Big, Bad John: The Sinister Truth about Illicit Massage Parlors and Human Sex Trafficking

Today’s post touches on the evil, mysterious world of human trafficking; one I believed, until recently, existed far away from the safe and shiny world I inhabit. But as it turns out, modern slavery is not relegated to the dark recesses of urban America. It’s occurring right under my nose, well inside the glossy, iridescent bubble encasing my life.

Two weeks ago, I found myself in a conversation with an acquaintance who volunteers with Polaris, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating the business of buying and selling humans. In less than thirty minutes, she completely dismantled everything I thought I knew about human trafficking, sex trafficking and, specifically, illicit massage parlors (IMPs).

Distasteful though they may be, jokes about “rub and tug” massage parlors have snaked their way into the zeitgeist. Periodically, we read stories in the news about sting operations bursting through the doors of a massage parlor in a seedy part of town, arresting Johns and prostitutes and shuttering the facility’s doors. Occasionally we drive passed signs advertising “Massage” in red letters, all-caps. We note the string of Chinese characters written below, as well as the darkened windows and iron security doors, and we wonder. We hear stories about a friend’s, friend’s cousin who’s divorcing her husband after learning he frequented such a place and we share looks of disgust and snicker. “What a scumbag,” we say, “how pathetic.”

illicit massage parlors

imp store front

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t given much thought to the other side of these stories, the women performing sexual acts for pay. In my mind, they were desperate, poor immigrants willingly exploiting the laws of supply and demand for money, prostitutes. I pitied them and tried not to judge them too harshly. Who’s to say I’d make different choices under the same circumstances?

As I listened to my friend, however, my heart broke for my ignorance and the plight of these women who are, more often than not, victims of human sex trafficking. They’re not prostitutes. They’re ordinary women, lured away from their homes and families by the promise of a well-paying job in the Land of Opportunity only to find themselves buried under oppressive, imaginary debts owed to their traffickers. Under threats of bodily harm to themselves and their loved ones, they’re forced to submit their hands, mouths, and bodies to the lurid sexual whims of a paying customer.

Since learning the truth about illicit massage parlors, I’ve become engrossed in the subject, reading everything I can get my hands on and even donating money to Polaris. Each new article I read reveals a new, disturbing truth. I’ve learned, for example, IMP victims are typically between the age of 35 and 55; far older than I envisioned. The majority of them are from China and South Korea. They are often uneducated, but not always, and they usually don’t speak English. Traffickers maintain full control of their every movement, often forcing the women to live together at the IMP itself to keep them isolated and available for walk-in customers around the clock. Customers pay the house – not the women themselves – and an additional fee to “the boss.” Satisfied customers are encouraged to tip the woman who provides the service. If she receives a tip, she’s told the money applies toward her debt to the IMP owner. If she does not, her debt balance remains the same or increases as punishment for her poor performance.

imps by state, Polaris

There are more than 9,000 illicit massage parlors across the country. Together, they generate more than $2.5 billion in annual revenue to traffickers making it the second most profitable commercial sex trafficking industry after escort services.

The list of horrifying realities inside the world of modern sex slavery and illicit massage parlors goes on and on. Half the time, I have to stop reading an article mid-way through to slow my breathing down and cool the (righteous) anger that swells up and takes over my entire body. How can I have been so blind? Why is this permitted to happen in plain sight? Why isn’t anyone protecting these women? Who is advocating for their human rights? Why the hell isn’t anyone doing anything to stop this!?


The Many Forms of Slavery

Incidentally, businesses that rely on sex trafficking are just some of the many ways modern slavery is lining the pockets of traffickers and organized crime lords. Since my education began, I find myself questioning everything: What about the women at the nail salon I frequent, the men who work for my gardener, or the young, desperate mother and her child who regularly beg for money in the parking lot outside my bank? Any one of them – or all of them – could be trafficking victims. Where there’s a demand for service, there’s a trafficker nearby with a ready supply. Knowing how to identify trafficking victims requires skills I don’t yet have. I’m even further away from knowing how to help victims if I were able to successfully identify them. Thankfully, the National Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) knows the right questions to ask and is available 24/7 to help.


While it’s true that cracking down on illicit massage parlors (and, more importantly, the men and women at the top of the food chain who proliferate them and profit by them) is complicated and challenging, there are organizations and policies at work to stop them. Polaris, for one, has made tremendous strides with law enforcement agencies across the country, training them to spot signs of human trafficking and understand the difference between a prostitute and a trafficking victim. Thanks to Polaris, cities across the country are finally enforcing long-neglected laws against sex-buyers, arresting Johns as often or more than they arrest the women John’s are paying. Victims are sharing their stories and demanding an audience with people in power. Non-profits like Destiny Rescue, Liberty Asia, Safe Horizon, and the McCain Institute are taking measures to prevent slavery, rescue victims, and help survivors heal. There are heroes in the fight, and there is hope.

But don’t take my word for it! If I’ve learned anything these last few weeks, it’s the importance of seeking out the facts for myself. Below are a few articles to help jumpstart your education and open your eyes to the dark, insidious world of human trafficking.

As a woman and as a mother, I’m compelled to take action. I hope you’re inspired to do what you can to help the fight against human trafficking.

Thanks for reading,

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Get the Facts

Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses and The Typology of Modern Slavery – Polaris. The PDF on the Illicit Massage Business is by far the most thorough, comprehensive piece I’ve read on the subject.

imp arrests

In the News

U.S. Sex Trafficking Industry Makes $2.5 Billion A Year Through Illegal Massage Parlors, Study Shows – Newsweek.

Look Closer: How to Spot Human Trafficking Victims – Psychology Today.

Seattle police set up massage parlor in sex-sting operation, arrest 204 men – Seattle Times.

There Are No ‘Happy Endings’ At An Illegal Asian Massage Parlor – NextShark.com.

Massage parlors — and the men who use them — should watch out – New York Times.

‘Sisters’ help women sex trafficked from China flee U.S. massage parlors – Reuters.

Shandra Woworuntu: My Life as a Sex Trafficking Victim

A ‘Garden of Hope’ for Chinese Human Trafficking Victims – Voices of New York.

Sex-Buyers and the National Johns Suppression Initiative

WARNING: Sadly, there are a vast number of resources available for sex-buyers (also known as “mongers”) to find suppliers. Websites like RubMaps.com offer detailed information about illicit massage parlors, including explicit reviews of the services provided and the women providing them. For my edification, I explored some of these sites and – not surprisingly – confronted some disturbing and pornographic images. For that reason, I opted not to include hyperlinks to all of the websites mentioned below. If you decide to dig on your own proceed with caution, delete your cookies (or turn them off entirely), and don’t put your conscience or your hard drive at risk by clicking on anything you know you shouldn’t.

illegal massage parlors

In the process of researching the illicit massage parlor industry, I can’t help asking: Who are the men and women patronizing businesses built on the backs of female slaves? Surely, no one I know, right?

My research didn’t turn up a recent or accurate statistic. The best I could find was an article published in Women’s Health Magazine in 2016 in which 12% of the adult males surveyed admitted to paying for sex, but with a sample size of only 1,000, it doesn’t carry much weight. Statistics aside, there’s only one way for an industry with an average fee per service between $40 and $100 to become a $2.5 billion business: High Volume. The odds that someone you know has bought sex illegally from an illicit massage parlor are pretty high.

According to Polaris, RubMaps.com has more than 325,000 unique visitors a month from all 50 states. Review boards like USASexGuide.com, MPReviews.com, aampmaps.com, and SpaHunters.com also have a high volume of traffic. If you have time to decode obscured references, you can even find an IMP on Yelp.

So who’s making up all that volume and why?

The first part of the question is easy to answer: Wealthier, caucasian, college-educated, older males make up a significant majority of sex buyers.

The second part is harder. When journalists from The Guardian interviewed a portion of the 700 men who admitted to buying sex in an international survey, their answers varied from blatant misogyny to social anxiety and myriad other explanations. Most of them expressed feeling ashamed and empty after paying for sex. Most disturbingly, nearly all of them knew or suspected the women they paid were trafficking victims.

massage parlor johns

Some professionals believe men pay for sex because they don’t know how to love, others think it’s simply because they like it (and because they can.) Regardless of the reasons, cracking down on Johns is a crucial step in the strategy to end human sex trafficking and major cities across the country are beginning to catch on.

Organizations Working to End Modern Slavery

Polaris and the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Catholic Relief Services.

Not for Sale and The Coalition to Abolition Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) which are based in California.

The McCain Institute.

Liberty Asia.

Garden of Hope, New York.

Here is a list of more charities fighting to end human trafficking from CNN.com.

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