficking charges for flying teen girls to his homes and allegedly paying them to engage in sex acts with himself and others, employing force in some cases. Despite numerous red flags, public accusations, and even a 2008 conviction in Florida, federal prosecutors refused to get involved. Epstein's actions were covered up or minimized, and he remained free for more than a decade following the initial allegations from multiple women and girls.
In the wake of Epstein's arrest (and his subsequent death in custody), authorities have been doubling down on the same old approach that overwhelmingly nabs consenting adults, not predators. In August, the FBI rebranded its decade-old "Operation Cross Country"—touted as an initiative to stop child sex trafficking—as "Operation Independence Day." But the outcome was unchanged: mostly arrests of adult sex workers and those who seek to patronize them.
The Trump administration continues to use fearmongering about human trafficking to call for stricter border control. Homeland Security's "Blue Campaign" continues to blast out "see something, say something" propaganda in airports, at hotels, and online. Federal prosecutors continue to pursue their case against Backpage, a classified-ad site that was popular with sex workers before federal law enforcement shut it down. And the Department of Justice has started targeting new sites, including Rubmaps.
Meanwhile, at the local level, city administrators and politicians are using a few high-profile cases of genuinely horrifying behavior as an excuse to ramp up burdensome restrictions on massage businesses and workers. Beth Huber, owner of Quick Fix Massage in Minnesota, complained to her local CBS station in September that under new regulations, not only does her establishment need a license but each employee does, too. The switch could cost Huber thousands of dollars a year, she said.
The city of Santa Clara, California, took another approach that's been gaining traction: prohibiting new massage parlors within a certain vicinity of hotels, schools, existing massage parlors, and certain other locations, much as is done with strip clubs and adult stores. The city has been reconsidering that move, however, after discovering it's now impossible for massage businesses to launch anywhere but industrial areas on the outskirts of town.
Some cities are implementing stricter background checks for massage business owners; limiting the number of occupational licenses or business permits available for massage; imposing stringent health regulations merely to enable more inspections; allowing inspections of any massage business at pretty much any time for pretty much any reason; and starting "active monitoring" of massage parlors and their employees by police. Other cities have started barring new massage parlors from opening altogether.
Across the board, authorities ignore the needs of real victims while telling tales about international cabals and captive girls in need of clandestine intervention.
The Real Danger Is U.S. Policy
In September 2018, Yuqin Shu—a Chinese immigrant living in Bullhead City, Arizona—was charged with operating a house of prostitution and with money laundering, both felonies. As part of "Operation Human Touch," agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) had shown up at her home-based massage business posing as customers and subsequently alleged that Shu offered them sex acts for a fee.
The purpose of the operation was supposedly to break up a human trafficking ring. But "it is unclear how an ICE officer having sexual relations with human trafficking victims in Mohave County, Arizona, protects the nation from terrorist attacks or secures the borders," wrote attorney Brad Rideout in a motion seeking the real names of undercover HSI agents "Arturo" and "Sergio."
Shu maintained that she was neither a sex trafficker nor a victim of forced prostitution or trafficking—just a mom trying to get by. The Mohave County Superior Court ordered local police to provide her with the identities of the HSI agents who visited her. But Homeland Security refused, saying agents were unavailable to testify in any of the Operation Human Touch cases. After an ordeal that lasted a year and a half, Shu's charges are now likely to be dismissed.
HSI's refusal to cooperate also led to the December dismissal of all charges against massage business owner Amanda Yamauchi and her associate Dean Michael Bassett. Police and media had initially portrayed the pair as international sex traffickers, a story that is hard to reconcile with the feds' refusal to participate in their prosecution.
The two-year Homeland Security–aided investigation has yielded misdemeanor prostitution and solicitation convictions against a 45-year-old woman and the client with whom she was caught. The woman spent 56 days in jail and had to pay a $600 fine; her husband got a misdemeanor pandering charge for driving her to work; and a case against the owner of the massage parlor where she was arrested is ongoing.
If nothing else, the massage parlor panic is a massive waste of public resources. And as with so many previous federal criminal justice boondoggles, from the drug war to efforts to stop teen sexting, the crusade against Asian massage parlors is putting at risk the very people it purports to protect.
Credentials crackdowns, mandatory occupational licensing, and the growing number of regulatory burdens and fees a person must bear in order to work within the law mean that many immigrants are boxed out of legal employment—and thus more likely to need to turn to sex work or to accept unfair and unsafe labor conditions. Restrictive immigration policies and harsh enforcement thereof mean that people who want to come to the United States from another country are more reliant on middlemen, leading to more of the "debt bondage" situations law enforcement agencies are always warning about. Immigration restrictionism also yields a larger population of "illegals"—many of whom broke no law to get here but overstayed their original visas—who are easily exploitable via threats to report their immigration violations to the authorities.
The criminalization of voluntary adult prostitution and the aggressive enforcement of laws against it also render those engaged in the sale of sexual services less likely to go to authorities when crimes are committed against them. This makes them targets for violent clients, corrupt cops, and exploitative bosses.
Organizations like Polaris are training bystanders, hotel maids, and flight attendants on how to spot "signs" of human trafficking, an exercise that seems largely to lead to racial profiling and the harassment of sex workers. Meanwhile, vulnerable populations often remain confused and in the dark about their rights. Even anti-trafficking activist groups will occasionally admit that the dramatic, cinematic stories of abduction and captivity are mostly imaginary: Control, to the extent it exists, is more often exercised through psychological manipulation, withholding passports, and threats to get the worker deported.
Rescuing those who are exploited doesn't require literally swooping in and saving them. It involves making them feel like they have allies and options—and seeing that they actually do.
Women like Yuqin Shu and Yang Song pose no threat to anyone. And politically vilified sites such as Rubmaps don't "enable sex trafficking" any more than the Yellow Pages did when escort services were listed there. A panic over massage parlors has swept the nation thanks to cynical and misguided efforts by America's political leaders and law enforcement authorities. Rather than improve the lives of supposed victims, it has created a class of easily exploitable people—and then terrorized them for just trying to survive.
NEXT: Justin Amash Outraises Democratic and Republican Opponents in Fourth QuarterMoral PanicSex WorkSex TraffickingImmigrationXenophobiaLaw enforcementSours: https://reason.com/2020/02/02/massage-parlor-panic/
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We know you're busy. You probably didn't have time to read every article we published on VICE.com this year. So we've compiled a list of some of our favorites and will be re-featuring them on the homepage through the end of 2014. This one originally published on March 20th.
From the outside, Oasis Spa looks like any drab Brooklyn bodega. To an untrained eye not accustomed to seeking out storefront massage parlors, the grimy red awning is virtually invisible among the artisanal coffee shops and Duane Reades in Park Slope. But to an online community of hand-job connoisseurs, the spa is a destination, one of thousands of neighborhood "rub-'n'-tugs" that have swarmed into suburban strip malls and commercial thoroughfares across the United States, opening up a brave new frontier in the Middle American sex industry.
Of course, "happy-ending" massages have long been the worst-kept secret of the sex trade. Operating as legitimate businesses, Asian erotic massage parlors—most of which are run by Chinese or Korean operators—charge a house fee for a massage, and customers then pay an extra tip for whatever sex acts are performed. Intercourse isn't usually on the menu, although some of the seedier establishments do offer "full-service" options and blow jobs.
And evidently, there is no shortage of men willing to fork over $80 for a 30-minute massage and a hand job. Asian erotic massage parlors, or AMPs, have proliferated across the US in recent years and now make up a significant share of the sex industry in several major American cities, according to a massive government-sponsored study on the underground sex economy released last week by the Urban Institute. The landmark report, which examined the size and structure of the commercial sex trade in eight metro areas, found that the number of parlors in the US jumped to 4,790 in 2013, up from 4,197 in 2011. Once concentrated in coastal cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the report also found that massage parlors are rapidly expanding into the Midwest and the South, facilitated by highly organized networks that transport Asian women—many of them brought to the US illegally—through a "circuit" of massage parlors around the US.
Image courtesy of the Urban Institute
Researchers for the study did not attempt to explain the explosion of massage parlors. But the growing popularity of AMPs is clearly visible online, in a growing cottage industry of review boards, forums, and blogs that cater to the men who frequent erotic massage parlors, a strange internet breed who refer to themselves as "mongers." Dudes who previously relied on word of mouth to learn where they could get a good rub-'n'-tug can now find all that information on sites like RubMaps.com, EroticMP.com, and SpaHunters.com, which basically act as Yelps for massage-parlor hunters. Users on the sites post updated locations, review women, and recount in graphic detail the services rendered. (Yelp actually has search results for "happy ending massage," at least in New York, but the results are much less detailed.)
Like most creepy internet sects, "mongers" have their own social code, and many of the users appear to know each other and even track the whereabouts of their favorite massage providers. In a review for one of the top-rated spas on EroticMP.com, for example, one commenter notes that he received a hand job, a blow job, and kissing (no tongue) from a masseuse named Coco, adding, "The breasts were big w/ awesome nipples. The lights were dimmed very low but the kitty felt nicely groomed and not bald. Bald kitty is so easy to do. Getting a creative groomed one is my preference. I will repeat before heading north." In the comments, another user asks whether the provider is "the same Coco that was at Palm Tree some months ago, or is it Coco from the closed Star Therapy?" Another responds: "You know it's not OUR Coco because Fritzy saw her this week!" And so on.
"It's a fascinating world that operates legally on the internet," said Meredith Dank, the lead researcher for the Urban Institute study. "But when you delve into it, it is quite disturbing how openly these men comment on this stuff. Sometimes you'll even see a man comment that [he] thinks [the woman] might be compelled into this, that she looked like she didn't want to do it."
Naturally, mongers have their own language, apparently designed to subvert law enforcement. A glossary of monger slang on RubMaps details an extensive coded language, including expected terms like "FOB" and "mama-san," but also "babyback" for "petite, young attractive Asians," and "Italian" for "penis rubbing between buttchecks." Men also share personal details about their lives, with a surprising number of users discussing how their wives and girlfriends would feel about their penchant for happy endings. "Many of us got into this hobby, because things dried up at home," one RubMaps user wrote in a blog discussion on whether "mongering helps or hurts a marriage." "Many of my married friends complain how blow jobs is the 1st thing to go when they got married. It even goes before the paycheck in some cases. When we go massage parlors, these needs get taking care of. There is no judgement from these ladies [sic]. They will tend to our needs with no strings attached."
Mongering sites have "helped tremendously with guys looking for info on where they are going, provided you are willing to wade through the bullshit," one prolific massage-parlor blogger, who would refer to himself only as Spanky, told me in an email.
But Spanky added that the sites could be unwelcoming to those outside of the mongering community. "One of the problems with monger sites is that they are ridiculously cliquish," he wrote. "So if you ask a question, you are basically going to get [a] 'fuck you' response… A lot of what is being asked has been answered so many times that the old-timers get tired of seeing it and turn inward instead of remembering how they at one point were new themselves. You must grovel for real help or be vouched by someone. If not, good luck."
But even for amateurs, the sites make it remarkably easy to find a local erotic massage parlor, lowering the barrier of entry for a new crop of men with disposable cash and an hour to spare. A quick search on RubMaps revealed 90 open erotic massage parlors in Brooklyn, at least 10 of which were in walking distance to my apartment. Interested to see what goes on inside the parlors, and perhaps get a glimpse of the famous table showers that mongers rave about in their forums, I selected Oasis Spa, which had gotten decent reviews and which users described as "clean and friendly," and walked over on a Sunday afternoon.
Oasis Spa, one of 90 Brooklyn rub-'n'-tugs
At first, the place looked closed, despite RubMaps' promise that it would be open until midnight seven days a week. The door was locked, and the windows were boarded up, although I could see dim mood lighting behind the screens. After a couple of knocks, though, a suspicious middle-aged Korean woman answered the door and reluctantly let me in. The parlor was quiet, with a bed right in the front room and four closed doors along the hallway. Human trafficking aside, it seemed like a decent place for a massage, although there were no cash registers—or customers—in sight. But apparently, Oasis Spa is interested in neither women nor reporters, because, when I asked about a massage, the woman told me that she didn't understand English and proceeded to force me back onto the street.
My experience aside, the openness with which the mongering community discusses these massage parlors—and with which the parlors themselves offer their services—is surprising when you consider that most of these places are viewed as fronts for prostitution by law enforcement. While non-sexual massage parlors are usually regulated by state and local public health codes, the addition of a hand job is usually interpreted as solicitation, even if sex itself isn't on the menu. "Where the general activity 'prostitution' is illegal, every conceivable form of commercial sex can be treated as illegal," said Laura Agustín, the author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets, and the Rescue Industry. "It doesn't make sense, but it happens because, where prostitution is demonized, society fears all forms of commercial sex as leading to prostitution."
The extent to which massage parlors are involved in sex trafficking is largely unclear. Most of the women working in the parlors are smuggled into the country illegally from China, Korea, Thailand, and other Asian countries and are forced to use their tips to pay off exorbitant snakehead debts. But while some of the women are thought to have been brought to the US under false pretenses, Agustín points out that many women are aware that they will be working in the sex industry.
The setup puts the erotic massage parlor trade squarely in the gray area of sex trafficking, with law enforcement unable to determine which women are being coerced into performing sex acts in massage parlors and which women are having sex with customers voluntarily. "All undocumented women in commercial sex are not trafficked," said Agustín, who has spent 20 years [researching the commercial sex industry.](http://migrant workers) "Migrants weigh up many factors when undertaking risky life projects." While there is no formula for preventing employers from exploiting sex workers, she added, legalizing and regulating erotic massage parlors would at least give the women working in the parlors legal recourse to go to the police, change jobs, or quit.
Even in the absence of looser prostitution laws, law enforcement officials are opting not to waste resources on busting ostensibly consenting adults who decide to trade sex behind closed doors, said Dank, the lead researcher of the Urban Institute report. "It's clear that there is a lot of smuggling, but as far as women voluntarily doing this, when [the police] do actually do raids and arrest these women for prostitution… these women are not saying that they are being compelled, for the most part," Dank said.
As a result, federal and local law enforcement agencies still know very little about the way that Asian massage parlors operate, except that the networks are highly organized and adept at stashing their money. Officials quoted in the study described a nationwide network of massage-parlor operators who bring women into Flushing, Queens, or Los Angeles, and then rotate them through various AMPs in Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, and across the Midwest.
"We've seen cases where a woman is quite popular with the clientele; then they will transfer her to a different spa depending on what events are going on in that city," one federal law enforcement agent in Atlanta said in the report. "[In] Dallas, they are home to the Dallas Cowboys, the big stadium there, and if they have some event there they'll transfer their money earners to those clubs. Whereas Atlanta has the SEC championship going on, they'll have more girls come here."
Meanwhile, the money earned by the parlors is eventually wired overseas, making the networks difficult to trace. "The question…, and I don't know the answer to this, is, How organized is the system across all of the cities?" said one Dallas law enforcement official. It's a "very similar scheme you can see across all of the major cities around the country. Then the money goes back and we can pretty much get it to Hong Kong, but we're not going to get it to China."
And clearly, the business model is working. Without any real law enforcement action to crack down on erotic massage parlors, AMPs are continuing to multiply, expanding their tentacles into untapped markets of mongers. "Guys get horny and know they can roll into an AMP and get a known quantity," Spanky explained. It's "not rocket science. Where there is demand there are always enterprising people willing to provide a service."
Tagged:STATESIDEprostitutionBLOW JOBSSex TraffickingBlowjobMassagehandjobssex industryVice Bloghappy endingsasian massage parlorserotic massagesex economycommercial sexmassage parlorshand job
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The Stubborn Cycle of Massage Parlor Trafficking
Less than a mile from quaint downtown Powell, the women were living in a storefront massage parlor. Not by choice, police say, but by coercion. They bathed there, cooked there and slept on massage tables that by day were used for men who expected more than a shoulder rub. As the January bust that shuttered Amsun Spa and others showed, Asian massage parlors are more than tasteless punch lines. They are real, they are here, and they are both home and prison to the women forced to work in them.
Two wooden, hand-painted signs common in towns stuck with the "quaint" label, are posted just outside Powell Police Chief Gary Vest's offices. One points to the O'Shaughnessy Dam and High Street, the other to Columbus and Delaware-cities 17 and 11 miles away, respectively. But your destination on this day is much closer: one-third of a mile down the road.
From the police station, you turn right onto East Olentangy Street and pass many of Powell's vibrant storefronts, including the ultra-hip Kraft House No. 5 restaurant, Prohibition Gastro Lounge and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, 'til you're just beyond the downtown square.
As strip malls go, the one you seek is nondescript, all brick exterior and maroon awnings, but there's safety in this disguise, a sense of legitimacy that comes with this out-in-the-open location.
You turn into the driveway to the Powell Center strip mall, past the marquee advertising two churches, a dentist's office and a daycare. The first business you'll see is a travel boutique promising "One Trip to Paradise." The sentiment might resonate with this quest, but you're not seeking those services.
Today, you're a monger, and you're interested in something far more unusual: Asian massage parlors.
You heard about this particular place from fellow mongers in an Internet chat room dedicated to this interest. You've read their reviews, you've done the research. You're ready for your own happy ending.
But this journey couldn't be duplicated because, a matter of months later, it was all over. The parlor closed, the target moved. Your future quests shifted to any of the dozens of other illegitimate massage parlors in Central Ohio, each one placed in affluent suburbs around Columbus.
You escaped unscathed, because you were smart enough to pay cash, use a fake name, park far from the strip mall and walk to your location-all tips and tricks you learned from friends on online review websites just for Asian massage parlors.
Some of your fellow mongers weren't so lucky. They got caught up in what was the largest human trafficking bust in Central Ohio in a decade.
On Jan. 14, police raided four locations-three Asian massage parlors and one apartment-in Powell, Worthington and Columbus. Officials believe all the locations-two under the name Amsun Massage and one called Rainbow Massage-are connected to a human trafficking ring that stretches from California to New York City to China. The same day, federal agents raided three other massage parlors in Central Ohio, also believed to be connected, but details of those raids have not been made public. Federal agents are investigating the spas' possible role in trafficking people and money between states and internationally.
At least three people were arrested in connection to the local case. They've pleaded not guilty to charges, including promoting prostitution and money laundering. Two of those arrested, sisters Estella Xu, 54, of Pomona, California, and Qing Xu, 57, of Columbus, were free on bail while awaiting trial. Qing Xu's husband, Xiao Shuang Chao, 56, of Columbus, remained in the Delaware County jail.
The targeted massage parlor sites have been closed, but others could be waiting to replace them. The demand from mongers is simply too strong. Illegitimate massage parlor operators know this, and they're eager to cash in. Supply, in other words, isn't lacking.
According to a 2014 study by the liberal-leaning think tank Urban Institute on the underground commercial sex industry in eight U.S. cities, the total industry-inclusive of Asian massage parlors, brothels, street-level prostitution and other sources-fetched between $39.9 and $290 million in 2007, depending on the city.
This demand led to the opening of nearly 600 new illicit massage parlors in the U.S. from 2011 to 2013, pushing the total number to almost 4,800, according to the Urban Institute. A lot of that growth occurred in the South and Midwest, two markets that were previously largely untapped. But it's hard to know exactly how many are operating in Ohio, and that's by design.
"[The massage parlors] present themselves as legitimate businesses, so it's not like you often see something that alarms you or that would make an adjacent business call in," says one Columbus vice detective, who asked we not use his name because he works undercover. "People going to these places know why they're going there, but they're not going to call the police."
Police investigations are based in part on online reviews of massage parlors in Central Ohio; mongers on just one of these massage parlor-specific review sites have reviewed 27 parlors in Central Ohio in the last several years.
Exact figures on how many women are trafficked into the sex trade in Ohio, and specifically into Asian massage parlors, aren't known. That's partly because the Ohio Attorney General's Human Trafficking Commission lumps all human trafficking victims together, whether they were involved in the sex trade (Asian massage parlors, street prostitution) or the labor trade (nail salons). The nature of how Asian massage parlors operate also makes it difficult to arrive at a reliable estimate, says Celia Williamson, a professor of social work at the University of Toledo who specializes in human trafficking. Williamson also chairs the commission's research and analysis committee, making her one of the state's lead resources on documenting this issue.
"We can't tell you specifically how many people are forced into massage work or domestic servitude every year, because we know the women that work in those massage parlors are typically moved around frequently from massage parlor to massage parlor and city to city," Williamson says.
The commission estimates 783 foreign women are trafficked in Ohio every year, whether for an Asian massage parlor, a nail salon or other work. That estimate is considered low, Williamson says.
The commission came up with its figures for Ohio through forecasting models that estimate the size of the foreign human trafficking trade in the United States at large. Those models consider factors like the number of immigrants in a city. "When you have a hidden, underground group of people, you can't definitively say," Williamson says. "It's not the best way [to estimate the number of victims], but it's the way you have to begin."
Williamson says Asian massage parlors represent one of the most difficult aspects of human trafficking to research and understand because there are so many barriers to the women.
The only people who have access to the victims are their customers and their captors, and the women are moved from city to city frequently; captors don't want the women to learn too much about their location or form relationships with repeat customers who could help them escape. The women are also moved, Williamson says, to keep fresh faces in front of customers and make sure the women remain ignorant of U.S. cultural norms.
"[The women often] don't even know we'd consider them victims of a crime," Williamson says.
The victims and their captors are also often from the same ethnic group or might know each other's families, so the threat of violence against relatives at home also looms. The victim's family can be blacklisted by their captors, thus ruining any chance other family members might have of getting assistance to flee their home country.
Most of the 18 women rescued from the Amsun and Rainbow Massage locations are in their 30s and 40s and speak little or no English; most of them came from the same province in China. Since being rescued, they've been moved to various temporary and permanent safe houses in Central Ohio and elsewhere.
While they were at the massage parlors, the women were effectively prisoners, never leaving the spas for any reason. They slept on massage tables at night, bathed in a standup shower stall, made meals with rice cookers, microwaves and slow cookers and kept a fridge stocked with pantry staples like potatoes, eggs and meat.
They were expected to provide sexual services for customers, in part to pay off debts for food, shelter and the cost of the voyage from China to the U.S. Though investigators believe most of the rescued women were in the country before being recruited to work in massage parlors through domestic Chinese-language websites and newspapers, it's not uncommon for victims to accrue massive amounts of debt just to get to the U.S.
According to the Urban Institute study, human trafficking victims can accumulate up to $50,000 in debt for transportation from China to the U.S., often through indirect routes with layovers in places like Guatemala. Sometimes women believe they're coming to the U.S. to enroll in school, become a nanny or join a legitimate massage therapy business. (Some of them, once in the U.S., become lawfully licensed massage therapists; others obtain their forged credentials through other means.) These circumstances make them ideal prey for massage parlor operators.
"[The people running the massage parlors] know there are people who have come here from China who are either trying to claim asylum or trying to live here because there's better opportunity, and they know they can target those people because they're vulnerable," the Columbus detective says. "They're easy bait and a lot easier to manipulate and get into this situation."
The level of sophistication and deceit used by massage parlor operators sometimes shocks even veteran cops. This organized crime network is not quite like the Mafia or others depicted in movies. Think more mom and pop-small, independent, family businesses with a loosely connected network of likeminded affiliates. Sometimes there's a hierarchy, with one person running the entire network, but most often the syndicates work in tandem, helping meet each other's needs.
"For one organized crime group to be able to facilitate this by themselves is an enormous undertaking, so they work in smaller groups," the detective says. "That's where they differ from narcotics. They work together because there's enough money to be had for everyone. … They don't have to worry about rival people getting in their territory. There's so much demand that why fight?"
Some arms of massage parlor networks specialize in the transportation of the women, others in forging documents. Some might specialize in housing; others have ties to government contacts paid to look the other way. Some teach people in other networks how to hide money; many savvy syndicates transfer money to their home country or hide it in other business assets, whether around the corner or in another state.
This level of subterfuge not only makes it harder for law enforcement to track the network, but also to estimate just how large it is and how deep its pockets are. The assembly-line setup helps massage parlors stay mobile and avoid detection.
A new massage parlor can set up in a strip mall, advertise its business online and get customers in months, if not weeks. Just as quickly, the parlors, tipped off to police suspicions, can likewise tear down and move in a matter of hours.
"They will change in less than a day; they will change in the two hours it takes to load up and drive your crew there to execute a search warrant," says one Columbus police sergeant, who also works undercover with the vice unit. "All they have to do is pick those people up, throw them in a vehicle and haul them down the road for six, seven, eight hours and start over."
Upright Management property manager Ralph "Bud" McNichols first took a call from the U-Spa Massage Therapy, a company based in Montebello, California, in late summer 2014. The company operates several massage parlors under various names, and already had at least one in Central Ohio. They were interested in expanding their reach in the area, and wanted to open an Amsun Spa in Powell.
Most of the U-Spa representatives McNichols encountered didn't speak English, so it took a couple weeks to find a translator to help with contract negotiations. It wasn't until Sept. 12, 2014, that the two sides got together in person to sign a lease for the Powell Center strip mall space. By that time, McNichols had already pored through the company's brochures and its website to see whether U-Spa would be a good fit for his Powell Center location.
"As I went through the series of questions on their business and what they were allowed to do and the extent of their business plan, it looked totally legitimate," McNichols says.
At the time, U-Spa already had a Hilliard location and another spot in California. The spa's brochures and website touted reflexology treatments, trigger-point therapy, hot stone treatments and more. The business billed itself online as "Your Mini Vacation Destination" and described its mission in similar terms: "Our mission is to provide the most excellent service possible to make your visit with us a most recuperative, restorative, relaxing and rejuvenating therapy experience. We care about your wellness."
This approach appealed to McNichols.
"My interest was the actual health therapy that people who are older often need," he says. "And since we had the types of businesses we had in Powell Center, I wanted to make sure it was leaning more toward the medical field or educational field.
"When I signed [the property-lease contract], my understanding was they were all licensed health therapists and not necessarily massage therapists."
Before September was over, Amsun Massage Spa was seeing clients.
When a new business opens in Powell, Police Chief Gary Vest likes to send an officer as a welcoming party. In case a break-in or a fire happens at the business overnight, Vest likes to know who to reach out to.
Police didn't make this routine visit to Amsun until Oct. 22, because local officers didn't know the business existed. The massage parlor didn't file the proper paperwork that eventually trickles down to authorities, alerting them of a new enterprise, Vest says.
"They didn't get a building inspection, occupancy permit, the normal things you do [when you open a new business]," Vest says. "So when an officer went, that's the first question I asked: 'Why didn't we know this was a new business?' "
Soon after, cause for concern flared. A few days after their initial visit, Powell police received an anonymous letter that alerted authorities to the business' true nature.
"These people have done nothing to me, but have sincerely hurt one of the girls who left when she found that they lied to her," the tipster wrote. "They told her that they do not do bad things their [sic] and after spending much money and time to get their [sic] found that they were nothing but whorehouses."
Vest turned the letter over to the human trafficking commission, which includes law enforcement officers from local, county, state and federal agencies as well as representatives of government, schools, and religious, academic and social-welfare organizations. Powell police immediately started electronic and physical surveillance of the location.
By November, word was starting to spread in town. Employees of neighboring businesses called McNichols after, Vest says, "A couple guys had walked out on a Saturday morning and commented about their happy ending, and it was heard by somebody nearby."
A monger who uses the online handle "ohiosensi" posted his two-star review of the Powell Amsun on Oct. 7, mere weeks after the spa opened. His review covers the cost of services and the ages of the women working at the parlor, as well as their hair and eye color, hair length and breast size. He checks off the various services one could expect to receive there. Ohiosensi writes he didn't get the name of the girl who gave him his "nice" and "light" massage, then went into more graphic detail about where his roaming hands were allowed (or not) and how the massage ended. The entire review is written as if he's talking about the latest Short North steakhouse.
Before it was raided by authorities in January, the Powell Amsun location was reviewed three other times, twice by one monger who goes by a particularly vulgar name. He's one of the site's most prolific Columbus reviewers.
This reviewer often plays the role of message-board sage, admonishing users for not posting enough and encouraging others to keep visiting the parlors so the businesses will learn their faces and the mongers will earn their trust. His Nov. 12, 2014, four-star review of the Powell Amsun notes that it's "very new and clean," but laments its out-of-the-way location (other mongers online note this as a positive, because they're less likely to be recognized by neighbors or acquaintances). He then matter-of-factly describes his undressing and subsequent massage. "She gave a regular massage with almost no sign of things to come," he writes. "[A]fter the flip pretty much the same until the end!"
In a three-star review posted in December after another visit, he expresses enthusiasm about the looks of his masseuse at the Powell spot ("She is very attractive"), but is bummed to receive only a massage. For this slight, he didn't leave a tip. He says in the review he later regretted this, but he's quick to add he hates being led to believe a certain service will be provided, only to leave disappointed.
A third review of the Powell Amsun location, this one from user "ukemi2000," suggests leaving the "tip in plain sight before the massage began," so the women know what's expected.
Sometimes the mongers are satisfied with a simple massage, but more often they want both legit and illicit services, even if the women aren't enthusiastic about the arrangement. For instance, the Worthington Amsun location was reviewed five times, but many of the message board users criticized the spot for its customer service. In his December review, "ukemi2000" wrote of his four-star experience, "Fairly mechanical, but it got the job done."
"A lot of it is the build-up," the Columbus vice detective says. "That's why a lot of these massage parlors have the girls dress in provocative clothing, and you'll see on the message boards a lot of the guys will talk about touching the girls."
The detective says he's learned the hunt can become a game, an obsession for many men. They love exchanging intelligence to maximize each visit and bragging to their online friends about each "successful" visit. "And these massage parlor owners know this," the detective says. "They pick locations in strategic areas. They pick suburban areas because they know there are males with disposable income. Hilliard, Worthington, Powell-there's no mistake they put their business there."
The reviews on these sites can even play a significant role in determining where a new spa is located.
"You can see how some of these massage parlors are [physically] close to each other and a lot of that boils down to the reviews," the detective says. "If one place is getting a lot of good reviews then that's where the guys will be drawn to."
The websites go well beyond reviews, too. They often include forums in which users can seek advice, ask questions and discuss the ethics of their pastime. ("Is it really cheating?") There are glossariesthat decipher abbreviations and slang used on the sites ("DDE: Doesn't do extras."), and webcams. It truly is a community in some sense, the detective says.
The massage parlor review sites are the latest wrinkle in law enforcement's ongoing fight against human trafficking.
Their presence is both a boon and hindrance to investigators. They make it easier for cops to track the massage parlors, but once there, they are often met with dead ends.
"There's a lot of different ways you can disguise where something's coming from," the detective says. "You can get a fake email address, fake name, you can post from a location that's a public place so the IP address comes back to a coffee shop. Most people think, 'Oh, you should easily be able to find where [a massage parlor] is, but some of [them] are very sophisticated and they mask things most people would think are readily available to us."
The investigations that led to the January raids moved with unusual speed. "There were some things shown to us, told to us, through letters and phone calls that made us go, 'OK, we now have some good, specific information and we should probably focus our resources on these [massage parlors],'" the detective says.
Since the raids in January, authorities have been inundated with tips. Some calls came from about 20 to 30 male clients of Amsun, each one reaching out to law enforcement in the hopes their cooperation might win them leniency. Other calls came from residents concerned about massage parlors in their neighborhoods.
"In the last week alone, probably three to four more locations have been brought to our attention that people want help with or at least a fresh set of eyes to look at if it's a legitimate business," the sergeant said in a February interview. "We will get to those, but I don't know when. It's very labor intensive, and we are a small unit."
While investigations continue, other agencies and organizations are helping the women who were rescued. This approach is relatively new to Ohio.
In 2011, state attorney general Mike DeWine launched the Human Trafficking Commission after a report showed the scope of the problem in Ohio. A similar commission, created by previous attorney general Richard Cordray, served mostly to release reports and recommendations for how to combat these crimes. Among the practices DeWine's commission adopted from cities in other states was to focus on helping victims.
The following year, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 262, commonly called the Safe Harbor Law. In addition to increasing the penalties for traffickers, the bill also improved care for adult human trafficking victims by, among other concessions, allowing them to have their records expunged.
That was a sea change that Michelle Hannan, director of professional and community services at the Salvation Army, says has paid off in Columbus. Instead of treating the rescued women as criminals, government has started responding to them as victims. Agencies like the Salvation Army have joined the Human Trafficking Commission to provide rescued women shelter, food, clothing and any other services they might need.
In part, it's the humane thing to do, the sergeant says.
"When we remove them from this environment they have nothing but the clothes on their back," he says. They do not have income, they do not have food being brought to them. So we need to provide that."
The Salvation Army provides, among other services, a survivor hotline, emergency short-term housing, health care, legal assistance and translator services, either through outside organizations or their own employees, including a victim advocate who often attends raids with cops so victims immediately have someone to talk to. With time and care, victims start to trust law enforcement, and this leads to greater cooperation with investigations.
"Sometimes in the trafficking dynamic, a fear of law enforcement is instilled, so even though we're saying you can really trust this team, they're like, 'I'm not meeting with law enforcement, no way.' The sooner the victim advocate gets to start to talk to them, the better for the longer-term engagement," Hannan says.
In the lead-up to the January raids, the Salvation Army arranged to provide many of the women's basic needs, including safe housing, culturally familiar meals, attorneys and medical care. They arranged for a translator fluent in Mandarin to accompany police on the massage parlor raids so the message was clear from the start: "We're here to help you."
The results have been positive, Hannan says. One of the victims was so overcome with gratitude she made dumplings for police officers, and many others have expressed their appreciation to the Salvation Army team.
But, Hannan says, it's all for naught if demand can't be curbed. Clients must get the message, too. "We have to keep prosecuting and investigating and helping victims and raising awareness, but we can do that for eternity if we don't stop it more on the front end-that's the only way to stem the tide."
Columbus officials believed they had eradicated Asian massage parlors in Central Ohio after a series of large busts in 2005. Four women were arrested that summer, charged with running two North Side brothels masquerading as massage parlors. Officers found $743,000 in cash and records from a bank account containing about $1 million. Bond for one of the women charged in the case was set at $1 billion.
Three weeks later, Franklin County deputies raided a massage parlor in Blendon Township and arrested two women on prostitution charges.
"We put an absolute hurting on them," the sergeant says. "When we hit them, we hit them with nine or 11 search warrants simultaneously, and basically eradicated the problem and made it like, 'Hey, Columbus is on top of this. We don't want anything to do with it.' "
In hindsight, the detective says, these busts displaced massage parlors in Columbus only temporarily. That pattern often plays out across the country, too.
An echo of this can be found in comments made to the Urban Institute by Washington, D.C., officials. Because they found Asian massage parlor cases so difficult to prosecute, D.C. resorted to shutting down the massage parlors by citing public health or public nuisance concerns, instead of trying to launch full-fledged investigations into crime networks. Officials boasted in the report about how well this solution has worked for them, but they also acknowledged it's merely moving the massage parlors elsewhere.
This game of Whac-A-Mole ensues across the country, with each town's efforts to shutter the businesses creating a problem for another community. It's why the vice detective believes the problem will never be permanently solved in Columbus. The demand will always be there.
Indeed, prostitution, it's been said, is the world's oldest profession. In the United States, the practice was largely legal until the early 20th century, when the Mann Act was passed. This 1910 law made it a felony to transport, either between states or internationally, any woman or girl for the purpose ofprostitutionordebauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." Five years later, most U.S. states passed their own laws banning prostitution.
As cultural norms changed through the years, so too did the country's laws on prostitution and human trafficking. The rise of AIDS in the 1980s increased concern about public health problems created by prostitution, and in 2000, Congress extended protection to undocumented immigrants with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
One local approach meant to curtail demand, at least from a domestic prostitution perspective, is found in a Columbus program dubbed "johns school," which was launched in 2007 with the aim of rehabilitating men who've been caught in prostitution stings. The school features former prostitutes as guest lecturers, class discussions on the costs of human trafficking, and visual aids that include color slides of sexually transmitted diseases.
The school, however, has never enrolled a student caught in an Asian massage parlor bust, and it's not entirely clear how effective the program is, says Mike Allbritain, the assistant city attorney who runs the school.
"Unfortunately we've had a couple repeat offenders that came through in 2014," Allbritain says. "I don't know how to view that. I was obviously upset that it happened, but it's a sign that more stings are taking place, more actions are taken to get arrests. But maybe there are guys that go through the program and didn't get caught again.
"There are a lot of guys who come up to me and say this has really, completely changed their view on things. They wish they had known this stuff beforehand."
Williamson, the social work professor and member of the Human Trafficking Commission, says research has shown similar stubborn mindsets prevalent in men who frequent massage parlors. These men, she says, are unable to view the women as victims.
"The women put on this massage for the men, so the men have no idea that this is a trafficking victim," Williamson says. "So the men get the impression that, 'Oh, these women are enjoying this.' The men think they're engaged in consensual adult commercial sex and the law is really bogus, like the law should allow two willing adults to engage in sex for money.
"The man that is ignorant to what is actually happening is the one we're trying to reach, that perhaps you should think twice before you get the idea that this is somebody doing this of their free will. But there's a percentage of men who will hear that message, understand that message and won't care."
This is borne out frequently on the message boards. Many mongers comment on the women's robotic actions or how hesitant they seem to be to go through with their client's expectations.
As the monger with the vulgar handle put it in a July 2014 comment online, "Some of these are hard working girls doing what they are told to do and if you spend a little time and money you can get what you want in a safe and clean environment and I have plenty of both and love the challenge."
It's this mindset that most scares the vice detective. No matter how successful local police are in targeting and shutting down these massage parlors, the detective says, the issue will never go away. It's cyclical. The demand will always be there. It always has been.
"This is an issue we've had for hundreds of years [in the United States]," the detective says. "You can go back to the gold rush, you can go back to any kind of large project, whether it was the Hoover Dam or the Suez Canal, and there's men away from home who have down time and have trafficked women.
"In order to attack demand, you're going to have to attack a culture and society in terms of how women are viewed and how prostitution is viewed. When we start to do that, that's when it'll start to change."
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