We know you're busy. You probably didn't have time to read every article we published on VICE.com this year. So we've compiled a list of some of our favorites and will be re-featuring them on the homepage through the end of 2014. This one originally published on March 20th.
From the outside, Oasis Spa looks like any drab Brooklyn bodega. To an untrained eye not accustomed to seeking out storefront massage parlors, the grimy red awning is virtually invisible among the artisanal coffee shops and Duane Reades in Park Slope. But to an online community of hand-job connoisseurs, the spa is a destination, one of thousands of neighborhood "rub-'n'-tugs" that have swarmed into suburban strip malls and commercial thoroughfares across the United States, opening up a brave new frontier in the Middle American sex industry.
Of course, "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.
Image courtesy of the Urban Institute
Researchers for the study did not attempt to explain the explosion of massage parlors. But the growing popularity of AMPs is clearly visible online, in a growing cottage industry of review boards, forums, and blogs that cater to the men who frequent erotic massage parlors, a strange internet breed who refer to themselves as "mongers." Dudes who previously relied on word of mouth to learn where they could get a good rub-'n'-tug can now find all that information on sites like RubMaps.com, EroticMP.com, and SpaHunters.com, which basically act as Yelps for massage-parlor hunters. Users on the sites post updated locations, review women, and recount in graphic detail the services rendered. (Yelp actually has search results for "happy ending massage," at least in New York, but the results are much less detailed.)
Like most creepy internet sects, "mongers" have their own social code, and many of the users appear to know each other and even track the whereabouts of their favorite massage providers. In a review for one of the top-rated spas on EroticMP.com, for example, one commenter notes that he received a hand job, a blow job, and kissing (no tongue) from a masseuse named Coco, adding, "The breasts were big w/ awesome nipples. The lights were dimmed very low but the kitty felt nicely groomed and not bald. Bald kitty is so easy to do. Getting a creative groomed one is my preference. I will repeat before heading north." In the comments, another user asks whether the provider is "the same Coco that was at Palm Tree some months ago, or is it Coco from the closed Star Therapy?" Another responds: "You know it's not OUR Coco because Fritzy saw her this week!" And so on.
"It's a fascinating world that operates legally on the internet," said Meredith Dank, the lead researcher for the Urban Institute study. "But when you delve into it, it is quite disturbing how openly these men comment on this stuff. Sometimes you'll even see a man comment that [he] thinks [the woman] might be compelled into this, that she looked like she didn't want to do it."
Naturally, mongers have their own language, apparently designed to subvert law enforcement. A glossary of monger slang on RubMaps details an extensive coded language, including expected terms like "FOB" and "mama-san," but also "babyback" for "petite, young attractive Asians," and "Italian" for "penis rubbing between buttchecks." Men also share personal details about their lives, with a surprising number of users discussing how their wives and girlfriends would feel about their penchant for happy endings. "Many of us got into this hobby, because things dried up at home," one RubMaps user wrote in a blog discussion on whether "mongering helps or hurts a marriage." "Many of my married friends complain how blow jobs is the 1st thing to go when they got married. It even goes before the paycheck in some cases. When we go massage parlors, these needs get taking care of. There is no judgement from these ladies [sic]. They will tend to our needs with no strings attached."
Mongering sites have "helped tremendously with guys looking for info on where they are going, provided you are willing to wade through the bullshit," one prolific massage-parlor blogger, who would refer to himself only as Spanky, told me in an email.
But Spanky added that the sites could be unwelcoming to those outside of the mongering community. "One of the problems with monger sites is that they are ridiculously cliquish," he wrote. "So if you ask a question, you are basically going to get [a] 'fuck you' response... A lot of what is being asked has been answered so many times that the old-timers get tired of seeing it and turn inward instead of remembering how they at one point were new themselves. You must grovel for real help or be vouched by someone. If not, good luck."
But even for amateurs, the sites make it remarkably easy to find a local erotic massage parlor, lowering the barrier of entry for a new crop of men with disposable cash and an hour to spare. A quick search on RubMaps revealed 90 open erotic massage parlors in Brooklyn, at least 10 of which were in walking distance to my apartment. Interested to see what goes on inside the parlors, and perhaps get a glimpse of the famous table showers that mongers rave about in their forums, I selected Oasis Spa, which had gotten decent reviews and which users described as "clean and friendly," and walked over on a Sunday afternoon.
Oasis Spa, one of 90 Brooklyn rub-'n'-tugs
At first, the place looked closed, despite RubMaps' promise that it would be open until midnight seven days a week. The door was locked, and the windows were boarded up, although I could see dim mood lighting behind the screens. After a couple of knocks, though, a suspicious middle-aged Korean woman answered the door and reluctantly let me in. The parlor was quiet, with a bed right in the front room and four closed doors along the hallway. Human trafficking aside, it seemed like a decent place for a massage, although there were no cash registers—or customers—in sight. But apparently, Oasis Spa is interested in neither women nor reporters, because, when I asked about a massage, the woman told me that she didn't understand English and proceeded to force me back onto the street.
My experience aside, the openness with which the mongering community discusses these massage parlors—and with which the parlors themselves offer their services—is surprising when you consider that most of these places are viewed as fronts for prostitution by law enforcement. While non-sexual massage parlors are usually regulated by state and local public health codes, the addition of a hand job is usually interpreted as solicitation, even if sex itself isn't on the menu. "Where the general activity 'prostitution' is illegal, every conceivable form of commercial sex can be treated as illegal," said Laura Agustín, the author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets, and the Rescue Industry. "It doesn't make sense, but it happens because, where prostitution is demonized, society fears all forms of commercial sex as leading to prostitution."
The extent to which massage parlors are involved in sex trafficking is largely unclear. Most of the women working in the parlors are smuggled into the country illegally from China, Korea, Thailand, and other Asian countries and are forced to use their tips to pay off exorbitant snakehead debts. But while some of the women are thought to have been brought to the US under false pretenses, Agustín points out that many women are aware that they will be working in the sex industry.
The setup puts the erotic massage parlor trade squarely in the gray area of sex trafficking, with law enforcement unable to determine which women are being coerced into performing sex acts in massage parlors and which women are having sex with customers voluntarily. "All undocumented women in commercial sex are not trafficked," said Agustín, who has spent 20 years researching the commercial sex industry. "Migrants weigh up many factors when undertaking risky life projects." While there is no formula for preventing employers from exploiting sex workers, she added, legalizing and regulating erotic massage parlors would at least give the women working in the parlors legal recourse to go to the police, change jobs, or quit.
Even in the absence of looser prostitution laws, law enforcement officials are opting not to waste resources on busting ostensibly consenting adults who decide to trade sex behind closed doors, said Dank, the lead researcher of the Urban Institute report. "It's clear that there is a lot of smuggling, but as far as women voluntarily doing this, when [the police] do actually do raids and arrest these women for prostitution... these women are not saying that they are being compelled, for the most part," Dank said.
As a result, federal and local law enforcement agencies still know very little about the way that Asian massage parlors operate, except that the networks are highly organized and adept at stashing their money. Officials quoted in the study described a nationwide network of massage-parlor operators who bring women into Flushing, Queens, or Los Angeles, and then rotate them through various AMPs in Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, and across the Midwest.
"We've seen cases where a woman is quite popular with the clientele; then they will transfer her to a different spa depending on what events are going on in that city," one federal law enforcement agent in Atlanta said in the report. "[In] Dallas, they are home to the Dallas Cowboys, the big stadium there, and if they have some event there they'll transfer their money earners to those clubs. Whereas Atlanta has the SEC championship going on, they'll have more girls come here."
Meanwhile, the money earned by the parlors is eventually wired overseas, making the networks difficult to trace. "The question..., and I don't know the answer to this, is, How organized is the system across all of the cities?" said one Dallas law enforcement official. It's a "very similar scheme you can see across all of the major cities around the country. Then the money goes back and we can pretty much get it to Hong Kong, but we're not going to get it to China."
And clearly, the business model is working. Without any real law enforcement action to crack down on erotic massage parlors, AMPs are continuing to multiply, expanding their tentacles into untapped markets of mongers. "Guys get horny and know they can roll into an AMP and get a known quantity," Spanky explained. It's "not rocket science. Where there is demand there are always enterprising people willing to provide a service."