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A National Campaign to Crack Down on Massage Businesses May Harm the Women it Wants to Help

Illustration by Adrian Brandon

A National Campaign to Crack Down on Massage Businesses May Harm the Women it Wants to Help


Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization best known for operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline, says it has located a new front in the fight against human trafficking: what it describes as “illicit massage businesses,” or IMBs.

The nonprofit, which brought in $10 million in 2016 (of which $2.1 million is government funding, according to IRS filings) announced in January that it wants to close these establishments, which are staffed primarily by Chinese and Korean immigrant women, around the United States. By Polaris’s definition, an IMB is “a business that purports to provide massage therapy services but in fact makes its profits through commercial sex.”

Human trafficking, meanwhile, is defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel labor, whether that’s in the sex industry, the service industry, or any other. Though Polaris says it doesn’t know how many people are trafficked in IMBs, its campaign nevertheless targets such businesses.

The campaign kicked off with an 11-city tour called “Hidden in Plain Sight,” held in movie theaters alongside blockbusters and concession stands. For $5, attendees could watch a film on the sex trade in Seoul, Korea, listen to guest speakers from social service agencies, and hear Polaris staff pitch the campaign — popcorn and soda included.

“This is a large-scale social change initiative,” said Polaris Executive Director and CEO Bradley Myles at the New York tour stop on January 18. “We are actually trying to spark a catalyst across the 50 states and thousands of cities.”

Polaris wants to enlist the public in demanding tougher civil laws and heightened enforcement at massage establishments. To that end, the organization plans to launch a website that will provide a brief rundown of local massage business regulations and quick links to email and tweet at local politicians. Its focus isn’t on penalizing the workers, Polaris says, but on investigating the businesses themselves. The report recommends treating IMBs like organized crime operations, with investigations scrutinizing business records for evidence of money laundering or tax evasion. Laws pertaining to hours of operation, locks on doors, and occupancy can be paired with fines to discourage “illicit” businesses, the logic goes.

Polaris describes the illicit massage industry as having conditions ripe for labor exploitation, such as tip-sharing with management and on-call scheduling. Though these conditions are not at all exclusive to the massage business, the group argues that workers in these establishments are particularly vulnerable. Bosses can take their earnings for “safekeeping,” force them to work all hours, and levy fines for infractions that can pile up into huge debts. Polaris also recognizes there are serious barriers for people who may be trafficked in massage establishments to get the help they need, such as a lack of housing, health care or legal services.

“The number one concern and request these women have is that they need access to a living wage and money to send back home,” Rochelle Keyhan, Polaris’s director of disruption strategies, told The Appeal. “That’s why they’re here, that’s why they are vulnerable, that’s what’s being exploited. And if we don’t have meaningful opportunities to connect them to, they are still very easy prey.”

Polaris says it will connect the women to other job and educational opportunities, but its lofty goals miss a basic premise: The group’s strategy of close coordination between civil enforcers, police and service providers is already playing out elsewhere in the country, and has not been successful in identifying people who are trafficked. And for Chinese and Korean immigrant women, the potential consequences of law enforcement contact are grave, ranging from loss of massage license to arrestdeportation, and even loss of life. When a massage business shuts down, its workers — trafficked or not — are likely to remain vulnerable.

The number one concern and request these women have is that they need access to a living wage and money to send back home.Rochelle Keyhan, Director of disruption strategies, Polaris

Womankind, a New York-based service provider for Asian survivors of trafficking, is one of several survivor groups criticizing Polaris’s approach. “The reality that we still face,” the organization said in a statement to The Appeal, “is that policing, regardless of how creative and collaborative the approach may seem, does not tackle the root causes of vulnerability and exploitation.”


“Still in Their Survival Mode”

Massage businesses offer a range of jobs for women — doing massage work, answering phones, providing security — which are often advertised in newspapers and through social messaging apps. Ms. H, a 52-year-old woman living in Flushing, Queens, used to work as a phone operator for a massage business. She found the job from a listing in a Chinese newspaper, she told The Appeal. Before that, she said, “I’m looking for a job. I never get hired.”

In a recent interview over tea in her home, H recalled going to Jersey City for an office job interview. She stopped two people to ask for directions, when an older white woman interrupted. Thinking she was helping her, the woman indicated a massage business across the street. “Society thinks Chinese girls belong in Chinese massage parlors,” H said.

Two other former massage workers told The Appeal that they took jobs, in part, because they had children to support. Ms. Z, 59, is a client at Garden of Hope, a Flushing-based nonprofit that provides shelter and housing assistance, translation services, and immigration assistance to current and former massage workers, many of whom are mandated to services after prostitution arrests. Z spoke to The Appeal via email, with Susan Liu, the group’s associate director of women’s services, serving as translator and intermediary.

Z traveled to the United States from China 20 years ago, hoping to support her child in the wake of her husband’s affair and their subsequent divorce. “He did not provide any support for me and our child,” she said. “I was in a very bad situation and I came to the U.S. to get a fresh new start.” She found her massage job through the Chinese newspapers, as well as through word of mouth at a nail salon where she worked.

Ms. B, a 38-year-old former massage worker and Garden of Hope client, came to the U.S. from China in 2011 and learned about the job on a bulletin board in a Chinese supermarket. In China, “I was forced to undergo [an] abortion by family planning officials due to the one-child policy,” she said. “They then demanded me to also undergo sterilization. I was tired and scared, so I came to the U.S.”

But working in a massage business carries its own risks. Over the past few years, police in New York City have dramatically increased arrests targeting massage workers like Z and B. Between 2012 and 2016, overall arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both the “unauthorized practice of a profession” and prostitution went up by 2,700 percent, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute. In recent months, the arrests have declined somewhat, but Queens massage businesses are still a target of anti-prostitution policing.

Not only are massage workers still being arrested, some massage workers now face the heightened threat posed by immigration enforcement. The Urban Institute found that, of the thousands of clients in a Legal Aid Society program representing individuals charged with prostitution in New York City, noncitizen Asian migrant women made up 87 percent of the arrests for unlicensed massage. Last June, according to Legal Aid, plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained three women at the Queens court where most prostitution cases in the borough are sent. A fourth and ultimately unsuccessful detention attempt by ICE at the Queens court drew condemnation from then-New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Yet ICE continues to use city courts to target immigrants, who now may face deportation as a consequence of their arrests.

Liu, of Garden of Hope, was invited to participate in Polaris’s New York event last month. During a panel discussion, she said her clients have limited options and she often sees them return to massage jobs even after they are arrested. “I know that many of them are still in their survival mode,” she said. “After their mandates, they are still going to go out and work.”


San Francisco’s Approach

Inits new 96-page report on massage establishments, Polaris points to San Francisco as a model city, for what it calls “one of the most successful, large-scale and sustained efforts by a civil enforcement agency to disrupt IMBs trafficking in its jurisdiction.” Police continue to play a role in this enforcement, however, and it is not clear that it has made an impact on trafficking at all.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health conducts annual inspections of all massage establishments, according to Patrick Fosdahl, the agency’s assistant director of environmental health. Fosdahl stressed to The Appeal that DPH inspectors are not police officers, and do not arrest workers. They do, however, have the ability to fine establishments. Business owners found to be violating the health code are required to attend administrative hearings, where their licenses can be suspended or revoked. In 2015, DPH estimates that there were about 350 massage establishments in the city, including foot and body massage, as well as hair salons that offered neck massage. When a revised health code went into effect that year, DPH gave every establishment 90 days to get up to code before launching enforcement efforts. There are now roughly 195 establishments, by DPH’s count.

If an establishment is suspected to be engaging in “illegal activities,” DPH generally inspects it after 5 p.m. Inspectors “will walk in on whatever is taking place at time of the inspection, which can include lewd conduct,” Fosdahl said. Workers engaged in this conduct can run the risk of losing their state- or city-issued massage licenses, either temporarily or permanently. To keep their licenses after an administrative hearing, some employees agree to participate in DPH’s Newcomers CONNECT Project, created in 2017 to provide housing and healthcare assistance to migrant workers at risk of exploitation. To date, eight massage workers have participated in the project.

“Police obviously have their own set of laws and authority as far as prostitution is concerned,” Fosdahl added. “If there are instances where they believe an establishment is being used for prostitution, they may do a classic buy-bust operation and pursue criminal charges.”

Fosdahl acknowledges that, from a worker’s perspective, all raids are traumatic. “A lot of these workers view us the same way they do any other government official,” he said. “We might as well be policemen.”

While DPH says it does not accompany police as frequently as it did in the early 2000s, the relationship between the departments remains symbiotic. According to Fosdahl, police have testified about lewd conduct at administrative hearings. DPH also says it has used information provided by the SFPD in its civil enforcement.

Social media apps are one way massage business workers organize independent of government or nonprofit intervention.
Illustration by Adrian Brandon

Last February, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera celebrated a civil lawsuit that would eventually shutter Queen’s Health Center, a “notorious” massage establishment that the city says offered sexual services in the Financial District. His civil suit was bolstered by multiple undercover police operations, sometimes conducted in conjunction with officials from DPH and the Department of State. For example, the lawsuit states that during a January 15, 2016 operation, “Two massage practitioners solicited an undercover officer for group sex in exchange for $320.”

Alexandra Lutnick, senior research scientist with the Behavioral and Urban Health Program at the nonprofit RTI International, questions the efficacy of these operations in disrupting trafficking. She has analyzed every report labeled as human trafficking filed by the San Francisco Police Department related to massage establishments in 2014 and 2015. In reading the narratives from 69 reports made by San Francisco police over those two years concerning massage establishments, she said, “no human trafficking was identified.”

This did not stop police from saying they found victims. “More times than not,” Lutnick says, “all of the women who are working at the establishment are listed as victims, even when no trafficking was established.” Police reports may describe witnessing acts of prostitution, says Lutnick, “but that isn’t in and of itself trafficking.” For example, during the January 2016 operation at Queen’s Health Center referenced in Herrera’s suit, a search warrant turned up “false bottom containers, United States currency, ledgers, sex toys, and sexual lubricant … all indicia of prostitution.”

This misidentification poses problems for the city’s efforts to document actual human trafficking. When the San Francisco Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking published data on trafficking from city agencies for their 2015 report, it noted that SFPD “counted all adult sex workers as suspected trafficking survivors, even without signs of force, fraud, or coercion, which state and federal law require.”

Polaris’s latest campaign actively encourages this conflation, claiming there are 9,000 illicit massage businesses across the country, “all of whom have some element of trafficking,” according to Meghan Carton, the projects manager on Polaris’s disruption strategies team.

The “9,000” statistic, according to Keyhan at Polaris, is based on reports from service providers working with 1,393 clients plus thousands of cases of trafficking Polaris says it identified through calls to its hotline. This information is supplemented with reviews from websites where actual or apparent customers describe sexual services they have paid for, as well as news articles, law enforcement data, and public records. However, Polaris has made several different claims about the 9,000 IMBs it has identified, defining them variously as places where trafficking occurs, where sexual services are sold, and where management violates labor laws by requiring tip-sharing and long on-call shifts.

Polaris claims that when massage businesses require workers to endure long hours or deny them employee benefits, and lead them to believe this is standard business practice, that constitutes the “fraud” portion of trafficking.

But while labor law violations can be a sign of possible trafficking, they are not by themselves evidence of trafficking. Carolyn Kim and Erika Gonzalez, senior attorneys at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles, say that’s an important difference. “The Polaris Project report lays out labor violations that could potentially be indicators of human trafficking, but without individual conversations with persons working in massage establishments, it’s hard to know whether they are labor trafficking survivors,” Kim and Gonzalez told The Appeal in a statement.

Polaris maintains that with all illicit massage businesses, “at minimum, it’s labor trafficking,” as Keyhan said in an interview. Yet the organization doesn’t know how many people working in these businesses are actually victims of human trafficking, something the report admits.

The report goes on to tell journalists not to use the term “prostitution” when writing about such businesses. Instead, it advises, “Use the term ‘potential human trafficking.’”


The Wrong Kind of Help

While Polaris says it discourages arrests of massage establishment workers, its report also calls for increased funding for law enforcementand for services to continue to be administered through the criminal justice system. “Budgets must be expanded to acknowledge that victim services and advocacy is not a luxury, an add-on or an addendum to law enforcement” but instead a “key piece of the enforcement puzzle.”

“We work with the courts,” said Susan Jacob, executive director of the New York City Family Justice Center within the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, at the Polaris event in New York. “It is a one-stop shop, basically.”

We asked Keyhan of Polaris, a former prosecutor, to comment on New York State’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, which administer services to people arrested on prostitution-related charges. In order to have charges reduced or dismissed, defendants must agree to participate in court-mandated services. Keyhan declined to “indict” or “champion” the model.

“In some areas, that’s the only way within the system to get women connected to services,” she said. “Obviously, we would rather have them be connected to services than not.”

Yet Keyhan emphasized that Polaris’s goal is to inspire law enforcement to make fewer prostitution-related arrests. “We’re not trying to find criminality in the women,” Keyhan said. “We’re trying to arrest the exploiters.”

This attitude represents progress, according to Juhu Thukral, senior founding advisor at the SOAR Institute and founder of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Institute. “The truth is, even getting organizations like Polaris to admit that the law enforcement has problems is actually a huge shift, and is actually a win for people who are pushing a human rights and dignity approach to sex workers’ rights,” she said.

But Polaris still has a “long way to go,” Thukral says. A better solution, she argues, would be voluntary services that women could easily access without going through the courts, criminal or civil. The Polaris approach, by contrast, still relies on a forced intervention into women’s working lives.


“Talking about Rights, Not Rescue”

Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, a Toronto-based group working across Canada, was established in 2014 by sex workers with the help of social workers and other experts. The group seeks not only to support massage workers and sex workers, but to advocate together for workers’ rights. Within Butterfly, current and former sex workers are leaders, not just service recipients.

Some massage workers might identify as sex workers, and some may not, said Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly. “Some people may have more options, and for some people sex work is their only option. But you need to respect and to advocate for their rights.”

Butterfly departs from what Lam calls the “rescue approach” of police and other social service groups.

“We are starting from what the workers need,” said Lam. The group does outreach to massage establishments in Toronto, and through a 24/7 hotline available in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Butterfly helps workers based on their needs. For those who want to leave the business, the group helps them navigate state programs that might be available to them. It also offers English and massage therapy classes, and accompanies migrant sex workers through detention review hearings. “A lot of people who work in massage parlors have lost their licenses so they cannot work legally anymore, which can push them more easily to be exploited,” said Lam. “It’s very important that we are talking about rights, not rescue.”

The sex workers’ agency is not always being respected and recognized because they are assumed to be trafficking victimsElene Lam, Executive Director, Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network

Sex workers in Canada face some of the same issues as massage workers in the U.S., including undercover police posing as customers to identify possible victims of trafficking. Under “Operation Northern Spotlight,” Canadian police contact sex workers as if they are booking outcall appointments in their hotel rooms; when sex workers arrive, they are surprised by multiple officers who say they are there to help.

The police claim they’re not focused on sex workers, only on potential victims. But Butterfly joined more than two dozen sex workers’ groups and their allies in Canada to condemn Operation Northern Spotlight, saying sex workers who were subject to the Operation “report feeling confused, frightened, stressed and traumatized after these interactions with police, followed by intense feelings of mistrust in the overall police system.”

“The sex workers’ agency is not always being respected and recognized because they are assumed to be trafficking victims,” Lam said. “I think we already have a lot of assumptions that the people don’t have [the] capacity or ability to make decisions about themselves.”

The Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women highlights the work of Butterfly in a new report, noting how sex workers can “support each other when they find themselves in crisis situations.” Though there’s not yet a group like Butterfly — one led by immigrant sex workers — in the United States, massage workers here are already using some of its strategies to connect with one another.

H, the Flushing woman who worked as a phone operator for a massage establishment, says that she is still in touch with other women in the massage business through social messaging apps. Workers share tips on businesses to avoid, and they can provide emotional support to each other even if they aren’t working in the same place.

“You know, for safety issues,” H said. “This is why we have so many [chat] groups — for recruiting [workers], for looking for places to work. [Someone] will be like, this is a bad boss, we’re not going there — something like that.”

Massage business jobs, as workers themselves have said, can be exploitative. But while Polaris, service providers and law enforcement debate solutions, women who work in massage establishments are making their own.