I am so old that I remember when sexual trafficking was considered a bad thing.
… “happy-ending” massages have long been the worst-kept secret of the sex trade. Operating as legitimate businesses, Asian erotic massage parlors—most of which are run by Chinese or Korean operators—charge a house fee for a massage, and customers then pay an extra tip for whatever sex acts are performed. Intercourse isn’t usually on the menu, although some of the seedier establishments do offer “full-service” options and blow jobs.
And evidently, there is no shortage of men willing to fork over $80 for a 30-minute massage and a hand job. Asian erotic massage parlors, or AMPs, have proliferated across the US in recent years and now make up a significant share of the sex industry in several major American cities, according to a massive government-sponsored study on the underground sex economy released last week by the Urban Institute. The landmark report, which examined the size and structure of the commercial sex trade in eight metro areas, found that the number of parlors in the US jumped to 4,790 in 2013, up from 4,197 in 2011. Once concentrated in coastal cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the report also found that massage parlors are rapidly expanding into the Midwest and the South, facilitated by highly organized networks that transport Asian women—many of them brought to the US illegally—through a “circuit” of massage parlors around the US.
Illicit massage businesses (IMBs) that
front for commercial sex operations have been ubiquitous in the American landscape for decades, with an estimate of more than 9,000 operating today.
Commonly called “massage parlors,” these businesses dot the sides of highways and are tucked into suburban strip malls between fast food restaurants and dollar stores and behind darkened windows in storefronts in some of America’s biggest cities. While some keep a low profile, many others blatantly advertise “Asian gals,” or bear sexualized names like “Good Girl Spa.” Anyone looking to purchase commercial sex is just a few clicks away from any number of review sites that offer extremely detailed information about both the businesses themselves and the individual women exploited within them.
The sheer number of fake massage businesses, coupled with the impunity with which they operate, has over time fostered widespread — if tacit — cultural acceptance of the industry. The frequent wink, wink, nudge, nudge references to “happy endings,” in popular culture is just one manifestation of perception that while commercial sex is illegal, in this context, it is essentially harmless.
That perception is wrong. There may be women who choose to sell sex either along with or under the guise of massage therapy, but evidence suggests that many of the thousands of women engaging in commercial sex in IMBs or “massage parlors” are victims of human trafficking.
To those women, the term “happy ending,” with its faint whiff of fairy tale, is cruelly ironic. Most of them are immigrants, chasing a dream of financial stability in a faraway land, seeking not a prince but a steady job with decent wages. So they answer an ad for a massage therapist and discover, too late, that “massage” is a euphemism and that they are expected to provide services for which they will be paid some portion of the tips they earn, if they are lucky, or less, if they are not. They live in substandard conditions, work illegal hours “on call,” and many feel they have no choice but to comply with the mandate to perform sex acts. They are told they will be deported by immigration, or their families will be hurt; that they owe the owner money and that if they leave, police will arrest them for prostitution.
Every story is a little different but they all share a common pattern that combines fraud, threats and lies with poverty, fear and the potential for violence.
…The vast majority of women reported to have been trafficked in IMBs are from China, with a relatively high number coming from the Fujian province. The next highest group are women from South Korea. There is a notable minority of IMBs that have victims from Thailand or Vietnam.22 The average age of victims in IMBs is 35-55…
San Gabriel Valley massage parlor owner accused of sex trafficking
A woman who ran two massage parlors in the San Gabriel Valley was arrested this week on suspicion of trafficking her employees and forcing them into commercial sex work, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Mei Xing, 57, of San Gabriel allegedly ran two massage businesses and a residence as illegal brothels, authorities said…
Evidence “consistent with commercial sex work” was found at each location, and several women were interviewed as potential trafficking victims who were referred to victims’ services providers, authorities said.
Detectives from the multiagency Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force began investigating Xing in July. Authorities said financial crimes, including money laundering, also were suspected.
L.A. County to inspect massage parlors in fight to end human trafficking
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to require routine inspections of massage parlors by health officials looking for signs of human trafficking.
Supervisor Janice Hahn recommended an ordinance that would apply to businesses in unincorporated areas of the county.
“Some of the massage parlors in our communities have actually become safe havens for sex trafficking, for human trafficking,” Hahn said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion, said she had seen such businesses opening in areas dominated by heavy industry, where they didn’t seem to fit.
“In the City of El Monte, where I live, there are many massage parlors popping up in obscure places,” Solis said.
Hahn mentioned signs offering massages for as low as $15. “I’m afraid that it’s because they’re coercing people to work there for little or no money,” she said.
Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Marks of the department’s Human Trafficking Bureau cited “a massive increase” in the number of massage businesses and told the board that nearly every complaint that comes in to the bureau results in an arrest.
The Sheriff’s Department has partnered with Polaris, a nonprofit group working to combat human trafficking. Researchers with the group found that of 1,500 separate ads for women in the massage industry, roughly 25% used telephone numbers that matched those used by websites offering a variety of sexual services.
A representative of another advocacy group said California leads the nation in cases of human trafficking, which includes both sex and labor trafficking, based on data collected by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“Our clients are recruited under the guise of a massage business and endure violence and severe threats and, of course, no pay and the inability to leave,” said Kay Buck, chief executive officer of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. “All of these women, very young women, are living in slave-like conditions.”
The Los Angeles city attorney’s office is trying to ban a group of massage parlor owners from operating within the city, accusing them of running fronts for prostitution in Eagle Rock and other areas, officials said Wednesday.
In a lawsuit citing the state’s Red Light Abatement Law, City Atty. Mike Feuer alleges that the owners of four massage parlors have, for years, operated the businesses as brothels and advertised their services on Craigslist.
An athlete with sore muscles or an office worker with a stiff neck could not browse long online without running into websites offering Yelp-style reviews of sexually oriented massage parlors. Posters swap information, using abbreviations and acronyms to throw authorities off the trail. One site shows 44 erotic massage establishments in San Gabriel alone.
…Many Chinese massage businesses, he says, operate like loose collectives. Property owners charge fees to masseuses but rarely show up to manage the business themselves. Masseuses hop between businesses depending on where the foot traffic is best — so they’re often able to stay a step ahead of the police, he says.
A study by the Urban Institute, a think tank, described a highly organized sex trafficking ring revolving around a chain of massage parlors in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In January, the San Gabriel Valley city of Montebello closed U-Spa, a massage business, after police made a prostitution arrest there. Local authorities never charged its owner, Estella Xu, with any crime, but she and two relatives are facing prostitution and human trafficking charges in Delaware.
Among the people most upset with the San Gabriel Valley’s influx of massage establishment are the practitioners, who complain that the glut has driven their hourly rates below $20 an hour.
“This is the cheapest place to get a massage in America,” says Xiao Chen, a masseuse at the Shangri-La Day Spa on Valley Boulevard.
Chen became a masseuse seven years ago to make money. She paid about $3,800 for courses at a Chinese-run school of massage, then a few years ago, changes in state law made her certification invalid, she says. She invested two months and an additional $3,800 on courses at a council-approved school…
Manny Serrano, the owner of the Edible Arrangements store, says he doesn’t doubt that some massage businesses are legitimate. But at the massage parlor next door, he said he had seen the women touch their genitals to solicit bystanders, he says.
“I understand there are therapeutic reasons for massage, but when you have eight or 10 on the same block, you have to think there’s something going on,” Serrano said. “My customers always comment on it.”
SACRAMENTO — Cities, counties and law enforcement officials across California are bristling at a 6-year-old law that they contend prevents regulation of massage parlors they suspect offer more than therapeutic bodywork.
A profusion of massage parlors, often near schools and neighborhoods, creates blight, they complained at a legislative hearing.
Local government officials told lawmakers last week that they’re frustrated by a 2008 law that sought to regulate illicit massage parlors and support legitimate spas and other businesses…
The statute may be well intended, but it prevents cities and counties from using zoning and other laws to control illicit massage parlors, whose workers sometimes are victims of human trafficking, mayors and police chiefs said.
The legislation “created loopholes that have left our city unequipped to regulate massage establishments,” said Capt. Kelly Mulldorfer, a vice commander at the Los Angeles Police Department. She estimated that the city has more than 400 storefront massage businesses suspected of engaging in prostitution at the same time they pose as legitimate council-certified massage therapy operations.
The hearing convinced one panel member, Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), that “the law is not working” and has led to an increase in prostitution and human trafficking.
Reporting from Sacramento — — State lawmakers have come up with a way to help California cities deal with a proliferation of massage parlors with suspected links to prostitution and human trafficking.
New legislation is aimed at fixing an inadvertent loophole created by a 2008 law that created a state-sponsored council to oversee the regulation of legitimate massage therapy businesses, such as spas and clinics.
The loophole led to an explosion of massage parlors in many cities. For example, their number grew by nearly 500% to 75 in the city of Huntington Beach between 2009 and 2013.
First it was pot shops. Now it’s erotic massage parlors.
In the last two years, they’ve proliferated in the city — just as dispensaries did, and for a familiar reason.
In both cases, Los Angeles failed to quickly assess and act upon the ramifications of a new state law.
Police say they’ve seen numerous illicit massage parlors open in Hollywood, Koreatown and the San Fernando Valley. But the biggest explosion has been in Eagle Rock, which is a community that was also inundated with medical marijuana dispensaries.
An online directory of erotic massage establishments lists nearly 30 in Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, including 15 on a two-mile stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard. One of them, Surprise Massage, advertises “Fairytale Oriental Massage” with “Sexy Pretty Asian Girls NOW.”
“You can drive down the street and see one on every block,” said Michael Larsen, the president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. “Our community is being inundated with prostitution.”
The problem is connected to a 2009 state law that created voluntary state certification for massage therapists. The intent was to make it easier for legitimate massage therapists to work anywhere in the state.
The law said therapists with state certification could no longer be subjected to stringent local vetting. In Los Angeles, for instance, where city code classifies all parlors as “adult entertainment,” licensed therapists would no longer have to apply for police permits, which require fingerprinting and background checks.
Many cities — including Culver City, West Hollywood and Glendale — promptly began requiring those applying to open massage parlors to show their state certification.
But Los Angeles failed to do so, instead asking applicants only to state if they were certified, not to show proof, according to Officer William Jones, who is in charge of the Los Angeles Police Commission’s permit processing section.
As a result, it became an easy place for erotic massage parlors to set up shop.
Ahmos Netanel, who heads the California Massage Therapy Council, a nonprofit set up by the state in the massage certification bill, said L.A. should rewrite its code.
“My understanding is that the city has basically stopped regulating,” Netanel said. “We have shared with them that this is unusual.”
In Eagle Rock, patience is wearing thin.
Businessman Rudy Martinez said the proliferation of massage parlors was one of the reasons he ran for City Council against Councilman Jose Huizar.
Martinez owns a restaurant, Mia Sushi, on Eagle Rock Boulevard. The street is lined with banks and grocery stores, karate studios and churches.
But in the last year and a half, he said, one massage parlor opened up next to his restaurant and another popped up across the street. Both establishments advertise with blinking neon lights and are listed on adult websites, where clients post reviews of sexual services.
“If you sit on our patio, you can see about 30 to 40 men coming in and out of there,” Martinez said. “They stay for 15 to 20 minutes. I’ve never seen one woman walk in.”
Once, he said, he saw a man run out of one of the parlors barefoot, wearing no pants.
“It’s sickening. It’s ridiculous,” Martinez said. “It takes away from that community environment that you want where you live.”
Martinez said he’s frustrated by how massage businesses are developing “the same way as the dispensaries.”