Human Trafficking and Massage
The Impact of Human Trafficking on the Massage Profession
Note: Human trafficking is a serious matter. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) is available toll-free 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you see something, say something: call (888) 373-7888.
Have you ever driven past a massage parlor that looks more than a little seedy? Maybe the windows are blacked out or covered with curtains, or there’s a neon “open” sign out front that’s in disrepair. These types of massage parlors show up in strip malls and along the side of the road throughout the United States. For most of us — whether we’re massage consumers, massage students studying for the MBLEx, or massage professionals who have been in the industry for years — these kinds of places aren’t particularly appealing. Particularly as a consumer of massage, the unusually low prices coupled featured at such massage parlors coupled with their generally dingy appearance is far from inviting.
In our culture, it’s become common to offhandedly question whether these sorts of establishments might offer illicit services in addition to standard massage. As it turns out, many of them are indeed hubs for prostitution and human trafficking — something that has become a rampant problem in the massage industry here in the United States.
According to a new report from the Polaris Project, human trafficking is perhaps more prevalent than ever within the massage industry. According to their estimates, human trafficking-related massage revenue could total as much as $2.5 billion per year, spread across more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses nationwide.
Whether you’re a massage study who still needs to study for the MBLEx or a long time massage professional, it’s important to understand more about the impact of human trafficking on the massage profession. Thousands of women suffer at the hands of traffickers each year in the United States. Additionally, these sorts of illicit activities can shape the way that the public perceives massage therapy. Being educated when it comes to illicit massage is therefore not just a question of doing what’s right for the victims of trafficking, but also of working to ensure that the reputation of massage therapy isn’t further tarnished by illegal or questionable activity.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at:
- What human trafficking is and how it relates to massage therapy
- The prevalence of human trafficking in massage therapy
- The impact of human trafficking on the massage profession
- What you can do to help
What Is Human Trafficking
Many of us have encountered the term “human trafficking,” but we may not be entirely certain about what it means. Simply put, human trafficking is a kind of modern day slavery.
Human trafficking involves so-called traffickers, individuals who actively engage in the illegal activity of using forceful, fraudulent, or otherwise deceptive behavior to compel victims of human trafficking to engage in sexual activities or other labor services.
The Polaris Project, a national organization aimed at disrupting human trafficking networks and eradicating the modern-day slavery that is human trafficking, has developed a classification system which identifies 25 different types of human trafficking in the United States. Not all of these types of trafficking involve sexual acts, as many are purely labor-based. For example, Polaris has found labor trafficking within the restaurant industry, the agricultural sector, and amongst domestic and homecare workers.
That said, much of the human trafficking identified by Polaris is indeed sexual in nature, and a significant portion of this sexually related trafficking is associated with illicit massage businesses. However, not all human trafficking within the massage industry involves sex acts. While many victims are indeed forced to offer various sexual services, others are compelled to work long hours for little to no pay in abysmal conditions.
Most of the women who are trafficked within the massage parlor industry are recent immigrants who have just come to the United States from countries such as China or South Korea. It’s common for these women to be under significant financial pressure. They may have had their plane ticket to the United States paid for with the understanding that they would work to pay it off; or, their families back home may be dependent upon their labor for subsistence. These women typically speak very little English — often none at all — and rarely have anything beyond a high school-level education. It’s also common for the victims of human trafficking within the massage industry to have children, and for the victims themselves to range in age anywhere from 30 years old to their late 50’s.
Generally speaking, these women are recruited through the use of fraud and misrepresentation by traffickers. These traffickers will advertise various positions at massage parlors using false information that tricks victims into believing that conditions and compensation will be better than they actually are. For example, traffickers will advertise available positions using fraudulent ads that conceal the sexual nature of the work, grossly exaggerate the pay, or make various promises about working conditions which are completely inaccurate.
Once victims arrive in the United States to work, they find that the promises made to them were completely untrue. Instead of being paid well and ask to perform reasonable job duties as would be in keeping with any other form of employment, women are made to work long hours for what is often less than minimum wage. Some women are paid nothing at all, and told that this is a standard arrangement.
It’s a common misconception that human trafficking in the massage industry involves physical force, kidnapping, or other extreme means of capture or detainment of women. On the contrary, this approach to compelling women to work in an illicit massage business is quite rare. Instead, traffickers rely on a combination of scare tactics, lies, shame, and other forms of manipulation that prey upon victims’ immigration status, lack of English knowledge, low level of education, shame, debt, and more. Victims are also often shuffled between businesses in different cities, thus preventing them from forming connections between one another and attempting to fight back against their traffickers.
The Prevalence Human Trafficking in Massage Therapy
At the annual meeting of the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) in 2015, a Human Trafficking Task Force (HT Task Force) was created to determine the prevalence of human trafficking in massage, identify how the FSMTB could work to fight human trafficking, and determine what individual member boards could to do combat human trafficking in massage.
This work culminated in a 2017 report from the (FSMTB). Amongst many other findings, the FSMTB report determined human trafficking isn’t just particularly prevalent when it comes to massage therapy. On top of this general prevalence, it also has a significant impact on the profession in a way that has been largely unexamined up until now. The FSMTB reports that while sex trafficking is more commonly associated with massage therapy, labor trafficking may be just as significant of an issue — despite the fact that labor trafficking receives significantly less media attention or legal action.
According to the FSMTB report, measuring the prevalence of human trafficking in the massage industry is inherently problematic. This is due to the fact that human traffickers use various means to conceal their illegal activity, thus making it very difficult to determine exactly how extensive the practice is throughout the United States. It’s not uncommon for the women providing massage services at illicit massage businesses to have either obtained faulty credentials, cheated to obtain their credentials, or to hold no license for practice whatsoever.
While coming up with an exact number is impossible, the current estimate put forward by Polaris has the total number of illicit massage businesses at somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 nationwide. However, these numbers have been determined with the use of so-called “open source data,” or information that is openly available to anyone without any limitations on use. This includes the use of online review websites of illicit massage businesses to determine how many businesses may be operating in any particular area. Using these research techniques, Polaris has determined that the highest concentration of illicit massage businesses appears to be in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey — unsurprisingly, all coastal states.
Aside from the difficulties associated with identifying human trafficking already mentioned, there are other reasons why the total number of illicit massage businesses nationwide may be underestimated in the reports from the FSMTB and Polaris. Firstly, the Trafficking Victim Protection Act — the most prominent and comprehensive trafficking law in the United States — defines sex trafficking as the inducement of a commercial sex act by “force, fraud, or coercion,” which may exclude certain instances of sex trafficking that fail to fit these specific qualifiers. Additionally, public misperceptions regarding the legality of such businesses and the motivations of the victims of trafficking can further contribute to underreporting when it comes to assembling these sorts of statistics.
The Impact of Human Trafficking on the Massage Profession
In their 2017 report, the FSMTB determined a number of ways in which human trafficking is impacting the massage profession as a whole.
Firstly, according the FSMTB, human trafficking puts massage therapists in danger. Aside from the actual dangers that are present for the victims of trafficking themselves, the prevalence of human trafficking in the massage profession has resulted in the general public association of massage therapy with prostitution and “happy endings.” As a result, this association can lead to a higher rate of harassment or intimidation being directed at massage therapists nationwide in a variety of settings.
Next, the FSMTB feels that reputations are compromised in a number of ways as a result of trafficking. For example, general public presumption of illegal activity being associated with massage can have a negative impact on legitimate businesses, schools, and individual massage therapists. Additionally, small businesses may find it harder to maintain a solid reputation than larger businesses, as people are more likely to associate illegal activity with a small business than with a larger one. Further, public perception of the severity of the problem could result in regulatory boards developing reputations for inadequately addressing what is an admittedly complex and challenging issue.
Additionally, the association of human trafficking in massage with certain ethnicities can lead to racial profiling and discrimination. This can bleed over into legitimate business and schools.
Lastly, the FSMTB has determined that illicit massage businesses contribute to the necessity of additional regulations, some of which can create an additional burden for legitimate massage businesses and practitioners. For example, application fees for licensing have increased as a means of deterring fraud. In the same vein, the costs associated with testing — including taking the MBLEx exam — have increased as a result of extra security measures which have become necessary. These security measures are necessary in order to prevent cheating, something that’s widespread amongst trafficking victims employed at illicit massage businesses. These higher fees are also needed in order to fund legal action and investigation. Further, both licensing requirements and general regulatory requirements are on the rise as a means of further distinguishing legitimate professionals from trafficking victims. Many of these regulatory requirements exist at multiple and overlapping levels.
A survey sent out by the FSMTB’s HT Task Force in 2016 to the Coalition of Massage Therapy Organizations was distributed to the members of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB), Alliance for Massage Therapy Education (AFMTE), Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB), Massage Therapy Foundation, and other national massage organizations. The survey asked participants to offer their opinions as massage professionals regarding the impact of human trafficking on massage. Amongst the many responses, a trend emerged: the biggest impact of trafficking on massage is the way in which is negative affects public perception of massage therapy, resulting in the association of massage with prostitution.
What You Can Do to Help
The FSMTB’s HT Task Force has compiled a list of recommended actions that individual state member boards might take to help combat human trafficking. If you’re active in your state’s massage board, consider mentioning the HT Task Force’s findings.
However, there’s more that you can do to help as an individual. The Polaris Project recommends the following:
- Advocating for better regulation of massage businesses at the local level
- Calling out the press when they fail to protect the privacy of victims as part of their reporting
- Sharing what you’ve learned with others via social media, and calling out inappropriate jokes about “happy endings” using the hashtag #massageparlortrafficking
At the end of the day, one of the most important things you can do to fight human trafficking is to speak out when you see something suspicious. If you suspect that a business might be engaging in illicit activities, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at (888) 373-7888.