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Disrupting Illicit Massage Businesses and Human Trafficking in Ohio: Part 3

By Tony Talbott, Bailey Johnson '22 & Ahmi Moore '24

Illicit massage businesses (IMBs) are a pernicious, large-scale problem across Ohio and the US. The key to disrupting them lies in the fact that they are businesses. Traffickers and exploiters run IMBs because they are profitable. To disrupt them, reduce their profitability. Businesses identify a demand and then provide a good or service (supply) to meet that demand. In the most simple terms, to disrupt IMB networks, governments, advocates and service organizations must: a) reduce demand, b) increase the cost of doing business, and/or c) reduce the supply. Successfully taking action in all three areas is ideal for an effective disruption strategy.

imb-distribution-strategy.pngReducing Demand

Buyers must be convinced to not purchase commercial sex services at IMBs. There are two main pressure points to do this: increasing the criminal consequences and increasing the social consequences. Improving legal penalties and law enforcement will increase the chance that a buyer is caught and will face criminal charges or fines. Shifting cultural norms that accept or at least tolerate the objectification and exploitation of our fellow human beings will increase the social sanctions of such behavior. Together, increasing legal and social “risks” without a corresponding increase in “rewards” should deter sex buying at IMBs. A good start to accomplishing these would be a program of demand reduction-oriented public education and awareness-raising about the harms of IMBs and a campaign advocating for increased penalties and enforcement with local officials.

Increasing the Cost of Doing Business

Human trafficking is a criminal enterprise with an extremely high-reward to risk ratio. To disrupt such an enterprise requires that this equation be changed. Risk can be increased in several ways. Increasing legal penalties for operating IMBs, improving training for law enforcement, and increased inspections for compliance with licensing and zoning requirements are good initial steps. Advocating for tougher state laws and stricter local ordinances puts pressure on IMB owners and managers. Providing culturally-sensitive human trafficking response and investigation training to law enforcement officers will improve interactions with victim-workers, leading to better implementation of laws, increased arrests, and, hopefully, more convictions. Victim-workers often are not English-speakers and are manipulated by fear and cultural norms to actively deny their victimization and not cooperate with law enforcement. Providing linguistically and otherwise, appropriate victim services will help to reduce re-exploitation of victim-workers and improve the odds of successful investigations, both of which increase risks for owners and managers. 

Finally, public education and awareness about human trafficking, including IMB-specific content, will help to create pressure for the adoption of more effective policies and the allocation of more resources for anti-IMB operations. An informed public will be able to identify signs of human trafficking at IMBs and make reports to police crime tip lines and anti-human trafficking hotlines, putting more pressure on IMB owners.

Reducing Vulnerabilities

Providing culturally-sensitive, linguistically-appropriate and trauma-informed services to IMB victim-workers is critically important for the protection of their human rights. It also is critical to reach potential victims and vulnerable at-risk populations prior to their exploitation. Since most victims are recruited prior to their arrival in Ohio, advocates and officials should pursue collaboration with service providers and advocates in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other areas on anti-IMB recruitment programs and awareness-raising in high-risk populations. Different channels need to be used to reach the target populations. Appropriate awareness-raising messaging on social media and websites used by the groups (such as WeChat), cooperating with outreach services, or working directly with Chinese employment agencies on anti-IMB recruitment campaigns could reach groups at risk. Sharing information on programs and services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate could help to reduce vulnerabilities.


Bringing It All Together

Our response to IMBs is an anti-human trafficking initiative that has two overarching objectives: 1) to prevent sex and labor exploitation and human trafficking and 2) to reduce the number of IMBs in the Miami Valley and beyond. Accomplishing these objectives requires a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach aimed at reducing demand for services at IMBs, disrupting and increasing the cost of doing business for IMBs, and reducing the vulnerabilities of people at risk of exploitation in IMBs. 

We are at a critical point in time. There is a high level of awareness of human trafficking, racism, and sexual violence and exploitation in the US. National conversations are taking place about racism and racialized violence (including anti-Asian hate crimes) and about gender-based violence and predatory sexual behaviors. Recent research has increased our understanding of how IMBs operate and their scope and scale. Pending legislation in the Ohio state senate and house provides an opportunity to greatly strengthen Ohio’s response to IMBs (Senate Bill 55 and House Bill 81 (GA134--2021-2022)). This is the time to take action.

Read our full report and learn more about Illicit Massage Businesses here.


Tony Talbott is the Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Center and director of Abolition Ohio, the Miami Valley’s Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. He lectures in the Human Rights and the Sustainability Studies Programs.

Bailey Johnson worked as a graduate assistant with the Human Rights Center and Abolition Ohio and is a graduate student in UD’s master of public administration program. She also holds a bachelor's degree in human rights studies from UD.

Ahmi’ Moore is a second-year Human Rights Studies and English double major at the University of Dayton. She has been a student intern with the Human Rights Center and Abolition Ohio since her freshman year.

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