Illicit Massage Businesses

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About

The Problem

In communities across the United States, illicit massage businesses are known venues for human trafficking. Traffickers in these venues commonly operate by opening establishments that are disguised as legitimate massage or bodywork businesses. In the process, they secure legally required permits and licensure to conceal their actual activities: sex trafficking and/or forced labor. As a result, these human trafficking venues are blending in with and operating next to other legitimate businesses in urban business districts, suburban strip malls, and rural towns throughout the U.S.

Many victims are recruited with promises of employment. However, once they arrive, they are controlled by means of debts, threats of violence, blackmail, confinement, psychological manipulation, and in some cases, physical violence. Almost every aspect of their life is controlled — where they live, what they eat, where they go, what they look like, and who they are allowed to talk to. This control, coupled with cultural and language barriers, fear of law enforcement, and no or limited knowledge of their civil and labor rights, has made it difficult for victims to seek support.

The Solution

Government leaders must prioritize and address this issue within their communities to effectively combat human trafficking within illicit massage businesses. In particular, there needs to be a shift in perception so that key stakeholders understand the real harm illicit massage businesses cause as well as the services that victims need to leave their trafficking situation and rebuild their lives. This requires developing community-based awareness campaigns as well as equipping law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and service providers with knowledge and skills to support survivors, target traffickers as criminal actors, and ultimately end the victimization of tens of thousands of women.

Our Work In Action

Polaris is strengthening the safety net for survivors of human trafficking within illicit massage businesses and identifying, compiling and sharing promising practices to dismantle the criminal networks fueling this form of human trafficking. We advocate for and foster a holistic, victim-centered approach through collaboration and partnership with service providers, survivors, government agencies, law enforcement, legitimate massage industry representatives, and other community members.  We ensure that our efforts are informed by cultural and socioeconomic nuances in order to best support all members within affected communities. Together, we will help survivors find the services they need, keep traffickers from harming more people, and shut down illicit massage networks.

The Legitimate Massage Industry 

Polaris does not conflate these illicit businesses with legitimate massage businesses and massage therapists. We recognize and appreciate the health benefits and improved well-being that massage can provide. Polaris seeks to collaborate and align our efforts around human trafficking with massage industry associations and leaders and support the positive reputation of the industry as a whole.

Photo credit: PeskyMonkey/Getty Images

Successes

Working with Indianapolis to shut down six illicit massage businesses

Over the past year, we've been working with law enforcement and service providers to build a national safety net for survivors. We began working with different stakeholders in Indiana in the spring of this year—right around the same time that law enforcement had begun to investigate tips on two or three potential illicit businesses. This month, we were thrilled to see that work in action: the Indianapolis metropolitan police shut down six illicit massage businesses around the city, identifying and assisting several survivors.

Latest News

Blog post

Behind the scenes of an illicit massage business investigation

October 26, 2016

Law enforcement, service providers, and policymakers came together to end sex trafficking at six illicit massage businesses in Indianapolis.

Blog post

Dear Hollywood: Put an End to "Happy Endings"

August 17, 2016

Pop culture tropes about "happy endings" in massage parlors are harmful—and they couldn't be further from the truth.

Blog post

Debt vs. Debt-Bondage: What’s the Difference?

March 1, 2016

What does debt mean to a victim of human trafficking? Often, it's an insidious means of control used to keep them trapped.

Experts/Staff

Meghan Carton

Meghan Carton

Strategic Initiatives Specialist

Rochelle Keyhan

Strategic Initiative Director

Bradley Myles

Chief Executive Officer