January 22, 2018, Orlando, FL
We’ve all seen it, the massage parlor in the strip plaza with blacked-out windows, often advertising Asian massage for a very low rate. In Orlando, they’re everywhere – from Winter Park to Kissimmee and everywhere in between. What are these places really selling?
Many of these establishments are fronts for sex trafficking and are better referred to as Illicit Massage Businesses (IMBs).
It is estimated that there are at least 9,000 of these IMBs in the United States today and most operate with impunity. They force women to perform sex acts and reap the profits. Their victims are raped repeatedly and are often beaten by customers.
While other forms of sex trafficking primarily target American youth, sex traffickers most often exploit women from other countries in illicit massage businesses. They primarily come from China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand and take advantage of their poor English, poverty, and lack of legal understanding to manipulate and control them.
Jin* was a young mother from China. She left her abusive husband and needed to provide for her 1-year-old son. When she found a post for a high-paying job in America, she borrowed thousands of dollars from family to take the job. When she arrived, she went to work as a massage therapist; however, her first client became violent when she didn’t offer a “happy ending” (the term most often used for sexual acts in IMBs). Her employer said, “All massages include sex, so get used to it.” He also controlled when she worked and where she lived, charging her an exorbitant rent. Jin was stuck – trafficked, ashamed, and alone.
How to tell if a massage business is illicit:
- Prices significantly lower than market-level
- Women ask for a large tip
- Women work excessive hours or are always on call
- Women live in the business
- Serves primarily male clientele
- Locked front doors, must be buzzed in, or back door entrance
- Windows are covered
- Regular rotation of women every few weeks
- Advertising on commercial sex websites
Legitimate establishments do not do this. For example, Massage Envy has regular hours, clear windows, and serves males and females – they are a legitimate massage franchise.
A recent report by the Polaris Project indicated that in Houston, TX, there are 2,869 customers per day in the city’s 292 illicit massage businesses. The busiest time of day was during the lunch hour. When you cross this with the demographics of a popular massage parlor website, we find that many married men exploit trafficking victims on their lunch break.
To break the cycle of abuse, serious legal action must be taken. States must impose laws to decrease the ability for these businesses to continue with impunity. For example, adding laws that would outlaw buzzer-controlled front doors, imposing strict hours of operations, and regulating strong health business standards would go a long way.
What can you do?
- Call your legislators and city council members and tell them you want to stop human trafficking by cracking down on massage parlors and providing care to victims.
- Report suspicious activity. You cannot arrest someone for having dark windows; therefore, you must have evidence of improper activity at an establishment. For example, online reviews for the business of a graphic nature or witnessing victims being transported are reasons to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-3737-888
- In Orlando, massage businesses open after midnight are breaking the law. Call 911.
To learn more, read the full report by the Polaris Project here.