In over 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IMBs) across the United States, victims are forced into human trafficking. According to Polaris research, these businesses are often organized into criminal networks with revenues of around $2.5 billion a year.
Overview of massage parlor trafficking
In 2017, Polaris developed a classification system that identifies 25 distinct types of human trafficking in the United States.
Trafficking related to massage parlors was second in prevalence only to trafficking in escort services.
The data available almost certainly does not represent anything close to the scope of the problem. Traffickers operate in the shadows, and the tools they use to exploit victims are such that the victims themselves often do not know that what is happening to them is against the law.
Evidence suggests that many of the thousands of women engaging in commercial sex in illicit massage businesses (IMBs) are victims of human trafficking.
To be considered human trafficking in any venue, a situation must include one of the following:
- Force: Violence or threat of violence
- Fraud: Deceitful recruitment, fraudulent debt accumulation
- Coercion: Emotional manipulation; document confiscation; threats of arrest, deportation, exposure and shaming; consequences to family members
Massage parlor trafficking is big business
Our research shows that more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses are open for business in America, hiding in plain sight in strip malls, dotting the sides of highways, and on busy commercial strips in every state. Their total revenue hovers around $2.5 billion annually.
Key indicators that a business is selling commercial sex and is a possible human trafficking venue include:
- Prices for massages significantly below market
- Serves primarily or only male clientele
- Locked front door, customers can only enter if buzzed in or through discreet back or side doors
- Windows covered
- Women appear to be living in the establishment
How massage parlor trafficking works
The women trafficked in massage parlors mostly:
- Recently arrived from China or South Korea
- Are under extreme financial pressure
- Speak little or no English
- Have no more than a high school education
- Are mothers in their mid 30s to late 50s
They are often recruited through fraudulent ads that misrepresent pay and hide the sexual nature of the job. Once there, they work excessive hours and are paid less than minimum wage (or nothing) and told that this is normal. They are threatened with arrest, deportation, or shame to their families if they quit.
Massage parlor trafficking networks and organized crime
While it may look like a standalone business, the average illicit massage business is part of a larger network of illicit businesses.
- The average IMB connects to at least one other IMB as well as non-massage venues such as nail salons, restaurants, grocery stores, and dry cleaners.
- These connections are utilized to move women from states that are ports of entry, such as New York and California, to IMBs around the country.
- Overwhelmingly, these connected businesses are used to launder money earned from the IMBs. Networks generally include shell companies that obscure identities of the real trafficking profiteers.
Your role in ending massage parlor trafficking
Ultimately, we are all part of the solution. Rather than look for quick fixes, we can all participate in creating lasting systemic and cultural change. Steps include:
- Advocate for sound laws regulating massage businesses. Let elected officials know this matters to their constituents.
- Call out the press for exposing victims. Let newspaper reporters and editors know they should not publicize the names of women arrested for “prostitution” at massage parlors.
- Share what you know and shut down “happy endings” jokes. We are all responsible for shifting our culture to one that treats human trafficking as a serious problem, not a joke.
Passing civil laws to end massage parlor trafficking
Many businesses, like restaurants and beauty salons, operate within regulations designed to ensure health and safety of customers and employees. Massage laws should be crafted along similar lines. Unfortunately, few cities, states or counties have such laws on the books.
- Are the same across state, county and city jurisdictions, so traffickers cannot easily move to a nearby “friendlier” location,
- Regulate business operations — like hours of operation, back-door entrances, and buzzer-controlled doors.
Improving law enforcement response to massage parlor trafficking
While law enforcement cannot be held solely responsible for ending human trafficking in IMBs, improving law enforcement approaches is a key piece of the puzzle.
- Replace undercover stings with “demand” stings, targeting sex buyers who visit IMBs.
- Launch organized crime investigations into trafficking networks.
- Create systems to investigate trafficking across jurisdictions.
- Connect victims with support and access to legal and social services that meet their expressed needs.
Other systems changes to end massage parlor trafficking
- Exposing anonymous shell companies. A staple of criminal enterprises, shell companies seek to disguise who really owns a company.
- Vetting on sites like Yelp and Groupon. Allowing IMBs to pretend to be legitimate businesses perpetuates buyers’ comfort and strengthens the fiction that these are legitimate businesses.
- Taking responsibility as commercial landlords. Landlords can educate themselves about IMBs and keep them off their property.
- Reframing media coverage. News stories often expose potential victims, as opposed to the traffickers who are the real perpetrators.