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|January 17, 2018

New Report Details Human Trafficking in Massage Parlors

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Jan 17, 2018) – Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and help survivors restore their freedom, released a new report today spotlighting human trafficking within illicit massage businesses, commonly known as massage parlors. The report, Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses, provides new research on the scope of the massage parlor business in the United States and details how this widespread and lucrative industry operates on the edges of legality while hiding massive criminal enterprises.

Release of this report marks the launch of a national campaign to enact state and local laws that regulate massage businesses, similar to how most jurisdictions regulate other businesses like restaurants and beauty salons. Doing so will help eliminate massage parlor trafficking while ensuring the health and safety of customers and employees of therapeutic massage businesses.

In 2017, Polaris analyzed more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking reported through the National Human Trafficking Hotline and developed a classification system of at least 25 distinct types and business models, revealing what human trafficking in the United States truly is. Trafficking related to illicit massage businesses accounted for 2,949 cases—second in prevalence only to trafficking in escort services.

By data mapping and cross referencing numerous publicly available datasets, Polaris found more than 9,000 massage parlors operating in America. They exist in every single state, and revenues for these businesses total approximately $2.5 billion a year. Evidence gathered from the National Hotline, focus groups, and extensive case studies, suggests that thousands of women are being trafficked in massage parlors in the United States on any given day.

Human trafficking isn’t a homogeneous issue, so there can’t be a homogenous response. With 25 distinct types of modern slavery in the United States, it is critical we have tailored strategies to effectively disrupt these criminal networks,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris. “With this report, Polaris is launching a grassroots campaign to combat the human trafficking flourishing within massage parlors, making this activity riskier for traffickers and keeping more people from being victimized.”

“The traditional approach to combating storefront brothels has failed to address the root of the problem,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “These criminal enterprises operate in a sophisticated and coordinated manner, profiting from the sexual and labor exploitation of vulnerable populations. In order to be successful, a strategic and coordinated effort between law enforcement, state and local regulating agencies, and community-based organizations is essential. We must shift to a victim-centered response, emphasizing our efforts to target exploiters and empower survivors. I am proud of my fellow state attorneys general across the country for recognizing the problem and taking the necessary steps to address this national epidemic.”

Women are rarely locked or chained inside massage parlors, but this does not mean they feel empowered to leave,” said Esther Lai, a consultant on IMB survivor experience. They are mentally trapped. Traffickers recruit vulnerable women and control them through debt bondage, shame, and by manipulating the cultural background they bring with them to America. We must shift the paradigm to view these women as victims, not perpetrators. We must adopt a culturally-competent approach that educates them about their rights in America, offers support, provides options, and returns the power of choice to them."

"The complexity of human trafficking in massage parlors means the solution must be focused and strategic,” said Rochelle Keyhan, Polaris’s Director of Disruption Strategies. “People often ask, ‘why don't the cops just shut them all down?’ Law enforcement is critical, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. Traffickers are business owners who take advantage of lax regulations to get away with illegal activities. We must work collaboratively across systems to engage communities to support trafficking victims, and pass and enforce strong business regulations that make it impossible for traffickers to skirt the law."

Key highlights from the report include:

  • Demographic information shows women involved are virtually all from South Korea or China, speak limited English, and are in dire economic straits. Their average age is between 35 and 55, and most are mothers.

  • Women are controlled through fraudulent information about how America works and extreme cultural manipulation and coercion, such as threats to tell their families and friends in home countries that they are working in the commercial sex industry. Due to culture shame, victims of massage parlor trafficking rarely self-identify as victims of sex trafficking but virtually all attest to experiencing labor trafficking.

  • The average massage parlor is part of a larger network of illicit businesses, with networks including shell companies that obscure identities of the real trafficking profiteers that are often laundering money.

  • Massage parlors provide the comfort of a built-in cover story for sex buyers — that they just “wanted a massage.” Buyers at illicit massage parlors are rarely targeted by law enforcement. A strong law enforcement option is demand stings—police operations aimed at holding sex buyers accountable while not arresting trafficked women.

  • Recommendations on system change to end this type of trafficking, include creating legal and regulatory frameworks, passing laws that work, and improving the law enforcement response.

Click here to read the report.

People can receive help or report a tip of suspected human trafficking in the United States by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or by sending a text to Polaris at “BeFree” (233733).

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About Polaris
Polaris is a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery. Named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S., Polaris acts as a catalyst to systemically disrupt the human trafficking networks that rob human beings of their lives and their freedom. By working with government leaders, the world's leading technology corporations, and local partners, Polaris equips communities to identify, report, and prevent human trafficking. Our comprehensive model puts victims at the center of what we do – helping survivors restore their freedom, preventing more victims, and leveraging data and technology to pursue traffickers wherever they operate. Learn more at www.polarisproject.org.