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Let's Talk Human Rights

Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses

By Bailey Johnson '20 and Tony Talbott

Human rights abuses, including human trafficking, are taking place across the United States in over 9000 illicit massage businesses (IMBs). IMBs are massage establishments or spas that are often fronts for commercial sex. Also known as erotic massage parlors or Asian massage parlors, these sites are scattered across the country in urban, rural, and suburban areas. IMBs have been the second-leading cause of reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline over the past few years.

Human trafficking is the commercial exploitation of one human being by another by way of force, fraud, or coercion. The purpose of the exploitation can be commercial sex, forced labor, or a combination of the two. The exploitation that occurs at IMBs is a combination of both labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking happens when victims are deceived into situations where they are compelled to work long hours for little or no pay, and are often forced to live and remain on site. Sex trafficking occurs when victims are forced or “strongly encouraged” to perform sex acts, colloquially known as “happy endings,” for customers.  

Clusters of IMBs are often owned by the same individual or network. They operate storefronts in strip malls and commercial districts, advertising “relaxation massage” and often using suggestive photos of young Asian women. Most employ middle-aged Chinese and Korean women as massage providers. These women are immigrants looking for a better life who are often deceived and cruelly exploited. Cultural norms can be manipulated by traffickers to ensure that the women stay under their control out of a sense of duty or obligation. Many suffer through the abuse in order to send remittances back home to their families in China or Korea. 

Similar to other forms of commercial sexual exploitation, IMBs use the internet to facilitate transactions. Customers search online for details about specific sex acts offered, provider nationalities and body types, and prices on many different IMB review websites. This is a widespread, well organized industry of abuse and exploitation that operates “hidden in plain sight” across the United States, including here in the Greater-Dayton Ohio region.


Abolition Ohio 2020

Ohio was the first state in the country to regulate the practice of massage. The state medical board licenses all medical and therapeutic massage providers, but non-therapeutic or “relaxation” massage is not covered by the regulation. This loophole has allowed IMBs to spread across the state. Earlier this year we uncovered 247 IMBs advertised or reviewed on commercial sex websites across the state. The ads are explicit and leave no doubt as to their intent.


Abolition Ohio 2020

State and local law enforcement have responded with dozens of raids, arrests, and investigations related to IMBs, while human rights advocacy organizations have offered assistance and provided outreach in the past few years. The level of effort needed to enact change is grueling; even when actions towards progress appear to be successful, IMBs that are shut down in one location can pop back up in another. The response has been likened to a game of “whack-a-mole.” To truly change the IMB landscape, we need to change our strategy. 

In a forthcoming report, Abolition Ohio recommends a set of measures to improve the statewide response. This broad set of recommendations was developed based on out of a social scientific understanding of the current systems and structures related to IMBs. The aim is to decrease exploitation and trafficking and reduce the number of IMBs operating in Ohio. They are:

  1. Passage of Senate Bill 105 and House Bill 374, “Change Massage Therapy Licensing Law.” These bills would close the “relaxation massage loophole” and require licensing for all massage providers at all establishments. It also gives townships the same power as cities to regulate massage establishments.
  2. Updating and strengthening city ordinances to deal with IMBs. This includes removing stigmatizing policy language that treats massage as a sexual business and clarifying ownership of establishments.
  3. Training and technical assistance for local law enforcement agencies to improve understanding of the dynamics of IMBs and the exploitation that takes place.
  4. Expansion of culturally competent and sensitive outreach and services to victims and at-risk persons. This should include specific measures to protect victims’ autonomy and that wherever possible and appropriate, their specific experiences and voices are incorporated into decisions made on policy and services.  
  5. Addressing demand for commercial sex through the adoption of strong demand reduction policies. These include both increased fines and enforcement for attempting to purchase commercial sex and public education to shift cultural norms that tolerate commercial sexual exploitation.

Tony Talbott is Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Center. He co-founded and directs Abolition Ohio.

Bailey Johnson is a graduating senior in Human Rights Studies and an intern at the Human Rights Center.

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