The owner of an American football team was recently arrested after law enforcement caught him buying sex at a Florida business.
The arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft came as the result of an investigation of the sex trade in the state. It also serves as a reminder of the problem of human trafficking and abuse across the United States.
Most of the illegal sex work is happening at businesses that advertise as “massage" parlors.
Anti-trafficking campaigners say U.S. law enforcement officials are using a number of strategies to deal with the problem. They include deeper investigations into larger criminal groups; the closing of websites where men share descriptions of sex services they purchased; and enforcement of stronger civil laws on the massage industry.
Stephanie Clark is the head of a nonprofit group called Amirah. It provides safe houses for women escaping sex trafficking in Massachusetts.
Clark told The Associated Press, “You’re fighting against a multibillion-dollar industry that’s very, very good at…keeping their business going. They are always 10 steps ahead.”
A big business
As many as 9,000 illegal massage parlors now operate in more than 1,000 cities nationwide, powering the nearly $3 billion industry. That information comes from the Polaris Project, another nonprofit group. It operates a telephone support service for victims of trafficking.
Most of the sex workers are women from China and South Korea. Many have entered the United States illegally and are in their mid-30s to late 50s. Traffickers lie to the women and use many forms of pressure to force them into prostitution, including debt bondage, Polaris Project explained.
The massage parlor in Jupiter, Florida where Kraft was caught on video in sex acts represents the common business model. It is found on a strip mall in a wealthy community along the Atlantic coast. The parlor employed mostly Chinese immigrants and was linked to nine or more businesses throughout Florida.
Officials say the women had about 1,500 paying clients a year, were given no days to rest and were not permitted to leave the building. Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg described it as “modern-day slavery.”
Several suspected parlor owners and supervisors face a number of prostitution-related charges. At least one, Lan Yun Ma of Orlando, faces human trafficking charges. Hundreds of male clients, including Kraft, face lesser charges.
California is home to nearly one third of the nation’s illegal massage parlors. Law enforcement officials there as well as parts of Minnesota, Utah and Washington are also dealing with many cases, Polaris Project notes.
In one recent case in Massachusetts, Xiu J. Chen was charged with operating a human trafficking and money laundering operation across six massage parlors north of Boston. She brought Asian women from New York and organized their transportation, housing and appointments with clients. The women mostly slept on mattresses on the floor.
In December 2018, Chen received five years in prison.
But in New York, major arrests of sex traffickers remain difficult, even with law enforcement’s newest strategy against human trafficking. The strategy took effect in 2017. It promised to take action against customers and traffickers, not sex workers. That information comes from Chris Muller of Restore NYC, a nonprofit group that works with immigrant sex trafficking survivors.
Efforts to decriminalize and legalize
New York is one place seeing a growth in support for decriminalizing and even legalizing sex work, as in parts of Nevada and Europe. But, for now, anti-trafficking groups and local officials appear to be setting more realistic goals.
Delaware and North Carolina, for example, have recently listed massage parlors as health businesses. Now, the parlors must pass inspections and meet other cleanliness and safety requirements. Lawmakers in several other states are also looking into stronger regulations on the massage industry.
In addition, laws that limit business hours or ban things like front doors with buzzers and back-door entrances have been used to close hundreds of parlors in California. But officials say these local measures often just push the industry into neighboring areas without similar rules.
Federal and state government officials are also charging customers who write reviews of their massage parlor experiences on online message boards.
The U.S. Department of Justice said federal sex trafficking laws that began last year give states power to take action against trafficking websites. The department points to recent cases in which the government removed such websites and brought charges against their owners, including Backpage.com.
I’m Alice Bryant.
And I’m Jill Robbins.
Philip Marcelo wrote this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Word in This Story
massage – n. the action of rubbing or pressing someone's body in a way that helps muscles to relax or reduces pain in muscles and joints
parlor – n. a store or business that sells a specified kind of food or service
reminder – n. something that causes you to remember or to think about something
strategy – n. a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time
debt bondage – n. A condition similar to slavery where people are unable to control their lives or their work due to unpaid money
strip mall – n. a shopping mall consisting of stores and restaurants typically in one-story buildings located on a busy main road
customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
mattress – n. a cloth case that is filled with material and used as a bed
buzzer – n. an electric device that makes a loud sound
review – n. a report that gives someone's opinion about the quality of a product, performance or something else