Many come to America to escape poverty or abusive relationships on the promise of legitimate, well-paying jobs. Instead, they become saddled with debt and coerced into working excessive hours in S.C. massage businesses, having sex with men.
Susan Liu hears different versions of this same story from hundreds of the clients she counsels at her New York-based victim services organization. Although these Chinese immigrants won’t identify as such, Liu often finds they’re victims of human trafficking, working in seemingly legitimate massage businesses.
“I know they look like normal businesses,” said Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, who has worked with victims from 23 states, including South Carolina. “People always question if (the workers are) able to come and go, why would you say it’s trafficking? It doesn’t look like it on appearance, but it’s a trap.”
Many human traffickers operate in plain sight in massage businesses, often located in suburban strip malls along the nation’s highways, advocates say. Posing as legitimate employers, traffickers help Asian immigrants obtain visas and travel to the businesses, and then force them to repay their debt, taking advantage of a culture that emphasizes shame and reciprocity.
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Nationally, more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses are generating an estimated $2.5 billion annually, according to a 2018 report by Polaris, a global anti-human trafficking organization. Just this month, Florida investigators uncovered a human trafficking ring run out of massage operations, resulting in hundreds of solicitation arrests, including that of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Once a cultural joke, the “happy ending” is increasingly recognized for what it really is — destitute women fraudulently drawn to massage businesses and then manipulated into performing sex acts.
Data shows the problem is thriving in South Carolina too, supported by an online community that perpetuates the crime.
In 2017, illicit massage businesses were the most reported venue for sex trafficking in South Carolina, according to an annual report from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.
About 80 illicit massage businesses are currently operating in the Palmetto State, with clusters in the Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Columbia and Charleston areas, according to reviews on RubMaps, a website that allows customers to describe sexual services offered at each business.
Betty Houbion, a Myrtle Beach area advocate who’s worked with legislators to strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws, said she has no doubt human trafficking is involved in some S.C. massage businesses. She wonders why police aren’t doing more to uncover the crime.
“I don’t know what it is about South Carolina,” she said.
Multiple agencies across South Carolina have made prostitution arrests at massage businesses. But nearly none are making human trafficking cases.
A review of news reports in the past seven years revealed only one case — a woman and her 18-year-old son were arrested last year after police said they forced a 16-year-old girl into prostitution at a Richland County massage business. Law enforcement officials contacted for this story could not cite any other arrests.
Many members of S.C. law enforcement say they’re not uncovering evidence of human trafficking in massage businesses. Instead, they’re finding massage employees willingly working as prostitutes.
“Probably when Madame Wu left frickin’ Korea, that wasn’t the plan for the rest of her life, and she’s trapped in that, but that’s her life choice,” said Detective Pete Woods, who leads human trafficking investigations for the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
‘It’s a criminal enterprise’
Since November, Horry County police have conducted three sting operations at six massage businesses and made 10 prostitution arrests.
But they failed to take note of red flags for human trafficking, say advocates who reviewed the cases at the newspaper’s request.
For instance, most of the arrested women, all reportedly Chinese, listed home addresses in either Flushing, New York or at the massage business where they worked.
Workers are sometimes required to live at the businesses to be available to customers at all times, and Flushing has a large Asian immigrant population that serves as a primary recruitment hub for traffickers, advocates said.
All of the women were bailed out after paying fines of $200-$500, and the businesses where they were arrested are still operating.
Arresting women who are trafficking victims, and letting the buyers and traffickers go, keeps the system running smoothly, say victims advocates, speaking in general terms.
Law enforcement sometimes has a difficult time recognizing the complexities of the crime.The difference between prostitution and trafficking comes down to choice. When a person uses force, fraud or coercion to get another to engage in prostitution, it becomes sex trafficking.
And taking advantage of cultural differences makes these victims more susceptible to coercion, advocates say. Traffickers use accumulated debt and language barriers to control and isolate.
Detective Woods, with Myrtle Beach police, doesn’t believe the illicit massage businesses he has investigated are spots for human trafficking because he’s witnessed the women entering and leaving the business freely. He also noted the age of these women — typically older than 35 — as a reason for skepticism.
“What we have found is the average age of the women are over 40 years, so then it’s, well, you didn’t know anything?” he said. “I’m hard pressed to (call) that coercion at age 40.”
Most trafficking victims working in illicit massage businesses are mothers in their mid 30s to late 50s, according to Polaris data. And while they may seem to move freely, these women are trapped mentally, Liu explains.
“The (trafficker) tells them the public hates you, you’re worthless and the police will arrest you,” she said. “When that’s all true, what can we do?”
The Polaris report describes similarities between many of the victims based on interviews with women who have escaped. They came to America to escape a bad situation, accumulated debt, lack higher education, serve as the sole provider for children back home and don’t speak English.
These factors make women desperate for jobs without many options, said Chris Muller, director of training and external affairs for Restore NYC, another victims service provider that works with foreign nationals in New York.
“It’s not a character flaw, just overwhelming vulnerabilities,” he said.
There are a number of methods traffickers use to keep victims compliant, according to Polaris. Some techniques are easily recognizable, such as holding their passports and visa documents or threatening to report them to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others are more subtle such as lying to them about U.S. labor laws and fostering a distrust of law enforcement.
In addition, these women are victimized in multiple ways. Massage parlors can be spots of both sex and labor trafficking, because the women are forced to work excessive hours with minimal pay, advocates say.
And cultural differences are used as leverage. One of the guiding principals for social interactions in China, according to Polaris, is known as renqing, which emphasizes reciprocity or repayment.
“If a trafficker is able to convince a victim that he or she has done her an extreme favor by employing her,” the report states, “then anything the trafficker asks of the victim should be done because she owes the trafficker so much.”
The business model is similar everywhere, according to Detective Joseph Scaramucci, a human trafficking investigator with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, Texas, who has made several massage business-related arrests, none for prostitution.
“It’s a criminal enterprise,” he said.
‘It’s obvious she’s not a trained masseuse’
Illicit massage businesses are rarely subtle about what they’re offering. On their websites, many feature young, scantily dressed Asian women.
And online message boards offer pertinent information for those seeking sex at the establishments. Users on USASexGuide.com offer tips about where to go — as some women appear more willing to engage in sex than others — and which places to avoid because of law enforcement busts.
Visitors to the website were quickly alerted when Horry County Police conducted a prostitution sting in January at six massage parlors across the county.
“Looks like the (police) got all the drugs off the street, and shoplifters are gone, so now they have to bust (Asian massage parlors) and they will get a $400 fine. What a joke,” posted one user, LuvaRub2.
The website includes personalized message boards for all major cities, and the boards for Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Greenville and Charleston each have thousands of posts under “Massage Parlor Reports.”
Users pay a fee to participate, and often describe in explicit detail what services are offered, where, the cost and how to ask the women for more.
Many warned each other to stay safe and others worried the businesses would close. But another user quickly eased those fears.
“The ladies pay a fine (their manager pays it) and they rotate back to Flushing NY and new batch is sent to replace them,” Bucki125 wrote.
Commercial sex happens at massage businesses from the Upstate to the Lowcountry, according to website posters and those interviewed by reporters. But law enforcement is not making human trafficking cases. Consider:
- Indeego Spa in Rock Hill was a destination for website users in Charlotte. One poster, MustUAsk, bragged on the site in 2015 that patrons recieve “a REAL massage AND a happy ending.” Three months later, a woman listed as the partial business owner, who also lived in the back of the business, was arrested and charged with prostitution. That same night, a user posted, “If you had plans to visit Indeego Spa in Rock Hill, think again. Just saw on the news it was raided by the police.” Commander Marvin Brown, of the York County Multi-jurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit, said human trafficking was considered early on after investigators saw someone picking the woman up and dropping her off at the massage business every day. But when they made contact with the woman, she couldn’t speak English. Investigators used a translation service on a cellphone, but she never indicated someone was forcing her to do this, Brown said. The ticket was paid and police never saw or heard from the woman again, Brown added.
- Users also praised Palmetto Sun Massage in Lexington for its sexual services. One poster, Craiglyszt, wrote he was disappointed with his massage, writing “it’s obvious she’s not a trained masseuse,” but when it came to the illicit activity, “now here is where she knows what she is doing.” Palmetto Sun Massage was one of three massage parlors targeted in a coordinated prostitution sting in 2015 and the message boards lit with comments, warning other users of the bust and telling them to be safe. Lexington County deputies arrested four women for prostitution in that sting. A spokesman with the sheriff’s department said deputies did not find any connections to human trafficking and no other arrests were made.
A Beaufort County man named Tim recently contacted reporters after Kraft’s arrest in Florida made national news. Tim, who asked that his last name not be used, said he has been offered sexual services at three massage businesses in the Hilton Head area in recent months. The first time, the masseuse gave him a “happy ending” without asking. He said he was shocked but let her finish. The other two times, the women used hand signals to offer sexual services for $40-$100, but Tim said he declined. Tim said he contacted the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office but did not file an official complaint. Capt. Bob Bromage, sheriff’s office spokesman, said he’s not aware of any investigation or previous arrests at local massage businesses.
Those seeking sex at massage businesses don’t have much to worry about because the businesses offer plausible deniability in the guise of seeking a legitimate massage.
“It is very likely that without the availability of such businesses, this particular subset of risk-averse commercial sex buyers would remove themselves from the commercial sex marketplace,” the Polaris report states.
Even if they are caught, solicitation of commercial sex is just a misdemeanor in South Carolina with a maximum fine of $200 and/or up to 30 days in jail on first offense, one of the lowest penalties in the country. Identical bills in the state House and Senate are currently under consideration to raise the fine to a minimum of $250 and maximum to $1,000 on first offense.
Creating strong local ordinances could cut down the number of illicit massage businesses, advocates say. Prohibiting buzzer-controlled front doors and back-door entrances that hide what’s happening in the businesses have proven effective in some U.S. cities.
Strong code enforcement could also aid police investigations — the Florida investigation that ensnared Kraft started when a state health inspector reported finding bedding and clothing in the back of a massage business.
But Horry County may be failing on this front.
Of the six massage parlors targeted in prostitution stings during recent months, five are within the county’s jurisdiction. County officials could only locate fire inspection records for two of them, both most recently from 2016. The report for Oasis Spa, the site of three prostitution arrests in less than a month, notes that their next inspection is scheduled for May 2017, but no further inspection reports could be located.
County spokeswoman Kelly Moore said that “every effort is made” to perform an annual fire inspection on all commercial structures. She also noted that they’re not able to search those inspections by address, so if a business changes its name, it becomes difficult to locate past reports.
Another problem is that no state agency is responsible for licensing massage businesses, said Dean Grigg, who works with the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, speaking from personal experience, not on the agency’s behalf.
The agency can only license the individual, and officials only have the authority to respond to complaints. Conversely, cosmetology businesses must be licensed and the agency is authorized to conduct inspections on the property. Individual cosmetologists have to be licensed as well, and are required to keep their place of business updated with the agency.
Right now, LLR has no way of knowing the number of S.C. massage businesses or the number of people working for them, Grigg said.
While South Carolina doesn’t have any laws regulating massage businesses, a bill pending in the S.C. House Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry could change that.
S.C. Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat who ran with James Smith in his 2018 bid for governor, is sponsoring a bill aimed at closing illegitimate massage businesses while protecting legitimate ones.
Norrell travels frequently from Lancaster to Myrtle Beach, and said that’s how she became aware of the massage businesses — buildings with opaque fences and customers coming into the business through the backdoor.
Working with the state’s chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, Norrell has created an amendment to a bill that would restrict people from living on the premises of massage businesses, prohibit a fence around the property and require state licensing. The bill also gives LLR temporary arrest power.
Solving the issue doesn’t begin with law enforcement or legislators, though, but rather public perception, advocates argue.
Brad Myles, CEO and executive director of Polaris, said social attitudes are a big challenge, but the jokes about happy endings that are often racially charged need to end.
“To those women, the term ‘happy ending,’ with its faint whiff of fairy tale, is cruelly ironic,” the Polaris report states. “Most of them are immigrants, chasing a dream of financial stability in a faraway land, seeking not a prince but a steady job with decent wages.”
Signs of human trafficking
Red flags that someone is a victim of human trafficking include:
Poor living and working conditions: Unable to come and go as they wish; unpaid or paid very little; owes a large debt they’re unable to pay off.
Poor mental health: Fearful, anxious, depressed; avoids eye contact; anxious around law enforcement.
Poor physical health: Appears malnourished; signs of physical or sexual abuse.
Lack of control: Few personal possessions; no bank account; unable to speak for themselves.
If you see any of these red flags, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.