Illicit Massage Parlors are currently bringing in nearly $2.5 BILLION a year across the industry.
WARNING➔ Material below may be too disturbing for some.
Sex Trafficking in Massage Parlors has quickly become one of the most common ways we see girls/women being sex trafficked.
Massage parlor trafficking is happening in plain sight, in businesses that operate as if they are legal massage or bodywork establishments. It persists because we choose to ignore it. Whether we are aware of what’s going on, or we are choosing to act as if we don’t, we aren’t doing anything to affect change.
When you know what IS truly happening in these Massage Parlors, it is hard to ignore. Per Polaris Project, the women trafficked in massage parlors are typically immigrants from China or South Korea, usually mothers between the ages of 35-55 who are looking for a way to support their families. They are often lied to or seriously misled by the traffickers about the type of work they’ll be doing when moving to the States.
“Once they are at the massage parlor, traffickers step up their control with a combination of manipulation and blackmail (see additional means of control below). A woman who speaks little English, whose identification documents are held by traffickers, whose finances are controlled by traffickers, and who has been transported by traffickers to an unfamiliar place, is told that she has the “choice” to provide commercial sex or to leave and take care of herself.
Traffickers have told her that if she leaves no one will help her, that the police are corrupt and won't listen to her or believe her, that she will be arrested for prostitution or deported, and that her family will be told the shameful story that she is working in the sex industry in the United States, and will be required to pay off her debts. Given this situation, there is no real choice for the victim. Either she stays at the massage parlor, abiding by the rules set by the trafficker, or risks losing everything.” - Polaris Project
Is it happening in my backyard?
According to a recent study by Polaris Project, there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IMBs) — fronts for selling commercial sex — spread across every state in the United States. For a sense of scale, consider that Starbucks now has approximately 8,222 company-operated stores in the United States.
Why the back doors if it’s only a massage?
One key sign that trafficking might be happening in a massage parlor is advertised prices that are way under market level (like $40 for a one-hour massage in a city where $80 is the norm in professional massage parlors). Unusually low prices means that workers are not likely earning a fair wage. We have to think - How can a massage business survive while charging half the amount that other local massage businesses charge?
Another indicator that a massage parlor may be engaging in illicit activity is a back or side entrance that clients looking to buy sex use to keep from being seen.
Other common indicators include: covered windows (or no windows at all); locked entrance doors that require clients to ring a doorbell/buzzer; and security cameras. You will also often notice male clients coming in and out at all hours of the day (early morning and late night) and hardly ever see “employees” exit the building.
“These criminal enterprises operate in a sophisticated and coordinated manner, profiting from the sexual and labor exploitation of vulnerable populations.”
- Washington State Attorney, General Bob Ferguson
How are victims controlled?
Debt, Shame, Blackmail, Language barriers, Fear of Law Enforcement, Threats to family, Fear of deportation, Physical Abuse, Etc.
“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.”
“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.
What can YOU do?
If you suspect that a location is an Illicit Massage Parlor and in engaging in human sex trafficking, you should instead call in a tip to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) or send a text to Polaris at “BeFree” (233733).
Want to learn more?
If you’d like to to learn more about the cultural background and vulnerabilities shared by many massage parlor trafficking victims, we recommend the documentary “Save My Seoul” (available on Amazon Prime).
Info and statistics from Polaris Project