WASHINGTON, March 25, 2012—Law enforcement officials across the U.S. agree that sex trafficking in massage parlors continues despite efforts to curb the practice. However, the recent success against the sex trade in massage parlors in Georgia demonstrates that there may be a path to combat the crime without employing extensive manpower.
The case of Macon city, Georgia, demonstrates that stringent law helps local law enforcement stomp out sex trafficking in Asian massage parlors. The new ordinance mandates that massage parlors in the city have a business license, and requires that massage parlor owners disclose previous criminal convictions and submit to a background investigation before opening a business in the city. It also requires all masseuses to possess a license to perform therapeutic massages.
Before the new legislation, Macon city was a perfect spot for sex trafficking in massage parlors. Atlanta, one of the biggest hubs of sex trafficking in the country, is only 100 miles from Macon, Georgia. Because of its close proximity to the highway, the city attracts truck drivers and johns on business trips who stop to exploit sex-workers in Macon. Prior to the new regulation, the city had around 15 Asian massage parlors offering sexual services.
Macon’s new ordinance also empowers the local police, giving them a tool to catch the predators. Instead of having to rely on intense undercover sting operations, which require prolonged investigations, local police now have the authority to perform random inspections in the parlors to fight sex trafficking and prostitution.
Warner-Robins, another small city near Atlanta, Georgia, also retains a strict law against massage parlor prostitution. Since 1976, the city has forbidden any adult entertainment business owners who have committed a misdemeanor, including prostitution, from obtaining permits and licenses to practice for two years.
The city requires that all employees dress modestly and that all customers have their genitals covered during the massage session. Also, it holds owners accountable for adhering to the regulations. The law requires that owners ensure that their employees do not come into contact with the genitals of customers. In the event of a violation, both employer and masseuse are subject to license or permit revocation for two years.
The regulation grants the local police authority to perform random inspections at any time during business operation hours.
Prior to the new ordinance, Macon City was a hub of massage parlor prostitution and sex trafficking. In 2008, police arrested over 20 people at eight different businesses operating as massage parlors. The police said that the charges included “keeping a house of prostitution, masturbation for hire, solicitation of prostitution and simple prostitution.”
During the operation, police found two women who they believed to be trafficking victims. One of the victims was held under debt bondage to pay off fees to human traffickers who smuggled her from her home country to the United States. Traffickers also forced her into prostitution in various massage parlors throughout the East Coast. Another woman disappeared after police released her from custody.
Research shows that the new legislation reduced the rampant prostitution and sex trafficking in massage parlors. Since the new legislation took effect, The Telegraph, a local news media in Macon, reported in 2010 that four out of twelve massage parlor raided in 2008 were either out of business or moved elsewhere. The storefronts remained empty in 2010. Two of them continue to operate but do not advertise massage services according to the Telegraph.
Critics argue that the strict laws in Macon and Warner-Robins did not necessarily end massage-parlor prostitution and sex trafficking in the area. Three of the twelve businesses raided in 2008 continued to advertise massages in 2010. In 2010, two of these businesses also had their employees arrested for prostitution-related charges.
Warner-Robins city currently retains six businesses advertised as Asian spas or chiropractic businesses, but no erotic massage parlors openly advertise in the area.
In areas without tough legislation, rampant sex trafficking in massage parlors continues. In Los Angeles, California, lax regulation has led to spikes in prostitution and sex trafficking in massage parlors in the city.
Since 2009, California state law created “voluntary state certification for massage therapists.” Though the city regulation classifies massage parlors as adult entertainment, licensed therapists do not have to apply for police permits, which would require them to submit to background checks and fingerprinting by the local law enforcement.
To make matters worse, Los Angeles permits another loophole by failing to require massage parlor owners to show their state certification at all times. Currently, Los Angeles has 95 erotic massage parlors openly operating as brothels.
Macon and Warner-Robins have come a long way to fight the crime. Still, the authorities must close remaining loopholes in the legislation. They should crack down not only on massage parlors, but also on other businesses used by traffickers, such as acupuncture clinics and spas. Asset forfeiture from traffickers or facilitators to assist victims is also vital to forbid re-victimization of young women in the brothels.
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