“We worked on a case of multiple fake massage businesses that were raided by the federal authorities. The women were often offered legal jobs, but then were forced into prostitution. Most of the women did not go outdoors for weeks at a time. Several were threatened with gang violence, and others were threatened with harm to their family members if they tried to leave. Some women were in debt bondage, and most had some type of sexual violence or coercion from customers frequenting the brothels. All of them wanted to escape."
– Bradley Myles, Executive Director and CEO, Polaris
Women found in brothels disguised as massage businesses typically live on-site where they are confined and coerced into providing commercial sex to 6 to 10 men a day, 7 days a week. These locations operate as commercial-front brothels that claim to offer legal services such as massage, but they actually primarily provide commercial sex. The victims are most often Asian women, both documented and undocumented. These brothels frequently operate in strip malls, office buildings, and sometimes, residential homes, in urban, suburban and rural areas in almost all 50 U.S. states.
*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.A young Korean woman was brought into the U.S. when she was in her late twenties. She was told that she had to work at a fake massage business and provide commercial sex in order to pay off an exorbitant smuggling debt. The young woman and three other Korean women lived on the premises of the brothel and were closely monitored by an older Korean woman in her late fifties. The young women were advertised online for commercial sexual services. The young woman wanted to leave the brothel and did not want to provide commercial sex, but because of her debt to the business's owner, she felt she could not leave.*
When does it become trafficking?
Fake massage businesses use force, fraud, and/or coercion to maintain control over the women and to cause them to believe that they have no other choice but to provide commercial sex. These are often the defining features of a sex trafficking situation. Common means of control used in these types of brothels also include:
Force – Isolation and confinement to the brothel; regular and frequent transportation to other locations or other cities by drivers working for the trafficking network; occasional physical or sexual abuse.
Fraud – False promises of a better life; false promises that a job in massage will be better than their current job; misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, and immigration benefits of the job; visa fraud.
Coercion – Victims often enter fake massage business networks with heavy debts which are increased through exorbitant fees for food, personal items, transportation, “security,” and interest – to pay off this debt, victims are pressured to “do whatever it takes to please the customer” to earn tips; exploitation of a foreign national domestic worker’s unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the U.S.; restrictions on communication to family or others outside the network; threats of deportation and arrest; confiscation of passports and visas; culture of loyalty; exploitation of victims’ shame; rumors of or witnessed violence at the hands of traffickers or police.
*The above list is not comprehensive or cumulative. One element of force, fraud, or coercion may be present, or many.
Vulnerabilities of the Individuals Involved
Existing debt - Financial need or indebtedness play an important role in most women’s entry into an AMP. Credit card debt, immigration debt, or smuggling fees, or financial need, leave the women vulnerable to recruiters, who appear to be offering legal jobs.
Immigration Status – Most of the women trafficked into brothels posing as massage businesses are not U.S. citizens, and many do not have documented status. Traffickers use the threat of deportation as well as document confiscation to maintain control of immigrant women. Without legal status, the women frequently fear and distrust police or government authorities. Immigrant women are vulnerable due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with their legal rights in the US, and/or the lack of a local support network.
- "Johns" who frequent fake massage businesses make it a "hobby" to buy sex and to track all such brothels nationwide. There are more than 5,000 brothels disguised as massage businesses nationwide.
- Standard pricing structure: Johns pay a house fee of $60 - $90 per half hour or hour plus they occasionally pay tips; the women are pressured to "please the customer" in order to receive tips. These unpredictable tips are the women's sole source of income to pay the numerous fees and interest rates they are charged by the network.
- Standard day for a woman in a fake massage business: 10am – 2 or 3am, 7 days a week
- Estimated average number of men a woman must have sex with daily: 6 -10
For resources on human trafficking in fake massage businesses, click here.