This is the second part of a three-part series on sex trafficking and illegally operating massage parlors in Northern Virginia. The third part will run Friday, Nov. 18. Also see Part 1: Meet Jessica Johnson, Annandale's Anti-Trafficking Crusader.
Some are tucked away into dilapidated corner buildings in local industrial zones. Others rent space in respectable office parks, the name of the business featured on a gold plaque by the entrance. Online, some advertise not only stress-relieving massages, but also adult services.
They’re called Asian massage parlors, or AMPs. Many are legitimate and legal businesses, but others are thought to be fronts for prostitution or, even worse, businesses that profit from human trafficking.
Locally, a string of massage parlors that advertise adult services online have found homes in Annandale and Springfield. They are all but invisible to the occasional passer-by. Most simply rent office space, post signs with the business name and hours and close the window blinds.
One such massage parlor, which advertises online on an adult site, blocks light into the building by using silver reflective material. One of the business’s employees said the shield was installed to keep the sun out of clients’ eyes while they received massages. It is unclear if these businesses are involved in human trafficking.
The extent of human trafficking in AMPs in Northern Virginia is unknown. Most likely, the most serious crime committed at some of the less reputable massage parlors is prostitution. But, anti-trafficking advocates say, even one victim is one too many.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican who represents Virginia 10th District, which roughly covers the top part of the state from Winchester to McLean, recently asked the Washington-based anti-human-trafficking organization the Polaris Project to check into AMPs in Northern Virginia.
In a September letter to Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for Eastern District of Virginia, Wolf wrote that he had provided MacBride’s office with a list of alleged human trafficking operations in Northern Virginia but had received no response.
Wolf told MacBride he was “very disappointed that nearly two years after your human trafficking working group was set up, there has been so little progress” and that he questioned “the commitment to this effort.”
“It is not enough to simply talk about the issue; action must be taken,” Wolf wrote. “Every day, innocent women are being held as slaves in these locations. These women are someone’s daughter, sister, or mother. It is abhorrent that slavery of any form would exist in the United States today.”
The local U.S. Attorney’s Office responded by releasing a statement defending fighting trafficking as an agency priority. It claimed that the office, which founded its Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force in 2004, re-invigorated the program in mid-2010.
“Prosecutions have risen since then, and we have a number of robust investigations currently underway, agency spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. “We feel like we’re off to a good start.”
Clearly, not all AMPs offer sexual services. Not all women working in AMPs are trafficking victims.
Some men who share tips online about sexual services at Northern Virginia’s AMPs vigorously disagree with the Polaris Project’s estimates of the degree of sex trafficking taking place in these local businesses.
“Questionable and / or possibly unethical business practice? Sure,” posted one user on a forum. “Sex-slaving? Hardly! I think the biggest problem with Polaris' misconception about AMPs. They … don’t go into the AMPs as customers and don't see how the providers interact with customers and just simply don't know the whole picture.”
However, Linda Smith, a former congresswoman from Washington state who founded the anti-trafficking group Shared Hope International, which largely operates out of Arlington, said illicit business owners often prefer to work with trafficked women because they’re less costly and easier to control than legitimate employees.
Also, even massage parlor employees who aren’t trafficking victims may not feel free to leave their jobs. They may have limited English-language skills, fear retaliation or destitution if they quit, be in debt to their employers or fear exposure as illegal immigrants.
According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, human trafficking is nothing but modern-day slavery, with individuals forced to perform labor, services or commercial sexual acts against their will. Between 18,000 and 20,000 immigrants are subjects of human trafficking into the United States annually, according to the center.
According to the Polaris Project, sex trafficking is often found in venues such as illicit massage parlors, residential brothels, online escort services, strip clubs and street prostitution. Illicit AMPs are often brothels disguised as legitimate businesses.
“Typically,” according to the Polaris Project, “AMPs conceal the commercial sex operation by registering and attempting to behave like legitimate businesses.”
AMPs take on an air of legitimacy by operating out of locations such as office buildings, advertising in mainstream publications, paying rent and taxes, offering legal message services, acquiring proper business occupancy permits and utilizing items commonly used in therapeutic massage parlors, such as massage tables.
However, AMPs also often install security cameras to monitor clients, have locked doors and barred or covered windows. Many women who work at AMPs live on-site, are rotated among locations every few weeks and provide sex to multiple customers daily. These women are often Korean, Thai or Chinese and may have come to the United States on valid visas or fraudulent visas or have been smuggled into the country, according to the Polaris Project.
Most AMP clients are middle- to upper-class professional males, the Polaris Project claims. A massage parlor with all-male clientele strongly indicates the AMP is a brothel. The Polaris Project estimates there are more than 4,000 brothels disguised as AMPs nationwide. Multiple calls to the Polaris Project for Virginia-specific data were not returned.
Sex-related human trafficking occurs when people, including children and people who are vulnerable due to histories of abuse, are forced into the commercial sex trade against their wishes. Women are often promised a well-paying job in the United States, only to find upon arrival that conditions can be brutal and pay low.
The brothel owners then use methods including violence, lies, isolation, debt bondage and simple manipulation to keep victims involved in the sex industry. Traffickers are also known to threaten sex workers with deportation or arrest.
Smith said brothel owners often confiscate passports or visas because many of the women are in the United States illegally. They may dictate demand the women work long hours in violation of labor laws, keep part of the women’s pay to cover a woman’s “debt” or even threaten the family in the women’s home country.
“You can tell when you start thinking about it, there are things wrong here,” Smith said.
Reputable businesses usually display business licenses and employee certifications in prominent places, Smith said. Discerning customers should feel free to ask to see licenses, where employees were trained and how long they have worked in the field.
“If it doesn’t look right it probably isn’t,” Smith said. “And (people) should be civically responsible and report it; that if something is wrong, report it. Just because they are a different nationality … she’s still a human being.”
A Local Problem
A review of massage parlor ads on adult services websites indicates that local massage parlors offering sexual services are most often associated with Asian immigrants, although gang-related Hispanic sex trafficking is gaining attention.
A quick search on Craiglist, which last year eliminated its “adult services” category amid complaints from law enforcement, still features ads for massage services in Northern Virginia. Most ads highlight female Korean staff and feature photographs of Asian models. Ads for Annandale businesses overwhelmingly promise massages by “friendly” Asian employees and “opulent Asian hospitality.”
Some web forums are specific about where to find sexual services in Northern Virginia and what to expect. On one sexually-oriented online forum, users bemoan the closure several years ago of a local massage parlor called Kim’s and rate the sexual services they received there.
Another website features online ads for “erotic” massage parlors throughout the region, including five in Annandale, four in the Alexandria area, five in Springfield, four in Fairfax, 10 in Vienna and many more in Arlington, Centreville, Chantilly, Dunn Loring, Falls Church, Herndon, McLean, Sterling, Warrenton and Woodbridge.
Photos of the businesses and partial phone numbers and addresses are listed for free, but for a fee, subscribers can share their experiences at each location and rate the specific “girl,” the massage parlor, the service and the massage.