Over 9,000 illegal massage parlors across the United States, dotting the highways and tucked away in strip malls, are generating billions of dollars for sex traffickers. A new report from Polaris, an anti-slavery non-profit, says that $2.5 billion in illegal profits are made each year through making immigrant women from China and South Korea have sex with massage parlor customers.
Drawing from about 3,000 cases and interviews with law enforcement and survivors, Polaris’ report put a face to the most common victims of illegal massage businesses: 35-to 55-year-old Chinese and South Korean mothers, who often don’t speak English but relocate to the U.S. out of desperation to provide for their families.
They often come through New York and California channels under a false promise of legitimate employment, according to the report. Then, living “in substandard conditions” and working illegal hours “on call,” they are silenced by a variety of factors, from threats to fears of deportation to feelings of shame.
“The level of shame experienced by IMB survivors is significantly higher than the shame seen in other types of sex trafficking,” the report noted. “Many Chinese and Korean survivors of IMB trafficking do not feel comfortable using the word ‘sex’ when describing their experiences.”
The report says that Houston’s illegal massage industry alone generates nearly $107 million annually, with nearly 3,000 customers a day.
The authors point to some signs that a massage parlor may be operating illegally: door buzzers, covered windows, oddly low prices, female staff serving customers at odd hours, and staff asking for unusually large tips.
Polaris says that while “Traffickers are still ahead of us technologically and methodologically,” local, state, and federal legislation and regulatory frameworks will help curb the problem.