Beyond the Raid: Reporting in Depth on Massage Parlor Trafficking

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Arrests are made at a massage parlor. Now what? 

Law enforcement raids a local massage parlor, arresting several women. Busy reporters, editors, and producers then take the information available — names, photos, and charges — and run with it. 

But there is often a more interesting and important story to be told, beyond the mug shots and prostitution charges. Research shows that many of the women providing commercial sex in massage parlors are doing so against their will. They are victims of human trafficking. 

  

 

Here’s some information to help you get started on digging deeper.

Basics of massage parlor trafficking 

Illicit massage parlors are a $2.5 billion a year industry in the United States with more than 9,000 storefronts dotting the sides of highways, lining city streets, and lurking innocuously in strip malls in every state in the union. 

The victims of massage parlor trafficking in the United States almost all:

  • Recently arrived from China or South Korea
  • Carry debts or are otherwise under extreme financial pressure
  • Speak little or no English
  • Are mothers in their mid 30s to late 50s

They are recruited through fraudulent advertisements that promise big money and good working conditions. When they arrive they are lied to, threatened, and manipulated into providing commercial sex for little or no money. 

What happens when law enforcement raids

Many law enforcement jurisdictions are still learning about human trafficking in massage parlors. They may not know the right questions to ask or even that they should ask at all.  

Meanwhile, victims of massage parlor trafficking are living in extreme fear and constant shame. They know little about how law enforcement works in the United States or about their rights. 

On top of this, traffickers deliberately misinform them, saying that the police will not help them, and instead will arrest and deport them. Traffickers may threaten to expose and shame the women to their families back home, or even to harm their family members if they speak up.

 

All this means that when law enforcement sweeps in to shut down a massage parlor, the women there are extremely unlikely to come forward and disclose that they are trafficking victims. Instead, they are booked on charges related to prostitution — and the media may have access to their names, sometimes their pictures, and that’s all.  There is no way for reporters to know if they are victims of human trafficking. 

What you can do: protect the victims, follow the money

First and foremost, please consider treating a woman arrested in a massage parlor raid as you would a victim of sexual assault. Specifically, that means not publishing her name or her photo. 

Then take the opportunity to dig deeper, following the money to shed light on whether these illicit massage parlors are part of larger organized crime networks operating in your community under everyone’s noses.

Here’s a few questions to get started: 

  • Who owns and operates the business? Pull the business license for details, and report on the business owners and operators. Many massage parlor owners also own other businesses — including other massage parlors, salons, laundromats, grocery stores — that they use to launder money and hide the discrepancy between advertised prices and the extra money they get for providing commercial sex. Sometimes this information is publicly available. If not, consider cross-referencing advertisements to see for example, if a massage business shares a phone number with a nail salon.
  • Who is the landlord or property owner? If someone is collecting rent checks, they too are profiting from an illicit business. Find out who the landlord is and ask them what action they plan to take. Will they evict the tenants? Will they face consequences if they do not?  

  • Who has been buying sex at the parlor? Ask the police what happened to any buyers they found in business during the operation. What kinds of consequences will they face? Instead of publishing the women’s names or photos, consider publishing those of buyers instead.
  • What are your local massage business regulations? Take a look at the laws in your state, city, or county. Do they penalize workers for violations, while letting business owners totally off the hook? Do you have zoning laws only, to keep massage parlors away from schools and churches? These types of laws make it easy for traffickers to operate and, if they get caught, defer all blame to the victims. Strong laws instead focus on regulating business operations, putting responsibility squarely on those who own and operate massage parlors. 


Choosing the right words and images

As you are digging into the story, consider a few other tips for covering massage parlor stories: 

  • DO NOT use the term “prostitution” if you can avoid it. Use “commercial sex” instead, as a less stigmatizing term. 
  • DO NOT focus on “harm to the community.” The real harm is happening to one group of people only — trafficking victims. So as much as possible, avoid framing your story around how close a parlor is to a school or a church or insinuating that massage parlors are something “dirty” that needs to be “cleaned up.” This framing invokes shame that may be transferred to victims. 

A few recent examples of good reporting

Need examples? Here’s a few good examples of reporting that tells the real — and really interesting — story behind the police report: 

Polaris is actively working with stakeholders on the ground nationally, and we are happy to connect with journalists to discuss local context. You can get in touch via email at media@polarisproject.org

Thank you! 

We hope that these tips are helpful, and we welcome your feedback! To learn more about massage parlor trafficking, and read our analysis of 21 months of news coverage, take a look at our recent report.

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