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October 16, 2018

Is your local news protecting massage parlor trafficking victims?

Do you remember the last time you saw a story in your local news about illicit activities at a massage parlor? Maybe it looked something like this:

What you might not have realized is that many of the women in the photos are actually human trafficking victims. Instead of being protected like other victims of crime, they are being exposed and publicly shamed. 

Why are victims not being identified as victims?

The victims of massage parlor trafficking do not typically react to a police raid the way you might expect. Instead of telling police, “I’m a victim, please help me,” they are more likely to say nothing, or even assume responsibility, because they feel this is the best way to protect themselves and their families. 

According to our research, women trafficked in massage parlors are typically mothers in their mid 30s to late 50s, who have recently arrived from China or South Korea, and speak little English. They are usually under extreme financial pressure, and are deeply ashamed to have been fraudulently recruited and coerced into providing commercial sex. They know little about how law enforcement works in the United States, or about their rights here. 

Deliberate misinformation

Traffickers take advantage of their victims’ vulnerabilities by deliberately misinforming them. They may tell the women that the police will not help them, and instead will arrest and deport them. They may threaten that if the women say anything to police, the traffickers will expose and shame them to their families back home. They may even threaten violence to the women’s family members, or to hold them responsible for the women’s debt.

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

When busy reporters write a story about an arrest in a massage parlor, they typically take the information available — names, photos, and charges — and run with it. If the local police release a statement about a prostitution arrest, there’s a very high chance that the reporter will write a story exposing a potential victim of human trafficking to an audience of thousands or even millions of readers.  

How can we fix it?

First of all, Polaris is working with law enforcement in cities around the country to conduct investigations that focus on identifying and arresting traffickers — not potential victims — and to partner with culturally-competent service providers to make sure that victims have access to help. 

Secondly — and here’s where you come in — we’re reaching out to reporters to consider treating any woman arrested in a massage parlor raid the same way they would treat a victim of sexual assault. Specifically, that means not publishing her name or her photo.

Instead, we’re asking reporters to dig deeper into the story. By asking a few simple questions, they can uncover a fuller picture of what is going on below the surface. 

These questions include things like: 

  • Who owns and operates the business? The people who own and operate a massage parlor are the people who profit from illicit activity. Who are they? Do they own other businesses? Illicit massage parlors are often connected to other businesses in a criminal network  —  information that is possible to uncover with some simple googling. 
  • Who is the landlord? If someone is collecting rent checks, they too are profiting from an illicit business. What action do they plan to take now that they know illicit activity is occurring on their property?
  • Who has been buying sex at the parlor? Stories about massage parlors are often told without mentioning customers at all. That’s odd, because demand is what makes massage parlor trafficking a $2.5 billion annual industry in the United States. Looking into who is buying sex can shift the way the community thinks about the issue and how to address it.

The last thing that traffickers want is someone looking into their business practices — or their customer base. Their hope is to remain unnoticed and hidden in plain sight. This is why reporting that shines light on the above questions is so powerful  —  it creates increased pressure on traffickers, making it difficult for them to operate. 

What can you do? 

The next time you see a massage parlor story that exposes potential victims, or simply doesn’t dig deep enough, use your voice to reach out to the reporter or publication. Here are two ways you can have an impact: 

1. Send the reporter an email

A quick email is an easy, private way to make your voice heard. Here’s a sample email you could write: 

Subject: Massage parlor trafficking

Hi [reporter’s name], 

I just read your piece, “Local massage parlor raided” and wanted to let you know that it’s possible that there is more to the story — human trafficking might be involved. Take a look at this resource to learn about massage parlor trafficking and ways reporters can dig deeper to find out what’s really going on inside illicit massage parlors.   

Thank you, 
[Your name]

When drafting your email, keep in mind that the reporter likely has no idea that massage parlors are a common venue for human trafficking. Aim to be kind and helpful in your outreach. 

You can usually find a reporter’s contact information by clicking on their byline, or by looking them up on Twitter (tip: many reporters have their email addresses in their twitter bios). If you can CC their editor as well, even better! (that might take a little more digging - editors are usually listed on the publication’s “Staff” or “Contact Us” page). 

2. Submit a letter to the editor 

This option requires a little more effort than an email, but it’s extremely powerful because of how many people in your community may read your letter. 

A letter to the editor is a short (usually 250-300 words maximum) letter published in the Opinion section of the newspaper, expressing a reader’s concerns. When you identify an article you’d like to comment on, the first thing you should do is search for the "Letter to the Editor" submission guidelines for the publication. They’re usually on the Opinion page and will include the word limit and where to send your letter (here’s what the Chicago Tribune’s guidelines look like). 

Once you know the parameters, you can make your case about why the article you read doesn’t go far enough in making the connection to potential human trafficking, and how the publication can protect victims going forward by not sharing identifying information. 

Some potential points to emphasize include: 

  • It’s possible human trafficking might be involved in this story
  • Reasons potential victims don’t typically self-identify to police
  • Ways to dig deeper into the story (use the suggestions listed earlier in this post)

Here’s an example of a letter we had published recently in the Chicago Tribune that hits all of these points. A powerful letter that is likely to be published will be uniquely responsive to a specific article. 

Your voice can make a big difference! 

There’s no law prohibiting media outlets from publishing the identities of sexual assault victims. The reason none of them do it is because they know it’s not ethical — and that they would face tremendous public outrage if they did. 

It’s time to help the media understand that potential trafficking victims belong in this same protected category, and that there’s a deeper story to tell. Your email or letter to the editor can truly be a catalyst for change in your community. 

If you’d like to learn more about massage parlor trafficking read our recent report or sign up for our Grassroots Network for updates.

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