Amy says they put up the "no sex" sign after clients kept requesting sexual services. Men come into her spa, plunk down $30, she massages them, and then they furtively look around—here, she mimes this look—and ask for sex. "When I don't give it," she says, "they won't give me the money, and I call 9-1-1." I ask her if women want erotic massages as well. "Yes," she replies. "Some women ask if you can massage them here," and at that she begins rubbing her breasts, mimicking her clients. "Please, please," she says, laughing as she continues kneading herself.
Massage parlors have long been tied to sex in the United States. "Massage parlors… are simply houses of prostitution which the law fosters rather than checks," Reverend Frank M. Goodchild wrote in 1896. While the number of Chinese women working in these parlors was probably smaller then than it is today, immigrant prostitution flourished in San Francisco before the turn of the 20th century, and hysteria surrounded these sex workers. "We have shown that Chinese prostitution exists among us as the basis of the abject and satanic conception of human slavery," the Special Committee of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco investigating Chinese immigration stated in 1885. Echoes of these attitudes, which were not entirely baseless—trafficking was in fact significant—remain to this day.
From the raft of media reports detailing exploitation in massage parlors, I expected Jenny's day-to-day life in the spa to involve constantly servicing men, hour after hour. But from what she told me, the reality was quite different. When I talked to her, she was working an eight-hour shift, usually starting in late morning or afternoon. She said she had about five to six clients a day, which meant two to three hours of downtime.
"One of the reasons that I left the police department [was] because besides all the corruption that I saw, I saw how they treated sex workers."—Norma Jean Almodovar, former LAPD officer
Trafficking was not described as a serious problem by the Asian massage workers I spoke to, and no good data exists on how large the problem is. But workers do face dangers that aren't so commonly discussed, many of which directly result from official campaigns against trafficking, and from the cops who wage them.
"The only unusual circumstance in that is that Song Yang either was pushed or threw herself off of that fourth story window. But police officers sexually abusing sex workers… and sex workers being reticent and cautious around the police… is very common," Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications at the advocacy group Decriminalize Sex Work, said. "But I don't think that this was an isolated incident, or like one bad apple…. This is not a rescue operation. These women are rationally running. Because what's about to happen next is a nightmare."In 2016, one teenage sex worker in Oakland, California, said she was trading sex with 14 police officers in exchange for information on prostitution raids. The Urban Justice Center's study of 30 New York sex workers found that roughly a third of the admittedly modest sample size said they were harassed by police, and five (17 percent) sexually harassed or assaulted. A study of 91 female Midwestern sex workers found that 90 percent had experienced harassment by the police. Of that group, 70 percent were asked for further details, and 30 percent of that group said "police would sexually abuse them, either by demanding sex, assaulting them sexually, trading sex with them in exchange for releasing them from criminal charges, or arresting them after having sex or despite having sex."But, again, comprehensive data are hard to come by."There's no statistics from the government, the government doesn't keep track of that. But I keep track of the numbers of cases," said Almodovar, the former cop and sex worker. "I just have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of cases."
Money is what's driving predominantly Chinese people to come to the U.S. to work in massage parlors, according to many people I talked to. Some women come intending to do sex work, some not, but it's not a secret what goes on in many spas."It's never explicitly said, but a lot of people do realize that this is what they're going to do," said Jenny. "In China, too, there's tons of warnings of like, 'Don't do this, you’re going to, you might end up in prostitution.'"Emily, for her part, suggested some might not have expected to do sex work, only to find they had no alternative. "From my experience, most of them came over expecting to work in the service industry—nail salons, massage parlors, restaurants," she said. Oftentimes, Chinese workers find ads for these jobs on social media apps like WeChat, and they pay a broker to help get a visa to come to the U.S. Some come to work in the massage industry at the urging of their relatives, according to Jenny.Critics of the way massage parlor sex work is policed conceded it was an industry that invited abuse by bosses, but that such problems weren't specific to sex work. Jenny said massage parlors have better working conditions than other forms of work Chinese immigrants with limited language skills can get. "If you do sex work, you usually will get paid more than what you are paid in domestic work, and you don't necessarily have to live there," she said. "Everyone's talking about how people are living in massage parlors and nobody is talking about how people are actually living with their employers in domestic work, you know? And how exploitative some of those conditions are."
Massage workers "are just trying to make a living, whether it's legit or it’s not," said David Bredin, a Flushing lawyer who represents spa workers. "A lot of women don't see [manual stimulation] as prostitution—they just want to support themselves."
Advocates said [massage workers not talking to police] was less a product of a carousel of sex slavery than the precarity of immigrant labor.
While the specter of sex slavery tends to make for a compelling story—and immigrants are sometimes trapped in nightmarish situations—what the public should really focus on is immigrant labor, sex-worker advocates I spoke to consistently argued. After all, abuse is more likely to happen in industries relying on a vulnerable population, no matter the work involved.The trafficking story also fits into racialized stereotypes of Asian women as passive. It is rare for the public to hear from people in the massage industry themselves. Their voices are absent for good reason, of course: It's hard to get them to talk. But even when they do speak, their voices are frequently not trusted. In the Polaris report on massage business, the authors claim that "cultural shame, combined with elements of force, fraud and coercion… often lead women arrested at illicit massage businesses to insist to police that they are performing commercial sex acts of their own free will." Police, too, say that Asian massage workers "will oftentimes be untruthful if interviewed," as the warrant in the Kraft case argued.Advocates said this was less a product of a carousel of sex slavery than the precarity of immigrant labor."The women in the Robert Kraft case, none of them would testify on behalf of the prosecution, so the case fell apart," said Dr. Weitzer, who added, "They saw themselves as migrant workers, just like someone who comes across the Mexican border, and works in agriculture."Why has the trafficking image persisted? Because many groups are profiting off of it, according to Kim. "It's easier, I think, if we stick to the narrative, to justify the overall criminalization and also the monetization of this system. There are nonprofits and courts and lawyers, that monetize the trafficking narrative, and try to criminalize the entire ecosystem."The trafficking story masks the bigger problem: that Asian-Americans "are the fastest growing minority group that struggles with poverty," he said. "Instead of having honest conversations of how to uplift them, by giving them full access to our economy, we often end up criminalizing them."As Jenny put it, Chinese massage workers "are really struggling with the community stigma… from doing this work when the Chinese community is so, so against it.""I think that’s really psychologically damaging," she added. "It’s really unfair for people that are just trying to make money in a way that's less abusive than, say, domestic work."Correction 10/30/2019: Because of a transcription error, a previous version of this article misstated an expert's estimate of the fees charged by lower-level escorts (as opposed to street sex workers). We regret the error.Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Hallie Lieberman on Twitter.