It starts as the promise of a job and a new life in a new country.
“Come to Mei Guo,” meaning beautiful country, or America, in Chinese. “There are many jobs. We will help you get a job. You can help your family.”
That’s the pitch that recruiters will make to unsuspecting women in rural China. What happens is a bait-and-switch when they arrive in a new country.
“People in trafficking situations find the circumstances of work are fundamentally different,” said Robert Beiser, director of the strategic initiative on sex trafficking at Polaris, a nonprofit that tracks human trafficking. “The promise of opportunity of jobs is a fraud.”
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Prostitution has been going on since the beginning of time, and Asian women have been trafficked to America to perform services for over a century, since Chinese nationals worked on railroads, when it was a clandestine affair.
Today, prostitution of Asian women is out in the open in the United States. Yet few people will notice the activities in plain sight unless they take the time to look. Along strip malls throughout America, massage parlors operate next to bakeries and gift shops. Some are legitimate, but others are houses of prostitution.
In New Jersey, Asian trafficking rings are loosely organized. Perpetrators have been arrested selling massage certification for Asian nationals who run prostitution sites out of massage parlors.
“They’re mostly coming from Flushing,” said Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton. “They’re isolated. You won’t hear about them unless someone reports them.”
COVID has slowed the illicit massage business, Cureton said, adding that police work with prosecutors to crack down on these businesses. Flushing and other parts of Queens are the center for many of these small massage parlor operators, Cureton said. Women arrive from China to start in Queens and are placed in other salons.
Most of the foreign women who end up in massage parlor sex work are from China and Korea, Beiser said. They’re told by recruiters that they will have factory jobs or domestic work. Once they arrive, they’re forced into working at massage parlors. The women owe an overwhelming amount of debt to recruiters for transport to the U.S. and turn to sex work at the parlors to pay off the money. Stuck in a new country without language skills, they can’t get the help they need and are afraid to tell their families back home what is happening, for fear of shame.
Massage parlor raids have become common around the country and in New Jersey. The raids have nabbed common folks and the prominent. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was among the people identified as clients of illicit massage parlors. These undercover raids happen in suburban strip malls all around the country.
In Bergen County, former Westwood Councilman Robert W. Miller pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to selling fraudulent massage therapy training certificates to workers in order to promote prostitution, according to former U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman.
Miller, 67, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Claire C. Cecchi to charges of using facilities in interstate commerce to promote prostitution and performing an act to promote, manage, establish, carry on and facilitate that unlawful activity.
According to court documents, Miller offered New Jersey massage training certificates for a fee of $500 to $2,500, without the required training. Between January 1997 and August 2013, Miller provided at least 50 fraudulent massage therapy training certificates to 25 massage parlors in Union, Passaic, Hudson and Middlesex counties.
In Hunterdon County, Naresh Rane pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to charging $1,000 to $2,600 for massage training certificates without training. This happened between 2013 and 2014, with Rane admitting that he knew the documents he was producing and selling were used to disguise prostitution activities as legitimate massage services.
In Somerset County, anonymous complaints led to the arrest in August 2022 of Zhuhua Luo, 42, who lives in Flushing but operates a massage business in Central Jersey. The native of China was charged with third-degree promoting of prostitution.
Sex trafficking is a serious crime wherever it occurs, said Patty Hartman, public affairs specialist at the FBI in Newark. However, there is no reliable data to determine how much human trafficking goes on in any city or geographic region, she added.
“Unfortunately, human trafficking is not restricted to one area of the U.S. All 56 of the FBI’s field offices in the Garden State have reported human trafficking incidents,” Hartman said.
Estimates of the number of victims in the country vary and are hard to determine because victims do not self-identify, Hartman said. Human trafficking cases have been reported and prosecuted in a wide range of legitimate industries, including restaurants, cleaning services, construction companies and factories, she said.
As the raids and undercover stings of massage parlors continue, the lives of women are torn apart by human trafficking.
“It’s essentially rape for money,” said Beiser, of Polaris. “These women live in horrific circumstances, servicing 10 to 15 men a day.”
Often, they are housed in a small room and have limited contact with outside people. They have health problems that go unaddressed, Beiser said.
Polaris estimates that there are about 9,000 illicit massage parlors in the U.S. Some still operated during COVID shutdowns as their johns kept masks on and made appointments instead of walking in.
In New Jersey, Polaris helped 250 victims of human trafficking in 2020, Beiser said. North Jersey, closer to New York City, is where more of the illegal activities will happen, Beiser added.
How can one distinguish a legitimate massage spa from an illicit one? The price advertised is usually low, Beiser said. An illicit spa will offer an hour massage for $25, which isn’t enough to pay the rent. But the add-on services will cost plenty more.
At the illicit spas, women will proposition the customers, Cureton said. They may ask if you want anything else, and if you offer a big tip, the women know what to do, he said.
Illicit massage parlors have become the most prevalent form of the sex industry, constituting up to 85% of all sex industry activity in the U.S., according to research by the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. The growth in the illicit massage industry is due to more aggressive policing of street-based prostitution, which is driving the sex industry into indoor venues. The internet has helped facilitate the process.
While “red-light districts” still exist, illicit massage parlors have moved into middle-class and suburban areas. A majority of women in illicit massage parlors are Asian immigrants.
In 2020, 10,583 situations of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, involving 16,658 individual victims. But they are likely only a fraction of the actual problem, according to Polaris.
Most owners of illicit massage parlors operate one to three shops, Beiser said. Workers find jobs through word of mouth or ads in ethnic newspapers. Some women are coerced into the work, while others see no alternatives.
Because the women don’t understand the language or culture, the fear keeps them from seeking help.
During investigations and raids, women were found living in deplorable conditions. In Falls Township, Pennsylvania, police raided two massage parlors in March. In a statement, police said women were found living inside both massage parlors.
The U.S. Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year.
The lives of illicit massage workers were examined in a 2019 study titled “Illicit Massage Parlors: Stories from Women Workers,” by academic researchers John J. Chin, Lois M. Takahashi, Yeonsoo Baik, Caitlin Ho, Stacy To, Abigail Radaza, Elizabeth S.C. Wu, Sungmin Lee, Melanie Dulfo and Daun Jungg.
Their research focused on Chinese and Korean massage parlor workers, with interviews conducted in Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean. The 116 women interviewed for the study were in their early to mid-40s.
Many illicit massage parlors where the women worked and lived had on-site cooking facilities. For women who lived off-site, some were driven to and from the work site by massage parlor drivers for a fee.
The massage parlors are deliberately vague about their business. Some advertise only a stock image of a Chinese woman and a phone number. Others have just an “open” sign with no other markings. Some of the illicit massage parlors where study participants worked provided exclusively sexual massages. But many of the massage parlors provided regular non-sexual massage as well, and clients seeking such services were unaware that sexual services were being provided at the shop.
Illicit massage parlor fees varied. One Korean massage parlor worker said her massage parlor in Manhattan charged $500 for a full-service massage that includes intercourse, not including tip, and the worker received only a small share of the total payment, according to the study. Another Manhattan illicit massage parlor charged an $80 house fee for a full-service massage and a fixed $40 tip that went to the massage parlor worker.
Women reported that managers threatened to fire them if they did not provide services requested by clients. One worker who was undocumented shared that her manager threatened to call the police to have her arrested if she did not provide sexual services to clients. In some cases, owners docked pay from workers who did not want to provide sexual services, according to the study. Some of the study participants did not realize they were being hired to provide sexual services until they started working.
Sex trafficking of Asian women is a serious problem, Beiser said. Illicit massage parlors are popping up everywhere.
“The more we looked, the more we found,” Beiser said.
Polaris is staffing outreach to combat the problem, with multilingual speakers to assist. On the local level, law enforcement looks at the list of new businesses from a city clerk’s office, Cureton said.
Ultimately, it’s the residents calling local police that helps nab the businesses, the Bergen sheriff added. Buying sex has become so common now, with the internet, that people can find illegal places through social media and other channels, Beiser said. Just like the internet, the illegal massage industry is everywhere.
“They can be any place,” Beiser said, “where there are people where they can profit from selling sex.”
Mary Chao covers the Asian communities and real estate in North Jersey.
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