I remember driving through a small town in Kansas in the middle of the night years ago. It struck me as odd that a massage business had a flashing neon “open” sign glowing from the window. “Surely, there is no way it’s open at midnight” I thought. I shrugged it off and continued to drive. I should have paid more attention.
We all should.
The reality is that our cities, towns, and communities are bursting with illicit massage businesses and yet we often pass by them without a second thought. To be clear, illicit massage businesses (IMBs) are trafficking people through them. People often say they don’t see trafficking in their communities. If you’ve ever seen an IMB, you’ve seen trafficking. It’s in plain sight.
The short version of how they work is that traffickers typically target vulnerable Chinese nationals and lure them to the United States under the guise of a “good job”. The victims have no idea they will be working in an IMB or coerced into sex acts. Once the women arrive in the United States, the trafficker or Mamasan (female traffickers) will immediately take their passports and documentation away. The victims also typically do not speak English, so they have very little recourse for getting away or finding help. The victims are forced to live in the massage parlors in deplorable conditions and rarely get to leave the building. The victims are constantly under surveillance by their traffickers and cameras that are hidden in the IMBs.
To top it off, the victims are told that they now owe the trafficker a substantial fee for their travel and room and board. The victims are forced to work in the massage parlor to pay off the debt and often are coerced into providing sex acts to customers after a massage, so they can pay off the money they “owe”. If victims do not comply, traffickers often harm the victims or threaten to kill their families back in China.
The force, fraud and coercion are readily apparent when viewing it through this lens, but most people make a joke out of “happy endings” and think nothing of IMBs. This needs to be tackled with the same fury and determination that people have when we talk about child sex trafficking. The women in these IMBs matter just as much any person being trafficked, but often are not who we consider to be victims in our society.
Apps like RubMaps show where IMBs are in your communities, so that buyers know where to go and who provides good “services”. It’s not rocket science to pinpoint where the illegal activity is happening. If you see an IMB (think a massage business with primarily males going in, open at strange hours, a place people joke about “happy endings”, etc.), please report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline or local law enforcement.
Kudos to the Shawnee County DA for continuing to tackle this issue. May many other counties in the Midwest start to do the same.