This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Amy points to the sign scrawled in black magic marker, Scotch-taped below an anatomical drawing of the human form. "No Sex No Massage Only Body Work," it declares. We're in a small, dark room on the second floor of a brick building on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, the heart of the Asian massage industry in America. Amy, a 40-year-old massage worker—her name, like that of others from the industry who appear in this story, has been changed to protect her identity—is clad in a not particularly seductive outfit: a canary yellow t-shirt and black leggings, a royal blue visor atop her head, black hair pulled back in a ponytail.
I'd read on RubMaps, the so-called Yelp of massage parlors—a subscription website where people provide detailed reviews of their sexual experiences at "rub and tugs"—that happy-ending massages occur here. I'm wondering if Amy provides them, but the sign isn't promising. In fact, Amy is insistent that she doesn't offer massage either, but "body work," a distinction that may be unimportant to customers, but is essential to her.
Many massage workers don't have licenses, and so refer to massage offerings by euphemism because operating a massage parlor in New York without a license is a class E felony that can result in up to four years behind bars. Unlicensed massage providers who offer sex usually don't get charged with prostitution, but instead get slapped with this felony technicality. (Ninety-five percent of New Yorkers charged with this felony from 2012 to 2015 were of Asian descent, according to an Urban Institute report.) Hence the sign.
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.
Asian massage parlors reentered the national consciousness earlier this year, when New England Patriots owner and Donald Trump pal Robert Kraft was, according to police, caught receiving hand jobs at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida. Many news reports presented women of Asian descent working at parlors as victims of human trafficking, spurred on by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, the public faces of the sting. At Aronberg's press conference, he declared that "human trafficking often occurs in plain sight," and Snyder said "the tentacles of this go from here to New York to China," and that women had "no access to transportation. They were moved from location to location. They were averaging eight clients a day… with no days off." In an editorial in the Boston Globe, Snyder added that the "investigation took us on an eye-opening journey into the ugly world of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. With court-ordered video surveillance in place, we found that the women selling sex acts in these strip mall brothels were virtual slaves."
But as I previously reported for Deadspin, no charges were ever filed to that effect, and the police admitted there wasn't sufficient evidence of trafficking.
The case nevertheless raised the question of what sex work at Asian massage parlors really looks like nationally. The narrative presented by law enforcement (and proliferated through media sources) in the Kraft case was that massage workers were being transported by predatory bosses from Flushing across the country. "The one thing they have in common is home base is in Flushing, NY," Lt. Mike Dougherty of the Martin County Sheriff's Office told the New York Post about the massage workers arrested in the multi-county prostitution sting that nabbed Kraft. But how typical is coerced sex work in the contemporary United States? And are most masseuses who do sex work choosing to do so on their own volition, or because they are effectively indentured servants in debt to abusive bosses?
Reliable data on trafficking in massage parlors is nonexistent. While the FBI collects data on human trafficking, it doesn't specify where the trafficking occurred. Some sex workers and scholars have argued that police and non-profits inflate the scope of the sex trafficking problem so they can look like heroes, swooping in to "save" consensual sex workers from so-called slavery. Law enforcement argue they are helping victims, while sex workers say police are the ones victimizing them.
A massage parlor owner in Florida suggested that, to answer my questions, I had to go to Flushing, where many of the workers in the Florida massage parlor bust were from, and see for myself. (According to this parlor owner, masseuses come to Florida because the market is too saturated in Flushing, and they think they'll have a better chance at making money down south.) That's why I'm drenched in sweat from wandering around in 90 degree heat, trying to get insights into Amy's line of work.
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.
But the idea that contemporary Asian massage parlors are bastions of sex trafficking has come not only from officials and law enforcement, but also some of the hundreds of non-profit organizations devoted to combatting that very thing. Among them is the Polaris Project, a group that runs the government-funded National Human Trafficking Hotline. Many media outlets in recent years have credulously published claims from the group's "Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses" report, spreading the notion that "many of the thousands of women engaging in commercial sex in... 'massage parlors' are victims of human trafficking." Other non-profit anti-trafficking groups share similar messages about massage parlors, including the Night Angels, which aim "to help [human trafficking victims] take steps to get out of the violent and chaotic world that they live and move on to restoration through Jesus Christ."
Getting massage parlor workers to admit that they have sex in spas at all—much less explain why—is difficult. It's illegal, after all, and considered shameful in both Chinese and American culture, according to massage workers and lawyers who represent them. When I visited Queens this summer, my translator and I walked down Flushing's Main Street going from door to door buzzing massage parlors; nobody let us in. Then we found a place without a buzzer, which I didn't realize at the time was a sign a spa might be legit.
When we entered Zhong Huang Spa, a man with a massage implement was rapidly hitting himself on the back as three young women crowded around, eager for their body rubs. The woman at the front desk told us that "clients who are looking for illicit [massage] won't come here." A sign that the spas were non-sexual, she said, was the fact that they had male masseuses. (Despite her claim, this was not necessarily a sign of legal propriety—some Asian massage parlors with male masseuses provide sexual services.)
It's impossible to determine how many American massage parlors and spas offer sex acts for money. The U.S. massage industry is an $18 billion enterprise comprising 279,075 businesses, according to IBIS World. Polaris, for its part, estimates that there are 9,000 "illicit" (sexual) massage parlors in the U.S., while RubMaps lists over 24,400. It's just as difficult to estimate how many people of Asian descent work in massage—the population is predominantly Chinese immigrants, but also includes people of other ethnicities. Considering the sheer volume of establishments, however, it's fair to assume the number of sex workers therein is in the tens of thousands. Many are in the process of getting their visas or employment authorizations, according to lawyers who work with them. Workers fear arrest because it can affect their immigration status.
Nearly every small town in America has a massage parlor, and larger cities are home to hundreds that offer sex work. On RubMaps, 92 parlors in Flushing were listed as offering some form of sexual contact when I visited. Amy's spa wasn't on there; neither was Zhong Huang Spa. But after much searching, I finally found a massage worker who offers sex who was willing to talk face-to-face.
I met Jenny, a 32-year-old massage worker based in Flushing who at the time we spoke offered full service (the euphemism for intercourse), in front of a concrete lion demarcating the historic main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. From there, we walked south to Koreatown for iced tea.
Born in China, Jenny moved to the U.S. as a child. She'd worked in other massage parlors in New York before going to Flushing, as well as done some dominatrix work and high-end escorting, she said. Jenny is also associated with Red Canary, a migrant sex worker organization.
When I asked her if her boss was a human trafficker, she laughed.
"Oh my God, not at all," she said. "She's, like, business-y; she's very straightforward. She's not a small talker kind of person, but that's just her personality. And she's responsible for taking care of a lot of stuff."
Had she ever seen human trafficking at any of the half-dozen massage parlors she'd worked in?
"No," she said. "No one's locked in. I've never seen that in any place that I've been at. People can leave these establishments. They certainly can just not come back to work the next day, you know?" She added that she considered massage work safer than escorting, "because it's a street visible place," and people in parlors don't work alone.
Another Chinese massage worker l met through the NSFW Ask Me Anything subreddit (and who said she also offers full service), Emily, echoed Jenny's sentiments about trafficking.
"We're not sex slaves and nobody I've talked or worked with is a sex slave by any means," she wrote me. "Most of my coworkers are immigrants, yes, but honestly they're in it for the money and they make more money doing this than working in a restaurant washing dishes or in a dry cleaners folding laundry."
Jenny said the owner of the parlor she works in wasn't forcing her to do full service. The owner knew sex was on offer in her spa—she's a former worker herself—but has a pretty laissez-faire policy most of the time, she added.
Lisa, a Chinese massage parlor owner and former worker in southeast Florida, added, "[The media] says human trafficking, but I don't believe it. I have never seen that. Everybody is free." I asked her what a worker would do if their boss locked them in and told them they couldn’t leave. "They'd call 9-1-1," she said.
Despite Lisa's broad assertions, some people are forced to do this work against their will. The New York Times reported that a 60-year-old Taiwanese worker "was lured into working at a massage parlor in New York," had her passport taken away, and was forced to provide sexual services. But there's very little evidence it's as widespread as media depictions might suggest. "The notion that most or almost all of the women are trafficked, when they do work in massage parlors… is completely bogus," said Dr. Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University and an expert in sex work and sex trafficking. "There's no data to support that." (What data we do have comes from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which estimated it received 861 messages reporting suspected human trafficking in massage parlors in 2018.)
Brad, a massage parlor owner on Florida's eastern coast, said that at the spa he co-owns with his wife, the two workers, ranging in age from 49 to 53, are not required to offer any sexual services. In fact, about half of his male customers don't want happy endings, he said, and only a small percentage want more. He doesn't want workers to do anything more than give hand jobs; it's safer for him legally if they don't offer full sex, he said. But workers don't always abide by his restrictions. He doesn't know what goes on behind closed doors, but he can tell if his workers are offering full service by the credit card charges.
Brad said workers sometimes live in his spa, but that he only lets them if they don't have anywhere else to stay. They usually pay about $10 a day, he said.
John, a jack-of-all-trades who provides everything from chauffeur services to tax help to several Asian massage parlors in southern California, estimated that about a quarter of massage workers in the Los Angeles area sleep in the parlors. "Workers live at the spa, willingly, because it is cheaper than typical rent and it doesn't lock them into a long term commitment," he said.
"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
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.
"We watch Chinese soap operas and eat ramen," she said. "Sometimes I just walk out and… have a lot of cigarettes.... There’re days when I have like two clients," she added, laughing, "and that's really nerve wracking because you're like, 'Ugh, I’m not making enough to cover this day.'"
Although clients only paid $40 for the massage (of which she kept half), they paid a $100 "tip" for intercourse, which she got to keep, she said. She did have to pay the spa about $160 a day to work there. On a good day, she saw five or six clients and took home about $500, she added.
Emily said she sees about four to eight clients a day and charges $120 for full service, $40 for a hand job, and $80 for a blow job—plus her additional $100 salary from the spa. She has made more than $200,000 over three years, doing the work part-time while in college, she said. According to Weitzer, while high-end escorts can make up to $10,000 per client, lower-level escorts may charge more like $200 for a sex act; at the lowest end, street workers may charge $20 or less. According to her own numbers, Emily is making 60 percent more per year than the average non-sexual massage therapist, who, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, brings in $41,420 per year.
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.
Flushing massage workers in Queens have been especially fearful of the police since 2017, when Song Yang, a sex worker, fell to her death from the fourth-floor spa where she was working during a police sting. Yang and other sex workers would solicit clients on 40th Road, a few blocks away from Amy's spa, and then bring them up to spas on higher floors of the buildings. According to Ron Kim, state assemblyman for the 40th District, which encompasses Flushing, Yang had texted her friends and family with claims that she had been sexually assaulted by someone who appeared to be an undercover cop and harassed continuously by officers. While police weren't charged in her death, some massage workers and other community members also don't think it was a suicide.
One of those people is Kim. "Even if she wasn't pushed physically off that balcony, she had no intent of killing herself," he said. "Her recent text messages and records show that she had a plane ticket to visit her family five days later from that incident." Kim urged more investigation into Yang's death; he hoped that if Tiffany Cabán won the Queens district attorney race against Melissa Katz earlier this year, she would reopen the case. But after initially appearing to pull off the upset, Cabán lost by 55 votes.
That's left sex workers at massage parlors—even in one of America's most progressive cities—to deal with cops they and their advocates often describe as inept, or worse.
"The vice units have created a nightmarish kind of outcome for so many massage parlor workers over the last couple of years," said Kim. "They are just very predatory, and they often exploit the women workers. And even after the raid, oftentimes the police take the cash that these workers have—which is really their livelihoods, for the majority of them are from unbanked communities." (Earlier this year, an ex-vice detective pleaded guilty to charges of operating brothels in Queens, Brooklyn, and Hempstead, with the help of police detectives who were said to tip him off to raids.)
"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," added Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD officer and retired sex worker who founded the Los Angeles branch of the sex-worker rights organization COYOTE. "I mean, they had an unofficial term for prostitutes that were murdered. They call them NHIs, which stands for no humans involved."
It's hard not to think of Song Yang while walking through Flushing streets crowded with massage parlors. Her death sparked outrage among some in the community, and helped lead to the creation of Red Canary, the migrant sex workers' rights organization.
For her part, Amy said police came and visited her and a bunch of her friends at their spas around the time of Yang's death, urging them not to be afraid.
"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."
Activists have had some victories over the years, like a bill in California that provides immunity for sex workers who report rape and other crimes to the police, and also makes condoms inadmissible as evidence that a person is a sex worker. But as Almodovar put it: "How can those who claim to want to stop the violence, rape and assault against sex workers—by further criminalizing our work—ignore the decades worth of crimes perpetrated against sex workers by the very law enforcement agents entrusted to 'protect' us?"
Yang's death reverberated throughout the Asian massage worker community not only because it was heartbreaking, but also because after Song died, police decided to respond by targeting 40th Road, a block-long dead-end with about 10 parlors among crab restaurants and dumpling vendors. Police shut down several parlors and arrested a bunch of sex workers. "Basically, they took a broken windows approach," Kim said. "'Let's just clean it up, you know, beautify our neighborhoods and if people don't see it, there's no problems'…That doesn't mean that we fixed the problem. We just have put the workers further into the shadows, or more into more violent and dangerous situations." (The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
After Amy got off work, she took a translator and me around the corner from where Song died and police sought to snuff out prostitution. She pointed out a woman in a pink skirt and ruffled white shirt, wearing a 1960s-esque pearl necklace and strapless heels. This woman and others take clients to spas to have sex, Amy said. They're scared of police, but like working here because when they see police they can scatter on the street, she added. In parlors, they don't have anywhere to hide. More than 40 women worked in the main street area, night and day when I visited in June, though it used to be 70 to 80 before Song died, Amy said. Now, only four to five sex workers congregate in the area, according to Amy.
Amy went up to the sex workers and asked if they would talk to me. They all declined.
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."
Many lack job opportunities in China because of sexism and ageism. "The vast majority [of the women massage workers] are 40-plus," said Felipe Alexandre of the Alexandre Law Firm in Flushing, which represents many massage workers. (The retirement age in China is 55 for female professional workers and 50 for blue-collar workers.)
"In China, for the women who are over 40 or 50 years old, it's very hard for them… they can only could find jobs like babysitter or something," said Alexandre’s partner, Wei Liu. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report found that 19 percent of job ads there had words like "men only," "men preferred," or "suitable for men."
Many massage workers are also looking to support their children back home. "There's almost this obsession with taking care of their family, making sure that their family's needs are met," said Alexandre. Some workers in their 50s "were just trying to [help] their children to get a higher education in the United States," he said, or, according to Liu, paying tuition.
Advocates said [massage workers not talking to police] was less a product of a carousel of sex slavery than the precarity of immigrant labor.
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."
Some massage parlor laborers do take on debt to come to the U.S., and that can put them in a precarious place, insiders said. Most pay a debt to a "snakehead" or independent broker that is not tied to a specific place of work. Some occasionally do pay a debt to an individual parlor, and those are the situations that are coercive. Debt can drive people to do sex work as a way to pay down their loans. "There are people who will help Chinese people go through the whole process of getting visas… and they will charge 20K to come from China to the U.S., and once they are in the U.S., they will go through the motions of green card for refugee status," Brad said. Some borrow money from their family who have saved for years for this purpose.
But it makes financial sense to do so, Jenny argued. "They're not going to make this kind of money in China ever. This is a way out… You can pay off this debt in a year if you're doing massage work, say, versus like restaurant work or other work." According to John, some California massage workers have been able to make over $10,000 a month when they travel to Florida. But others are only making around $80 a customer, so paying off debt is not so easy.
Ever since the bust that ensnared Kraft, Florida has held less of an attraction.
"It's getting very difficult to get Chinese workers to come down to Florida," Brad said. "The WeChat ads haven't been answered as they were before. [Workers] are scared that a camera will be planted inside the room," he said. Business has suffered because "customers are afraid," Lisa added. She said that on some days they only have one customer. A few workers have shifted from erotic massages to foot rubs, taking a pay cut in the process.
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.
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