Hidden Figures: The Untold Victims of the Illicit Massage Business

Human traffickers use the massage business to prey on the vulnerable. Here’s what needs to change.

By Rena Mainetti


A young woman-–we can call her Lin—who speaks little English arrives in New York City and spots an online ad for massage parlor work that pays $6,000. For her, it seems like the perfect opportunity to earn money to send back to her parents and young son in Southeast China. When Lin arrives at work, however, she’s told that she must instead engage in commercial sex to receive the money she promised to her parents.

This story isn’t real—it’s based on survivors’ accounts. Yet Lin’s story is a reality for tens of thousands of women across the United States who are trapped in the illicit massage business. What follows are the stories of untold numbers of victims—victims whose cries for justice are quickly becoming too loud to ignore.


The Illicit Massage Business

Illicit Massage Businesses (IMBs) use the cover of a legitimate massage business to cover up commercial sex work—creating an environment for sex trafficking. Many venues do not operate as individual businesses but connect to larger networks that sometimes span across state lines. An estimated 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IMBs) exist in all states across the United States.

Research done by the Polaris Project estimates that the average IMB owner can easily earn over half a million dollars a year with 2-3 massage businesses. 

Most IMBs thrive in plain sight—even in sleepy Grove City. Earlier this year, local police raided Tina’s Chinese Massage Therapy and two other massage businesses in Mercer County for suspected illicit business. All three massage businesses remain open.

Strip malls, community business districts, and commercial residential areas can all contain IMBs.

A 2018 research paper examining IMBs in Houston, Texas, stated: “IMBs operate as traditional brick-and-mortar retail establishments. The only distinction between an IMB and a legal personal health services retailer like Massage Envy is that the services available include sex acts rather than therapeutic or medical rehabilitation massage.”

Traffickers tend to be women of the same ethnicity who may have been trafficked themselves before becoming part of the more extensive network. The similarities in age and ethnicity make it challenging to distinguish between managers-in-training and potential victims, as one study reported. Preliminary research indicates that business owners have a variety of ethnic and racial profiles and often own several IMBs.


Who Are the Victims?

Most victims trapped in IMB networks are women aged 30-50 from China, Korea, Thailand, or Vietnam who arrive legally on temporary work visitor vistas. Workers enter IMB networks because of economic need for themselves or their families. Recruitment happens through social media and internet ads, ethnic newspapers, free street advertisements, co-workers in other industries, acquaintances, or even relatives.

“When I came to [the] U.S., I stayed in a transient hotel. My roommate was a Chinese woman…she set me up in a massage parlor in Flushing,” one victim shared. “I went to the massage parlor [where] she arranged [for] me to work. I provide[d] sex service right after I started working, I do that for the sake of money.” 

One interview-based study found that in most cases, participants saw working in the IMB as the best alternative among minimal choices for meeting economic needs. 


Exploitation and Coercion 

It’s essential to understand what an IMB is and isn’t. Most registered massage businesses are legitimate legal establishments that provide therapeutic and non-sexual services. To be considered human trafficking, the situation must include force through threats of violence, fraud through deceitful recruitment practices, and coercion through exploiting vulnerabilities. 

One survivor, let’s call her May, arrived in the U.S. through a snakehead– a person who facilitates the smuggling of undocumented immigrants into the country. May paid the snakehead $30,000 so she could come to the U.S. Upon arriving, she was eager to find a job and saw a bulletin in the local supermarket looking to hire a massage worker. She called the number on the bulletin. The man on the other end directed her to a place in Flushing, a neighborhood in New York City, where a man with a van would pick her up. She followed his direction. The man with the van drove her to a hotel two hours away, where the man she spoke to on the phone greeted her.

“He locked me in a hotel room and demanded [that] I provide sex service,” May described. “All the money I made [was] confiscated [by] him. He only gave me a 3-pack of instant noodles a day…. I was shut up in that hotel room for one week.” 

No Escape

A week later, during a sporting event, May escaped. She, however, returned to the illicit massage parlor work.

“I want[ed] to pay back the snakehead as soon as possible. So I start[ed] to provide [sex] to the clients after working in [a massage parlor] for two months,” she said. 

Another survivor recounted her experience of being assaulted by a regular client who “pushed me and tried to tear off my pants. He threatened me not to report to the police. He said ‘if you report to the police, I will tell the police you tempt me to behave so.’” The parlor manager did nothing. 

Others report their managers forcing them to have unprotected sex with clients to please paying customers. Workers face termination, docked pay, or abuse if they refuse services. 

In fact, most workers endure sexual, physical, and verbal abuse from their managers. Research from the Polaris Project reports that traffickers control victims through coercion, including “extreme intimidation, threats of shame, isolation from the outside community, debt bondage, exploitation of communication barriers, and explicit as well as implied threats.” Women typically live at the business or another location where managers can control their day-to-day actions. 


Difficulties with Solving the Problem 

The solution to the IMB problem rests in the hands of law enforcement and local government. A general unawareness of U.S. cultural and legal norms–such as worker’s rights–prevents victims from seeking or receiving adequate help. One study found that “Because of the relative lucrativeness of illicit massage parlor work, many study participants were caught in a cycle of being arrested, returning to work, and then being arrested again.”

Police misconduct and language barriers cause further complications.

“Many study participants felt that the police targeted workers while letting managers and owners freely pursue their business activities,” reported the same study. Others report confusion during police interrogations and arrests caused by language barriers and a general misunderstanding of the legal system. 

One victim said “that she did not really understand the process, what the police said, or what she was signing. They didn’t provide her with an interpreter. She was scared that day and felt that she had no choice but to sign the paper because she cannot refuse what the police wanted her to do.” 


Are We Succeeding?

Ultimately, the “raid and rescue” approach fails to consider the nuanced and complicated conditions of women working in IMB establishments. 

One alternate answer is to focus law enforcement efforts on discovering networks. Police use this information to arrest managers and possible traffickers instead of workers. Law enforcement should be educated on interacting with potential victims in a trauma-informed manner. Furthermore, increasing language interpretation services during the arrest and court process will improve victims’ experiences and treatment. 

Another is to focus on building community support networks for Asian immigrant women who work in the IMB industry.  Job training, mentorship programs, or social media create spaces where survivors can share how they escaped from the IMB industry. 

Traffickers prey on vulnerable women like Lin and May and thousands of other unnamed victims facing sexual and physical abuse. There is no one solution to the IMB problem. Yet, these women deserve more than our prayers.

Combatting the victimization inherent in IMBs is the reality of a world where human beings still live in slavery. These women deserve a justice system willing to go above and beyond to deliver them from their oppressors.


About the Author

Rena Mainetti is a junior at Grove City College and the social media coordinator of Checkpoint, majoring in political science with minors in psychology and national security. She has worked as an intelligence analyst for private data firm Zero Trafficking using Open-Source Intelligence to discover domestic human trafficking networks. Upon graduation, Rena hopes to continue her studies in national security and eventually pursue a career in foreign policy.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.