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Guest Blog: Human Trafficking in Acupuncture and Massage Parlors
Recently, US Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-VA-10th District) and Polaris Project (an anti-human trafficking organization) have called for a vigorous law enforcement probe into Asian massage parlors in Northern Virginia. Their concern is that these establishments, besides being places of illegal touching and prostitution, also facilitate human sex trafficking. According to Polaris, young women spend years in sexual slavery, trying to work off their massive debt as a result of coming to the US (The Washington Post, October 3, 2011).
Multiple media reports confirm that this is a national issue and requires federal legislation and law enforcement. Consider these examples: Since 2006, 17 people from 10 massage and acupuncture parlors in Redondo Beach, CA, have been arrested for alleged acts of prostitution (The Daily Breeze, Dec 8, 2010). In June 2009, 22 women – most of them Chinese nationals – were arrested in Vista, CA, in connection with 9 day spas and acupuncture clinics (FOX 5 San Diego, June 4, 2009). Prior to that, in March 2007, in one of the largest prostitution investigations ever in Orange County, CA, 5 Chinese nationals and a US citizen were arrested for operating brothels staffed by women from China. The business advertised acupuncture and massage when sex was the only service offered. Investigators believe the ring may have operated at least 31 brothels, covering multiple regions. Only 10 women were charged with prostitution, but authorities believe many other women were involved (The Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2007).
According to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, plastic food wraps were used instead of condoms in an acupuncture brothel in Orange County, CA. Photo source: Orange County Register.
The extent of prostitution under the guise of healthcare is immense. It spans from rural to urban areas, operates in many states, and is in association with a variety of “legitimate business,” such as chiropractic offices, acupuncture clinics, health spas, tanning salons and many others (for just a few examples see: The Messenger-Gazette, February 09, 2011; Houston News, January 18, 2011; Daily Democrat, January 25, 2009; Eyewitness News, June 21, 2007; The Valley News, May 12, 2006). Those arrested include prostitutes, pimps and smugglers, such as one woman charged for transporting Korean women into the US for sexual slavery (Imperial Valley News; August 8, 2008).
For law enforcement, the issue is far from new. A nearly decade-old article (USA TODAY, November 18, 2002) addresses prostitution at acupuncture and massage establishments, stating that:
“Raids by vice squads in California cities in the past two years have hit scores of strip-mall storefronts that display the state license of a healing professional as a front for illicit sex. In back rooms, the police find miniskirted “masseuses” practicing unorthodox therapy and funneling the proceeds to organized crime…. Often, the storefronts employ women smuggled in from South Korea, “working off their transportation to the US,” says Deborah Sanchez, supervisor of sex crime trials in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.”
According to Polaris, the victims are typically recruited from Southeast Asia with promises of legitimate employment in the US in exchange for a hefty fee. That fee can be tens of thousands of dollars, and the women are kept in slavery until they have worked off their debt. They are additionally charged for food and lodging, increasing the total debt (The Washington Post, October 3, 2011).
The Justice Department has dealt with this issue for a decade. In a 2001 report to the US Department of Justice called Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States, authors Janice G. Raymond and Donna M. Hughes, indicate that Asian criminal networks are actively involved in human sex trafficking. They also argue these criminal networks are connected with an interstate chain of massage parlors and brothels, in which women go city to city to escape detection. They also report that “legitimate businesses” sometimes serve as fronts for brothels, with backrooms and cordoned-off sections used for prostitution. 
Raymond and Hughes also reference a survey that identifies a number of factors prohibiting women from leaving prostitution, including forcible return, stalking, physical abuse and threats of harm to themselves and their children. According to an independent investigation on sexual slavery by Meredith May, women are often locked indoors and constantly monitored (San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 2006). A comprehensive study on Asian Massage Parlors by Polaris indicates that these women must provide sex in hour-long “sessions” with up to 6-10 men per day.
Some local governments in Southern California have taken their own preventative measures by withholding business licensing. For example, the neighboring cities of Redondo Beach and Torrance have recently suspended issuing any permits or licenses for new massage and acupuncture parlors. So far, this type of municipal measure seems to be the only method of deterrence.
Adequate federal legislation is desperately needed because sex trafficking has devastating social and economic consequences. Typically prostitution facilitates other criminal activities, such as drugs and violence.
Also, sex trafficking under the guise of healthcare underscores the need for increased governmental oversight of alternative healthcare services. Crime behind the shield of a healthcare license is an affront to all licensed professionals and to the public.
Written by Ben Kavoussi
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