Trafficking in Massage Parlors


“Some of the massage parlors in our communities have actually become safe havens for sex trafficking, for human trafficking.”

These are the words of Janice Hahn, a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors who voted on November 21st, 2017 to require routine inspections of massage parlors to search for signs of human trafficking. This is an especially critical move in California, the state with the highest rate of trafficking nationwide, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

It’s not just happening in California, however. In communities across the world, illicit massage parlors operate as fronts for sex trafficking, protected under the guise of an established business. Traffickers use their legally obtained permits and license to disguise their illegal activities, which can include sex trafficking and forced labor.

As a result, the Polaris Project notes, “These human trafficking venues are blending in with and operating next to other legitimate businesses in urban business districts, suburban strip malls, and rural towns throughout the U.S.

Many of the victims of these hidden crimes come from East Asia to the United States where they are promised a better life. These women typically come from impoverished circumstances and agree to exchange transportation to the United States with employment for a year. Instead, stripped of their documents, these women are forced into outright slavery as their traffickers extend their length of servitude through means of debt bondage, threats of physical violence, blackmail, and psychological manipulation. Facing language barriers, cultural differences, and fear of their traffickers and law enforcement, these women are left exploited, powerless, and caught in a horrific cycle of violence and abuse.

These human trafficking venues are blending in with and operating next to other legitimate businesses in urban business districts, suburban strip malls, and rural towns throughout the U.S.

Like most instances of human rights abuses, trafficking in massage parlors seems like an issue far too vast and insurmountable for ordinary citizens to do anything about. There are critical ways, however, that we can help law enforcement shut down these illicit businesses and put an end to trafficking in our communities.

A crucial way we can fight human trafficking in massage parlors is by learning the difference between legitimate massage clinics and parlors that are hubs of human trafficking. Being able to differentiate between the two has two key advantages:

  1. By learning how to identify the legitimate massage clinics, you are ensuring that you aren’t contributing financially to the perpetrators of human trafficking by unknowingly supporting their illicit businesses.

  2. Once you are able to identify a massage parlor operating as a front for human trafficking, you can report it to the authorities, aiding their ongoing fight to end this modern form of slavery.

So, how then can you identify the differences between a legitimate business and a human trafficking site?

Features of a legitimate parlor:

  • The first clue is in the name. Legitimate massage therapists will often refrain from dubbing their business a “massage parlor”, due to their negative connotation. Instead, look for massage clinics or offices.

  • The environment and the people are your second clue. Lawful massage clinics will keep their offices clean and even medical in appearance. The same goes for their employees who are professionally dressed and engaged.

  • The third indication of a legitimate parlor is the area in which it’s located. These businesses are located in popular, bright commercial areas and have professional office spaces.

Features of an illicit parlor:

  • The features of an illicit massage parlor are the opposite of those of a legitimate one, and then some. These businesses are located in dingy, dark, and largely isolated locations and their office spaces are similar with little professional equipment or staff.

  • Illegal massage parlors typically operate 24/7.

  • Their ads are often targeted to male audiences and inappropriate in their representation of their masseuses.

  • They may have suggestive or unprofessional names and may prefer the term “body rub” over “massage” in order to evade the authorities.

If you’re still unsure, see if any of your friends or family have visited the massage clinic before and can advise you further. Ask ahead of time for your therapist’s educational background and experience. Make sure that the business has a massage license and that the therapists are certified. Keep in mind that some illicit businesses might have massage licenses regardless, but double checking can ensure that you’re at least identifying and reporting those you stumble upon that do not.

See something suspicious? Call 1 (888) 373-7888 to make a report.

For more information on trafficking in massage parlors, check out Polaris Project below.


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About the Author

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Torie Pfau is a tiny person with big dreams. She is finishing her freshman year of college and is excited about where this new adventure will lead. She loves telling stories, trying new recipes, and exploring the world.