Illicit massage businesses (IMBs), often called “massage parlors,” are often a cover for human trafficking (sex and labor) operations in the U.S., according to a new Polaris Project report released on Jan. 17.

There are more than 9,000 IMBs currently operating in the U.S., according to Polaris estimates, with an annual revenue stream of $2.5 billion.

Of the 32,000 trafficking cases in 2017 that Polaris analyzed, 2,949 involved IMBs, the second most common type of trafficking behind escort services.

Traffickers often exploit legal loopholes, such as registering an IMB as another type of business.

“In particularly egregious cases of illegal behavior, traffickers register under unrelated industries such as religious organizations or educational institutions, making them eligible for tax breaks,” Polaris said.

As an example of their prevalence, the report cited research on IMBs in Houston, Texas, which “found roughly 2,869 customers per day at the city’s 292 illicit massage businesses, yielding a total annual gross revenue of $107 million.”

“‘Houston has more brothels than Starbucks,’ according to Robert Sandborn of Children at Risk. The first time I heard that statistic I was startled,” Nell Green told

“After all, I see Starbucks everywhere. I drive by them every day. The reality is that I drive by brothels every day as do the vast majority of Houston’s residents.”

Nell and her husband, Butch, serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Houston working to end human trafficking and to address the needs of refugees.

“We do van tours in Houston showing people exactly where and how human trafficking is taking place,” Green said. “Taking them by these massage parlors and showing them indicators of an IMB often makes the participants wide-eyed. They realize they see similar establishments.”

She added, “Just today on a road I drive virtually daily less than a mile from my home, I noted an establishment that showed all the signs of being an IMB and yet I had never noticed it. We need to take off the rose-colored glasses and look. Then if we see something, say something. I will certainly be watching this one!”

While “IMB buyers generally reflect the demographics of their communities, and therefore come from all walks of life,” Polaris’ analysis of the clientele using one major commercial sex website “skews significantly more Caucasian, wealthier and older than the general internet population.”

Most of the women trafficked in IMBs are from China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, they are between ages 35 and 55, and they know limited or no English.

A large majority of the women have at least one child, usually still living in their country of origin, whom they are seeking to support.

Traffickers lure victims into IMBs through ads promising high wages, positive work environments and the ability to become a licensed therapist.

They keep victims enslaved through a combination of debt, shame, fear (of law enforcement and deportation), and threats to their families.

“It is not known exactly how many women working in massage parlors today are trafficked,” the report stated. “By its very nature, human trafficking is a difficult, if not impossible, crime to quantify with precision. Traffickers operate in the shadows, and the tools they use to exploit victims are such that the victims themselves often do not know that what is happening to them is against the law.”

Indicators of potential trafficking operations include:

  • Below market-value rates
  • Requests for large tips
  • Signs of workers living at the business location
  • Mostly male clients
  • Locked front doors with buzzers
  • Covered windows

“The sheer number of fake massage businesses, coupled with the impunity with which they operate, has over time fostered widespread – if tacit – cultural acceptance of the industry. The frequent wink, wink, nudge, nudge references to ‘happy endings,’ in popular culture is just one manifestation of perception that while commercial sex is illegal, in this context, it is essentially harmless,” the report stated. “That perception is wrong. There may be women who choose to sell sex either along with or under the guise of massage therapy, but evidence suggests that many of the thousands of women engaging in commercial sex in IMBs or ‘massage parlors’ are victims of human trafficking.”

The Polaris Project is a nonprofit organization based in the U.S. working to eradicate human trafficking through a “comprehensive model [that] puts victims at the center of what we do – helping survivors restore their freedom, preventing more victims, and leveraging data and technology to pursue traffickers wherever they operate.”

The full report is available here.

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