No Happy Endings, Please: How to Tell if a Massage Parlor is Legitimate

Finding a legitimate massage therapist is an increasingly difficult proposition, with the proliferation of bogus massage parlors acting as fronts for illegal houses of prostitution. In fact, the label “massage parlor” itself has become synonymous in many people’s minds for “brothel,” while terms like “full service” and “happy ending” have crossed into mainstream vernacular as code words for covert sex-for-money transactions posing as massages. And no area seems immune to the phenomenon: the website currently has around 4,000 “erotic” massage parlors listed in all 50 states, plus Washington DC, Canada and Guam.

What Are Your Chances of Getting a Real Massage Therapist in a Massage Parlor?

In every state except Nevada, prostitution is illegal (Until November 2009, it was legal in Rhode Island, although organized brothels and “street solicitation” were not.), and yet illicit massage parlors have exploded in number during the first part of the 21st century. How prevalent is the problem? National statistics are hard to determine, but in individual cities, the trend is clear. Of the 119 parlors operating in Mesa, Arizona, for instance, only 21 have been open since before 2004. In Ventura, California, applications for massage technician licenses jumped nearly 30% between 2007 and 2009. In Torrance, California, the number of licensed massage parlors has doubled in the past seven years.

Of course, not all of the new massage businesses are fronts for prostitution, but officials in various cities surveyed estimate that the percentage of massage parlors in their jurisdictions that engage in sexual activity range from 20% (Walnut Creek, California) to as many as 90% (Minneapolis, Minnesota).

Where Do Illicit Massage Therapists Come From?

In American cities where brothels operate as massage parlors, law enforcement has traced the bulk of the female prostitutes to East Asia and suspects that many of them are victims of human trafficking. Typically, the women come from impoverished circumstances and are looking for a better life in the US. In exchange for the transportation, they agree to work for a year or so — although it’s not always clear to them that they will be engaging in sex for money.

badmassage2.jpgWith traffickers confiscating the women’s travel documents, there’s little to prevent the “owners” from turning the situation into outright slavery, extending the time of servitude by requiring the prostitutes to work off exorbitant sums and by imposing fees that ensure that they will never be able to pay off their debt. The US State Department estimates that as many as 17,500 victims of human trafficking are brought into the country every year, although the percentage of that number that are involved in the sex trade is unclear.

Since many of the workers in illegal massage parlors come from East Asia, they often end up on the West Coast. In order to avoid detection, traffickers tend to fly to Canada or Mexico and then walk or drive the women across the border. California in particular has become a hotbed of massage parlor prostitution, leading the nation with 12,351 of the country’s 67,287 prostitution arrests in 2005 — or 18.4% of the national total. The problem has become so pronounced that in 2008-09, cities like Ventura, Costa Mesa, Camarillo, Arcadia, Torrance and Simi Valley placed moratoriums on new massage business applications and new licenses for massage therapists.

  • Due to the negative connotation, they often refrain from the term “massage parlor,” preferring “massage clinic” or “massage office.”
  • The workers dress and act professionally, even clinically.
  • They try to make the building and surroundings as clean and “medical” as possible.
  • They’re located in well-lit, high-traffic areas in professional office buildings.
  • They have professional ads that focus on their licensed therapists, spa services, relaxing atmosphere and hygiene standards.

By contrast, here are some signs that a massage parlor is in the business of “happy endings:

  • They’re located in dingy areas and run-down, out-of-the-way strip malls.
  • They’re very small and offer little in the way of professional equipment, often with little more than a massage table or two.
  • They have tinted (or no) windows.
  • They typically operate at all hours, from 8 AM to midnight or later, seven days a week.
  • badmassageads2.jpgThe interiors are unkempt and unprofessional, with worn-out couches, fake flowers, posters of Asian women and an ATM in the hallway.
  • They have a predominantly male clientele and target men in their ads.
  • They may have suggestive names like Pleasure Moon Palace or unprofessional names like Lucky Massage.
  • They have cheap, sometimes neon, signs.
  • Their ads tend to focus on the age, race and sex (almost always female) of their masseuses and the erotic nature of the massage, with the “therapists” shown in suggestive poses with revealing clothing.
  • They may avoid the term “massage” in favor of “body rubs” or “body relaxation” in order to evade regulation from authorities.

If you’re still unsure, here are some tips to follow before you visit a massage therapist:

  • Get recommendations from friends, family or other people you trust.
  • Ask in advance for a therapist’s educational and professional background. How many years have they been practicing? In which modalities have they trained? Do they have references?
  • Research your city or state’s requirements for massage therapists and massage clinics. Does the business have the appropriate massage license? Are the therapists certified? (In California, you can look up certified therapists on the CAMTC website.) Keep in mind that an official massage license doesn’t necessarily mean that the business is legitimate, but it at least weeds out some of the illegitimate ones that can’t even be bothered to put up a front.

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