Looking for a Happy Ending
The $1 billion business of illicit massage parlors keeps growing — but are the mostly Asian workers victims, or searching for the American dream?
By Brad Hamilton and Tamarra Kemsley
In the happy endings business, it pays to put on a happy face.
Claire knows this well. On a sunny fall morning last year she took the train from her home on Long Island to a storefront in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan where the windows were taped over with yellowing paper. She walked in past the dangling doorbell, which hung loosely to one side, and the two teddy bears clutching chocolate bars, then continued along a narrow hallway lined with treatment rooms. A maroon sign with white letters provided the only clue about what business was being conducted here: “Spa.”
Inside, it was as dark as a movie theater, the paper and heavy curtains blotting out any semblance of sunshine. The smell of sweat rose from the carpet like mist. Three of her colleagues clustered around a desk, gabbing and scrolling through messages on their phones. Soon the place would fill with customers, so Claire changed into a strappy zebra-print dress and steeled herself for the job of giving massages, and occasionally more, to a parade of men, something she does for 80 hours a week.
Her parlor does not advertise happy endings — that all-too-familiar euphemism for handjob sex — but many clients expect them, she said. Mostly she says no but sometimes Claire agrees, servicing those she deems to be “friends” or “a nice person,” particularly for those undergoing trouble in their romantic lives. “They need help and I help them,” she said.
Though Claire is careful not to discuss a price for this beforehand, she knows that providing a mid-massage “manual release” is likely to garner her a gratuity of $60 per customer, money she says she needs to support herself and her 16-year-old son. Claire could make more — as much as $150 per session — if she went further and had sex with her clients. She refuses. “People used to give me massages,” she said.
And while most customers shrug it off if she turns them down, some take offense. One grew furious and slammed her against a wall. She slapped him twice in the face and he bolted, fumbling with his clothes as he ran out. But the encounter left her in tears, shocked at how much her life had changed from her time in China, where she worked for 20 years as an accountant for a respectable business.
“He couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why did this happen to me?’”
Claire is not her given name, of course. She arrived in New York from Shanghai in 2012 on a work visa, part of an army of Asian workers who support the booming business of illicit massage. Churning out an estimated billion dollars in annual profits, the industry has brought paid-for-sex to Main Street America and helped make a trip to the masseuse, spiced by the prospect of a steamy encounter, a national obsession.
Over the last decade or so thousands of salacious spas and rubdown dens have popped up, from seedy to swanky, coast to coast. Approximately 1,200 are open just in New York City (which, by way of comparison, has some 2,500 bars and nightclubs, along with 280 or so Starbucks), according to industry estimates provided to these reporters. They’ve sprouted in virtually every neighborhood from midtown to Tribeca, brownstone Brooklyn and commercial strips in Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
The high-end parlors include an ultra luxe retreat near Rockefeller Center, where, according to one regular, it costs $100 to walk in but clients then can change into plush terry robes and enjoy the sauna or steam room before a demure Asian beauty politely leads them to be treated. On the lower end is a musty basement on Mott Street in Chinatown, where narrow spaces are divided by thin curtains but an hour-long massage costs just $40. Any extras are, well, extra.
Spas cover central and south New Jersey, along with big and small cities from New England to Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas and all the way down I-95 to the Florida Keys. Truck stops along 1–75 outside Atlanta are teeming with seductive massage joints. California is swimming in them. In Huntington Beach, Calif., the number of parlors jumped from nine to 65 between 2009 and 2012 and most were of the illicit variety, said the town’s police chief, Kenneth Small. “You travel through our city and you’ll notice that almost every corner has [one] on it,” he told a local TV station.
“There’s hardly a place in America where you can’t get a hanky-panky rubdown,” said Bill, a former Wall Street broker who now owns his own printing company, work that requires overnight trips to see customers. He says he’s patronized scores of massage parlors in many states over the last decade. “They’re everywhere. Canada, too.”
The culture of sex massage is currently drawing wide interest because of the saga of billionaire playboy Jeffrey Epstein, whose shapely blonde “traveling masseuse,” Virginia Roberts, claims she was his sex slave starting at age 15, when she began engaging in X-rated sessions with the ex-con financier (not to mention his pals Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew) at Epstein’s mansion in Palm Beach. Friends of hers have questioned Roberts’ credibility, saying she was not under his or anyone else’s control and that she appeared to relish the luxuries that came with her employment.
The scandal has prompted queries into the extent of the illicit massage industry: who are the customers, what are they demanding and how much money changes hands? Some critics want answers regarding the young women who work in this trade. Could it be that massive sexual exploitation is occurring all around us? Or is this mostly a matter involving consenting adults acting without untoward influence?
Nationwide, experts believe, the number of underground masseuses probably doesn’t equal the 132,800 legitimate therapists identified by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2012 or the $10 billion in yearly sales it estimates they generate. But a research study last year by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., found 4,790 erotic massage parlors on just one site, EroticMP.com, which posts addresses and user reviews. If each place clears $20,000 a month, a figure that two Rutgers University professors discovered was the average among illicit parlors, the industry’s yearly profits would top $1 billion. And this market is trending up. Labor expects the massage industry to grow by 23 percent between 2012 and 2022, a more robust forecast than for many other businesses.
“What explains the growth?” asked James Finckenenaur, who co-authored the 2010 Rutgers study, which addresses China’s influence on the commercial sex trade, with fellow professor Ko-lin Chin. “Erotic massage does get ignored. It’s relatively safe. It’s exotic. And setting up a low-level massage parlor doesn’t take a lot of capital. Plus there’s a general interest in society at large in getting legitimate massages. So crossing over into something more? It doesn’t take a lot to bridge that gap.”
As Claire’s story demonstrates, the industry features rewards as well as a dark undercurrent. She never intended to become a sex worker. The divorced single mom left her country for a better life in the U.S. but ended up in a Manhattan nail salon until she could no longer stand the noxious fumes. A friend offered a crash course in deep-tissue therapy, which led to her new position as an unlicensed masseuse.
The job requires her to be ever pleasant and supplicating to customers, including the day a year ago when her mother passed away in a Shanghai hospital. Claire never got to say good-bye. Instead, she went to work.
“This is a difficult story,” she said.
Claire had attempted to return home but couldn’t because of a visa problem, and her anguish mounted as family members sent photos of her ailing mother’s final days. “I wanted to kill myself,” she said. There was no one in New York to console her.
“People don’t want to talk about their hurt. Even with my friends, we don’t talk. If we talk and someone starts crying, we stop and talk about something else.”
The trade is fueled by hopeful immigrants like her — predominantly from China, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Russia — and owners who range from ordinary mom-and-pop entrepreneurs to canny international businessmen, some with possible criminal ties. A significant number of workers get started in New York, where they train in massage techniques before finding jobs in the city or traveling to other metro areas. Legions of others begin in L.A. or surrounding towns.
Law-enforcement is sporadic. The “rub-and-tug,” popularized in film and on TV shows and talked about incessantly online, lacks the stigma it once had and is only randomly targeted by police, particularly in large cities, where it’s most commonly found. And though some argue that trafficking and exploitation are persistent problems, much of what goes on behind closed doors is voluntary and free of organized criminal control.
That’s according to a host of massage parlor workers, owners and customers, as well as prosecutors and academics who have studied the industry, which is run by a decentralized, loosely structured amalgam of independent operators. One aspect is undeniable: these owners are pocketing enormous profits. It’s easy to see why.
They can set up shop anywhere they find a suitable space, often in urban zones but sometimes in suburbia or rural corners, such as Eden Prairie, Minn., and Barre, Vt. Masseuses, many of whom are illegal aliens lacking professional licenses, are a snap to recruit as they earn wages that can approach six figures a year in untaxed cash.
The Rutgers study found that sex workers in L.A. took home, on average, $7,200 a month. In New York the figure was $6,000.
Nor is attracting customers a problem. Alluring ads featuring bikini-clad models abound on Craigslist, adult sites like backpage.com and in alternative weekly newspapers. Hundreds of explicit reviews are posted on EroticMP.com, SpaHunters.com and RubMaps.com.
Yet happy-ending hubs mostly avoid official scrutiny.
“They are part of the growing sexualization of Western culture, which includes music lyrics, movies and books like `Fifty Shades of Grey,’” said Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University and an expert on prostitution. “It seems like almost the norm for them to be scattered around in cities like New York.”
Their popularity is bolstering arguments for decriminalizing prostitution, much like medical marijuana helped legalize pot in Oregon and Colorado, according to Weitzer, who says that reports of subjugation are valid but not representative of the industry as a whole. “Yes, there are workers who come from Korea or China but that doesn’t mean they are coming against their will,” he said.
“At some point you have to ask: Is there a problem here? Police are devoting almost all their resources to street prostitution, which has the greatest incidence of minors, pimping, drug addiction and coercion. In the big cities, they certainly are not paying as much attention to the indoor trade unless the cops learn of money laundering or organized crime or there’s a specific complaint from the community. A lot of people see it as a victimless crime.”
If there’s an unofficial headquarters to the erotic massage industry, it’s the working class community of Flushing, Queens, about six miles due east of Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s predominantly Asian and as exotic a neighborhood as you’ll likely find anywhere, a place where elderly Chinese women hand out restaurant fliers printed in Mandarin and local grocers sell live, individually wrapped turtles that blink at shoppers from shelves stocked with bok choy.
Here, amid discount phone outlets, barber shops and bubble tea stands, a black-market massage mecca hums.
Entire blocks along Union and Main streets are lined with provocative-sounding parlors like Asian Kitty and Shangri-La Lily, and behind the scenes an extensive training network prepares the next generation of pleasure providers.
EroticMP.com, which bills itself as “the largest erotic massage review site in the world,” lists 29 such establishments in Flushing, though more than that exist, industry sources say. A good number accept cash only and stay open as late as midnight; a few operate 24 hours a day. This neighborhood could have the highest concentration of massage parlors in the country.
To be sure, many do not provide sexual favors but rather offer typical beauty and health treatments — exfoliation, facials, reflexology, waxing — for women, couples, families. At clubs like Tai Huang, Coco, and New York Spa & Sauna, a traditional Korean day spa, one can find a better-than-average shiatsu massage for as little as $25, hot stones included, reviewers say.
The bargains are partly a result of the inexperience of staff members, who are mostly newcomers learning the craft and speak little English. These aspiring therapists flock to Flushing to acquire the basics but rarely opt for an established school or trade association. Instead, instruction tends to be informal, from friends or family members with skills in therapeutic practices. Some go on to get licensed, which in New York state requires 500 hours of training. Many do not bother. There’s a brisk trade in forged credentials.
Andy, a Mandarin translator who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, learned of the network when he helped a young Chinese couple open their own happy ending parlor. The man had come to New York to attend college but grew interested in the business after meeting his girlfriend, who worked as a masseuse and knew several rub-and-tug employees in Flushing.
“That’s just what her and her friends all do,” Andy said. “They say it’s just like a 9-to-5 job. Go in the morning, jerk a bunch of dudes off, and go home at night.”
He found the couple a location near Times Square and within weeks the business was up and running, the girlfriend acting as house mama-san or “mommy” and her boyfriend handling the books. The clients, Andy said, are mainly bank executives who work at offices nearby. The spa staff is comprised of women who live in Queens.
“Everyone just comes from Flushing,” he said. “They take the 7 train to midtown. They work until about five, and another shift starts at four and does the night shift.”
Flushing is a busy highway. Just as wannabe masseuses arrive in waves, so do out-of-town recruiters, luring the recently schooled to outlets in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Dallas and Seattle. A Dallas law-enforcement source told the Urban Institute that workers in his city had started in Flushing but “that to keep clients interested, women are often rotated to different massage parlors throughout cities on a circuit.”
Mimi, a former factory worker in Beijing, showed up in Flushing last year after leaving her job in L.A. as a nanny for a Chinese family. She possessed some massage skills before arriving as her ex-employer had taught her the fundamentals. In Queens, she honed that ability, and it didn’t take her long to find work at a local spa, where she earns $10 or more in tips per session, plus $4 of the $25 house fee.
Mimi, who asked not to be quoted or have personal details revealed in this story, says she does not give happy endings. When customers request them, she sends them to another spa down the block. Plenty of places are ready to oblige.
One of the lustiest, according to reviewers, is Silk Tigers, an upscale Korean parlor on West 38th Street in midtown Manhattan. It’s rated No. 3 in the country on Spa Hunters, whose members call themselves “mongers” or “hobbyists” and file detailed reports on the places and providers they like. Silk Tigers’ online ad leaves little doubt about what’s on the menu: “sensual massage,” “nude adult relaxation,” “mutual touching” and “erotic body contact,” it offers. “The most beautiful young and friendly girls from Asia and beyond.”
Tabby, a petite brunette with a girlish smile and hour-glass figure, is one of the spa’s featured masseuses. She greeted a Contently reporter in a tight-fitting mini dress on the second floor of a non-descript four-story walk-up near Seventh Avenue. It’s a narrow, sumptuously appointed space with decor you might find at a boutique hotel: polished wood floors, slate-gray walls with framed mirrors, white leather armchairs, fresh bouquets in cut-glass vases.
“You want massage-ee?” Tabby asked in halting English. “We take care you.”
She provided a tour, showing off the shower room, a tiled enclave in which clients are told to lie down on a padded table before being soaped up and rinsed with a hand-held sprayer. The treatment room had an oversized massage table covered in crisp linens, muted sconce lighting and a small stereo playing chamber music.
She explained the pricing. The house fee of $80 covered the basics: the table shower and hour massage. “And if you want more?” the reporter asked. “What you like?” she said. “How much is everything?” The answer was an extra $140. Presumably, a gratuity would also be required. The reporter declined.
Tabby offered a few personal details. She said she was from Korea and had been in the U.S. for two years. “I study to be hairdresser,” she said, and ran her hand through long straight locks, tinged with purple highlights, explaining that the cut and color were her choices. But it would seem her life revolves around the parlor, where she works seven days a week for three weeks straight. “Then no work for one week,” she said.
Online reviewers say Tabby and the four other Silk Tigers will engage in just about any illicit act — happy endings but also oral sex, intercourse, even anal sex.
“It’s a fantastic place,” said one. “They treat you like a god.”
It’s that approach that resonates with the hobbyist crowd, who say that the appeal of erotic massage extends beyond the sex and the sexiness of the masseuse; they covet the attention, the pampering, the feeling of being taken in and taken care of.
Finckenauer and Chin noted this, referring to GFE, short for “the girlfriend experience.” It’s a term coined by former Manhattan pimp Jason Itzler, who encouraged his call girls to treat johns as if they were boyfriends. Kissing, cuddling and expressions of fondness were as important as the sex and something his wealthy clients craved, according to Itzler. GFE is commonly advertised on EMP sites, including on the Silk Tigers page.
“I have been to at least 100 massage parlors and met hundreds of providers,” revealed one GFE-loving customer, using his online moniker, doncorleone, in a private exchange with Contently on the Spa Hunters site. “Mostly NJ but some in NY. And I talk to them at length because I like to get to know them and them me. I have never met one that even hinted at not doing this willingly. Some are actually pretty happy, biding their time and saving their money to go home.”
Alonzo, also a Spa Hunter member, claimed to have developed extended relationships with the workers, going to dinner with them or having drinks at karaoke bars. He’s been introduced to family members, including the husbands of two masseuses, along with nieces and nephews. With one he bonded over faith after they discovered they were both Christians; now, on occasion, the two pray together in a massage room. He asserts that most of the women he’s encountered have pursued the profession and stay in it by choice.
Another member who asked not to be identified even by his online name said he got into mongering when his marriage hit the skids. “I was missing intimacy. I was feeling ignored,” he admitted. “Feeling like I wasn’t being heard. It was a culmination of issues surrounding intimacy, passion and sex that was missing and/or lacking in my marriage to the point I was seriously considering divorce or at least separation.”
So he responded to an erotic ad and found the experience satisfying. Years later, despite having spent thousands of dollars on illicit sessions, he remains married. “I keep going because every now and then I feel the need for that connection. A connection I don’t have with my partner. It’s not about sex for me. It’s about the attention. The focus on me. I like it. I need it.”
Yet another active Spa Hunter enthusiast, using the screen name VeryRandy07004, said his ex-wife “tacitly approved” of his forays — which amount to some 1,700 massages, by his count — because she’d had a hysterectomy and wasn’t interested in sex. He too claims to have grown close to his favorite happy-ending therapist, a 25-year-old Chinese woman who works six days a week and sends all but $700 a month home to fund a house for her brother “so he can make a good marriage.”
“Her mother knows all the details of her job,” he posted to this reporter. “She calls and talks with the owner every week to make sure that her daughter is working hard and making her customers very happy. The bottom line is that she wants the house to be funded ASAP no matter what the daughter has to do. The daughter’s dreams and aspirations are meaningless.”
He’s not the only one to confess to having had a “Pretty Woman” experience with his masseuse. One site member revealed: “[She was] a bright, intelligent woman whom I dated for over a year, and [I] always felt pain that we had to fabricate a fictitious meet-cute story, about shopping for avocados at Fairway market, instead of the truth.”
Bill, the broker-turned-printer, said in an interview that he’s never gone out with any parlor workers but enjoys the air of mystique to the spa experience — whether the massage is sensual or strictly therapeutic. Often, he said, he’ll book an appointment not knowing which kind he’ll get.
“The lines have blurred,” he said. “You have to be open to whatever. I’ve been offered happy endings and said no, and I’ve asked and been turned down. There are some really sketchy looking places in Chinatown where they absolutely will not touch you. And then there was the time I was in Shanghai at a luxury hotel. They had a spa with a stunning therapist who was quite accommodating.”
His experience, he said, has involved only handjob sex, and whether the masseuse was willing or not depended on her attitude.
“I had one who got offended because I got an erection and another who practically begged me to touch her. We’re talking about two human beings in a dark room. One is naked and the other is there to provide physical pleasure. Is it surprising that all kinds of different things happen? In my mind there’s only one bad outcome: a lousy massage.”
The will-she-or-won’t-she question represents a sharp departure from the way illicit massage parlors were run in 1970s, when the women did not pretend to know anything about proper muscle kneading and got right down to business, according to Weitzer. Today, he says, there’s an element of ambiguity that stems from the explosive growth of spas in Asia.
“Hong Kong is full of massage parlors,” he said. “They do provide legitimate massage. But whether they also offer sexual service depends on the therapists and the customers, some of whom just want a back or foot massage. Sometimes they’ll provide happy endings but only on a very selective basis.”
With average annual profits estimated at $240,000, an erotic massage operation can be lucrative, but running one comes with significant challenges, owners say.
Matthew has two upscale “body rub” locations: one in in midtown Manhattan, the other in in the Financial District. They are private apartments for happy-ending massages that have no public signage and employ a passel of colleges students, charging customers $200 an hour, not including tip. Despite being pricier than storefront massage parlors, Matthew’s enterprises are not full-service. Not that he has anything against offering it. He just doesn’t want to get caught.
“If you start doing extras like [oral sex] you’re no longer under the radar, and I just have a feeling that with the one or two busts a year the police might do, your odds are significantly higher if you’re jumping into those categories,” he said.
For some owners, organized crime plays an intrusive though peripheral role, but not in his business, Matthew claimed. Others have told him that Asian mobsters “sort of have their hand in every place,” when it comes to parlors, divvying up Chelsea, SoHo and NoHo, for example, “with each gang overseeing a specific neighborhood. If an independent place did open up that wasn’t affiliated with the gang they’d come in and be like ‘We’re your partner now.’”
Being married to the mob can cost an independent owner as much as 50 percent of revenue, according to Matthew, as one must pay into a Mafia-style protection racket. Finckenauer acknowledged the practice but said the parlor-mobster relationship does have one benefit: legitimate security services. “If something happens, if a customer gets out of line, these owners can’t call the police,” he said. “That’s where the gang can come in handy. They call them and they take care of business.”
Andy said that drug-dealing Chinese tongs act much like the Dapper Don John Gotti — stealing with one hand, while giving with the other.
They extort “all the businesses, but they’re also the ones who buy everyone Thanksgiving turkey,” he said, adding that tongs have been known to fund public construction projects, including opening a public library, and set up scholarships for needy kids.
One of the good problems for operators: a bounty of benjamins.
“It’s a 99.9 percent cash business, which means that people who run these businesses have suitcases full of cash and they have to deal with it,” said Finckenauer.
The Urban Institute found that profits are primarily put into other businesses or the purchasing of properties throughout the United States. A percentage is sent to family, friends or associates in the owner’s home country, commonly via Western Union. Several investigators told the institute’s researchers that tracking the money was difficult and complicated. One in Dallas called massage parlor cases “next to impossible to prosecute.”
Even so, operators must keep a watchful eye on the cops. Most know just what to do to avoid being busted, including having surveillance cameras mounted at entrances so that anyone who approaches can be checked out. Among the other measures: asking clients directly if they’re police officers; insisting that workers never discuss fees for sexual services; and delicately grilling any new customers about how they found the establishment. The high-end parlors will sometimes request that newcomers book an appointment in advance from a phone without a blocked number.
Andy said that the place he helped set up near Times Square uses a booking system that requires a work email, an approach that also helps protect the business from unruly clients.
“So if you ever screwed them over or tried anything, they have your information, they can cause a ruckus at your work,” he said.
Most owners are well aware of such operational responsibilities after having learned the trade by working the tables themselves.
“They used to be massage parlor workers and found out that running a massage parlor actually makes more money and has lower risks of getting arrested,” said Ran, an employee of Restore NYC, a Manhattan non-profit that combats sex trafficking and has worked with numerous proprietors, some of whom “did this type of business in China and now just transfer what they do to the U.S.” Many, she said, do not have a valid business license.
Owners are infrequently on the premises and actively try to shield themselves from the services they provide, according to a Chinese lawyer who has represented several rub-and-tugs in court and was interviewed for the Rutgers study.
“Most would not admit that they demand, or even know that the girls working for them are involved in commercial sex. They will say that their business is purely massage, and the girls are selling sex on their own. This way, they do not have to be responsible for what’s going on between their workers and the customers,” the lawyer said.
“It is hard to tell if it is true or not. In some stores, there is this mutual understanding between the owner and the girls [that the girls will be selling sex], but in other stores, the owner may not know what’s going on inside the room between a masseuse and a customer.”
It was this lawyer who provided the figure of $20,000 in average monthly net income for each business but added that despite reaping such profits, “most owners are ordinary people; there is nothing special about them. They are not members of the underworld. Besides, anybody can become an owner. It is a very simple operation, at least here in New York City’s Chinatown.”
If there are any doubts or mysteries about what’s really going on behind the treatment room door, Rockit is doing his best to expunge them.
A longtime hobbyist who claims to have “had sexual experiences with hundreds upon hundreds of women” all over the world, he runs a web site, Rockit Reports, which gives down-and-dirty advice on patronizing brothels, escort services and saunas along with extensive travel-guide tips on commercial sex options in 34 cities and countries. Among the four books he’s authored is “How to Get a Happy Ending” ($2.99 on Kindle).
He’s fond of Korean parlors, which he prefers over Chinese-run establishments because the women are younger and more attractive, he claims, and “they usually offer `full service’ as a standard service… Korean massage parlors offer the most reliable service, often with the hottest of women, of any adult establishments in the United States.”
Among his thoughts on such spas in the Big Apple: “Some girls will allow all kinds of roaming hands and kissing. Others are princess-like and want none of it.” He warns: “Fingering is usually not welcome.” The price is standard pretty much everywhere you go, he notes. “Typically, it’s $200 all in.”
Rockit (who gave himself that name “because I like to blast off”) may be the leading authority in the “naughty knowledge bank” as he put it, but many others weigh in with experiences.
Elary, a poster on Topix, admitted he got a happy ending and wondered: “Am I some kind of creep? I mean, I didn’t ask for it; she just went ahead and did it. But I didn’t stop her, either.” A guy calling himself Boat Shoe Bobby described his EMP initiation to the BroBible site in a gleefully unabashed account dubbed, “How I Got a Rub-and-Tug in NYC, and You Can Too!”
Realduder123, a Reddit contributor, said he received the hands-on treatment at a five-star hotel, where “I went to the spa already pretty horny, asked for a 90 minute Thai massage and was escorted inside.” After telling the therapist he suffered from pain in his “inner thigh region,” one thing led to another. “I gave her a tip and asked her if she could give me an extra service. She giggled and obliged and started slowly massaging my cock. These professionals are masterful.” His session concludes with a very happy ending.
Travis S. of Redondo Beach, Calif., took to Yelp for help, asking a chat room to “tell me about them…how they work, what they cost… lol. they sound grand… i have to try it once before i die.”
Alas, the experience is not always pleasant for the masseuse, several of whom have written about the down side of rubbing and tugging.
Among them are Audacia Ray and Kayla T. on the forum SWAAY.org (“sex work activists, allies, and you”) and CJ, a 20-something therapist from southeast Pennsylvania who’s been writing a blog, “Happyendinz: Confessions of an Erotic Masseuse,” since 2007.
CJ’s site is replete with etiquette advice, “newbie mistakes,” and a glossary of code words like “full service” (which means “straight sex,” she informs.). But she also penned a rant, “Why I Hate My Job,” in which she admits she doesn’t really hate her job but rails at “the low-lifes it tends to attract,” including customers who just want to get busy fast.
“I’m talking about guys that make it into the room, then offend me so much that I have to throw them out. Most are looking for full service and just won’t take `No’ for an answer. Other guys are just total hands and I’m not going to spend an entire session fighting them off.”
A number of women take a different view, sharing their desire to be on the receiving end of a happy ending massage. Journalist Melissa Lafsky raised a few eyebrows with her undercover pursuit of pleasure on the dating site YourTango, wondering why erotic rubdowns should be limited to men.
“The bottom line: We like massages and we like orgasms, so why shouldn’t the two sometimes, er, come hand in hand? The answer is that they can and do.” Her search for a hot masseur to “finish me off” doesn’t go well until she decides to send her “sexy and adventurous friend, Joanna, on a spa mini-marathon, with instructions to request a male massage therapist and, if possible, end each massage with a big finish.”
Anonymous had better luck when when she launched a similar quest in New York last spring — as evidenced by the headline of her story, which appeared on xoJane.com: “IT HAPPENED TO ME: I’m a woman and I got a happy ending massage.” Spoiler alert: Her needs are satisfied during a session with sexy Doctor M, who operates from a private room in his Manhattan high-rise.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the allure of erotic massage for both sexes, that randy romps on the massage table are a staple of online porn sites like My Naughty Massage and Dirty Masseur.
Two of the most popular are MassageRooms.com, which features fresh-faced adult stars such as Rita, from the Czech Republic, playing luxury-spa therapists who seduce their men and women customers; and NuruMassage.com, proffering scenes in which a male client and his female therapist disrobe, shower together and repair to an inflatable mattress, where she covers him in a gooey, slippery gel before sliding up and down his body and moving on to sex acts.
Mainstream Hollywood is no less intrigued by the culture as a string of films and TV shows depict prurient parlor pairings.
These include “Happy Endings?” — a 2009 documentary — and “Full Body Massage” (1995), a feature starring a topless Mimi Rogers and a fully nude Elizabeth Barondes. And who could forget HBO’s “The Mind of the Married Man,” in which star Mike Binder’s character finds special healing at a Japanese massage parlor? Or Johnny Drama’s hapless visit to his favorite rub-and-tug on “Entourage,” where he knows the mama-san, Maxie, by name but is frustrated that his preferred girl is not available?
The current Showtime hit “Shameless” goes behind the scenes, portraying how an erotic parlor is run — by the irascible, street-toughened Mickey, who installs a low-rent operation, using his wife and her posse of Russian prostitutes, on the floor above Kev’s bar, the Alibi. Kev is all for it after learning that his wife is pregnant with twins. “If that means I’ve gotta turn around some Russian whores to feed my family and pursue the American dream, that’s how it’s gotta be.” Mickey’s take: “We’ve got everything we need: lube, Clorox, all in bulk.”
Given that the industry engages widely in illegal sex and operates with virtually no oversight, what is law enforcement doing to police it? And what is the extent of larger criminal activity such as sex slavery, trafficking and smuggling? Even the most devoted hobbyist must wonder if the smiling masseuse who takes $60 for a manual release lives as a captive or turns over her earnings to some nefarious boss who controls her every move.
There have been several raids at massage parlors across the country in recent months, and some involved allegations of coercion. They’ve occurred in urban areas — Brooklyn, Anchorage, and Daly City, just outside San Francisco — as well as small towns like South Whitehall, Penn., and Rehoboth, Del.
Media coverage of these crackdowns would suggest the EMP trade is plagued by abuse. Arrests at three parlors in Indianapolis in May left police sergeant William Carter stunned by what cops discovered inside one operation, Tranquil Spa.
“The girls live here…and they don’t leave,” he told a TV news crew. “They have no idea where to go. They don’t have cars here. They don’t have any kind of transportation. We’ve asked what city they were in, and they don’t even know.” He found that none of the six masseuses could speak English. “Only one had a visa; the others just had passports. They can say enough English lines to offer the different types of sexual favors, and when you go in, you’ll hear them practicing those lines. But that’s it.”
In New York in December, prosecutors announced raids on nine massage parlors in the Brooklyn bedroom communities of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, alleging they operated as brothels. Authorities weren’t sure if any of the 15 workers had been subjected to unlawful control — the suspects were still being interviewed at the time of a press conference on the arrests — but they closed the businesses after charging them with 91 fire and building-code violations.
That didn’t stop officials from proclaiming success over an allegedly oppressive operation.
“This approach to addressing human trafficking demonstrates how an array of tools, from law enforcement and beyond, can be effective in not just making a case but solving a problem,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Still, there are daunting legal and tactical hurdles to prosecuting massage businesses, police sources say, which hinders law-enforcement’s ability to understand more about how they are run.
In New York City, for example, undercover officers can’t get naked. “The cops aren’t supposed to take their pants off,” one NYPD supervisor told Contently. “So that’s a problem. Most of these transactions occur after the massage starts. There’s rarely a clearly stated verbal agreement beforehand, which you need and needs to be recorded if you hope to bring a winnable case. How is the undercover going to get that?”
In some instances, police have been successful in planting recording devices inside the parlors, but most often they operate with search warrants based on evidence of suspicious activity gleaned from stings, the wording of online ads, street surveillance and interviews with clients as they exit establishments. If cops find condoms or incriminating business records or stumble onto a sex act in progress, prostitution charges are brought and the debriefing of workers and owners begins.
Proving there was an explicit demand of money for sex can be difficult, however. And even if that is accomplished, solicitation arrests, particularly for first-time offenders, often lead to wrist-slap charges, which rarely dissuade parlors from reopening or help investigators unravel possible trafficking. In Queens, for example, the NYPD made 686 arrests for prostitution and loitering in 2014, which included street walkers, escorts and erotic masseuses, but all were misdemeanors. Those efforts did little to disrupt the Flushing industry activity, according to insiders.
“The police just don’t have enough budgeting and manpower to deal with body rubs with a hand happy ending,” said Matthew, the Manhattan EMP operator. “I know people in law enforcement and they really have to spend the majority of their time on terrorism and all this crazy stuff that’s going on right now. They don’t have departments that are dedicated to looking for body rubs.”
Indeed, going after massage parlors is expensive and time consuming. The investigation into Anchorage owner Yin Mei Tran Lau, which led to her being indicted on federal sex-trafficking charges, took five years of stings and surveillance. A similar operation in Lafayette, La., required seven months and many man-hours of police work. The probe in Brooklyn lasted more than a year.
So creative solutions are being employed. One of the most effective is using the charge of unlicensed massage, a violation of state law for professional practitioners that can be brought without investigators having to gather proof of sex services. In New York the crime also goes for those who “knowingly aid or abet three or more unlicensed persons to practice without a license,” and it’s a felony punishable by as many as four years in jail.
“The reality is that law enforcement often pursues this charge as a means to prosecute those people they believe are involved in prostitution, but are unable to charge them with the crime of prostitution,” states criminal defense attorney Jeremy Saland, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office who has represented a host of massage parlor clients, on his firm’s web site.
In other jurisdictions, investigators have alleged money laundering and applied federal structuring laws to seize assets, some of which were found to be used to purchase real estate. Police rely on nuisance-abatement statutes to confiscate properties rented to massage parlors and employ a variety of tactics to try to shut down EMP advertising. The Washington Post made news in 2010 when it announced it would no longer run such ads.
In California, a new state law went into effect in January that imposes higher standards for legitimate therapists. The idea behind establishing a state Massage Therapy Council, which will certify applicants who complete 500 hours of instruction, is to make clearer distinctions between them and the illicit providers, who, under the new provision, will be barred from engaging in sex acts, wearing suggestive clothing or posting salacious ads. Anyone who wants a license will also have to get fingerprinted and pass a background check.
For town cops like Huntington Beach’s Kenneth Small, who complained that his hands were tied when going after EMP operations, the statute offers a powerful new tool. It give cities and counties the authority over the zoning and licensing of massage businesses.
Still, some in the industry doubt the new law will make much of a difference.
San Diego therapist Marsha Selzer believes the California rub-and-tug trade will carry on undeterred. “There’s so many of those places, and they come up faster and faster,” she said on Capital Public Radio. “I don’t know how they’re going to control it.”
If there’s a media hero among happy ending opponents, it’s New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who has raised the alarm about subjugation in the commercial sex industry, reporting horrific examples of teen girls being sold into prostitution and workers who are held against their will. In one story, part of his “Inside the Brothels” series, he described buying the freedom of two minors in Cambodia for $353.
But he also found coercion in Manhattan, where he told the story of Yumi Li, a young woman from a Korean area of China, and her three years of being terrorized by pimps who forced her to turn tricks out of a brothel on 36th Street. In the U.S, he writes, “I found that the atrocities and scale aren’t as bad as in some foreign countries, but we still have a vast trafficking problem. We don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries what to do until we clean up our own act.”
His supporters include Rachel Lloyd, a British-born activist, rape victim and former teen prostitute who now heads a Harlem aid group that was the focus of a Showtime documentary, “Very Young Girls.” The film follows 13- and 14-year-old African-American girls bought by New York City pimps, then arrested and prosecuted as adults.
“We don’t see men who buy sex from women and children as doing anything really wrong; we see it as just boys will be boys,” Lloyd told an online forum that Kristof hosted last year. “So we need to change our attitudes.”
Another is Restore NYC, which came to the aid of Yumi Li, helping her escape.
Ran, the employee there, said she’s seen everything from the confiscation of passports to debt bondage when it comes to compelling women to offer more than therapeutic treatment. She said some women get roped in by responding to vague or deceptive massage-job ads in Chinese-language newspapers, only to find themselves pressured to go further.
“As they begin working, they realize actually a lot of customers are asking them for sex services,” Ran said. And even if they prefer not to engage in happy endings, “they feel like they don’t have another option.”
“A lot of times my clients tell me they work in a massage parlor where massage and sex combine, or it’s just pure sex work, by choice, [but] you’ll always see there’s some reason they can’t find another kind of job.”
Others disagree, at least when it comes to allegations that the use of force is widespread.
Finckenauer, who spent four years looking into commercial sex work, believes the rub-and-tug industry is relatively clean compared with brothels and escorts services.
“The research I’ve seen says there’s nine times more labor trafficking than sex trafficking internationally, and the Obama administration takes this view as well,” he said. “Which is not to say there isn’t sex trafficking but it’s more nuanced and complicated than what Nicholas Kristof presents in the New York Times. He’s regarded as having good intentions but distorting the overall picture by looking at the worse cases and making them seem like the norm.”
One EMP patron put it more bluntly: “Every headline around a massage parlor bust is classified as a victory against trafficking. What a joke. Most of the attendants I see have nicer clothes, phones, iPads and whatever else than I do. Would they rather be pulling in six figures doing something else? Sure. Most hope to. In the meantime their priority is making money to pay bills and support family back home.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has sought clarity on this issue, sponsoring two research studies to get answers: Finckenauer and Chin’s at Rutgers, which was presented to the department in 2010, and the Urban Institute project, led by Meredith Dank, a criminologist and senior research associate at the institute, which turned over its findings in March 2014. Both looked at multiple forms of sex-for-hire, including street prostitution and escort services. Each devoted substantial resources to the erotic massage industry.
At first glance, 93 percent of workers should be considered trafficking victims, according to the Rutgers report, “Researching and Rethinking Sex Trafficking: The Movement of Chinese Women to Asia and the United States for Commercial Sex,” which involved 350 interviews with sex workers, operators, cops and other “key informants.”
That’s because of a common legal definition of trafficking that says a victim is any sex worker who arrives in a foreign country with the help of another person, whether they are charged money or not.
But the premise falls apart upon closer examination.
The researchers found that not a single woman in the group of 149 who left China said she was sold into prostitution or even knew of anyone who had been. Just one said she’d been forced, deceived or coerced. And 144 of them had genuine documents and immigrated legally — one was smuggled in and four used forged paperwork. Also, 127 said they were free to do as they pleased, including all those who came to the U.S.
Two female U.S. attorneys in Brooklyn didn’t uncover much evidence either. They “said that yes, women from mainland China were being exploited in some cases, but not all…Asked about coercion, they said it operates in very subtle ways.”
The biggest problem? Debts to “snakeheads” or “chickenheads” — those who help transport sex workers or provide immigration paperwork. The Rutgers professors found that 68 percent of the women they interviewed owed money after arriving in their new locations.
These obligations can amount to huge sums, sources told Contently. Ran said that women pay $20,000 to $90,000 depending on where they’re from. Claire said she’s heard of people from the southeast province of Fujian owing as much as $100,000. The debts, which carry interest rates reportedly as high as 12 percent, could potentially compel workers to engage in sex services.
But that differs sharply from the characterization that happy ending masseuses operate under strict servitude.
“There is more diversity among the parties involved in prostitution than is commonly supposed, and that to portray them all in the same way as victims is an oversimplification,” the Rutgers researchers wrote.
Many of the women were “receptive to or actively sought out the possibility of moving abroad to increase their earnings.”
The study’s conclusion: “Chinese women are involved in commercial sex, and some of those women may be victims, but certainly not all, nor even a majority. The driving force is clearly money, but the people running the operations are not seen to be members of or involved with organized crime.
“Most government officials and police officers we interviewed told us frankly that prostitution is not a top priority for their governments or departments. Most also do not believe that Chinese women working in their jurisdictions are trafficking victims.”
The Urban Institute study relied heavily on cops and prosecutors — 119 law-enforcement sources in Washington, Dallas, Miami, Denver, Kansas City, Atlanta, San Diego and Seattle — for its report, “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities.” The team also interviewed 36 jailed sex workers.
In looking at the massage parlor industry in those eight cities, which had estimated combined annual sales between $39.9 and $290 million, the study found isolated examples of trafficking and coercion and, in Miami, evidence of suspected criminal involvement due to multiple parlors being owned by the same people.
But Dank’s team found no proof of extensive abuse.
“It’s clear that there is a lot of smuggling, but as far as women voluntarily doing this, when [the police] do actually do raids and arrest these women for prostitution… these women are not saying that they are being compelled, for the most part,” Dank told Vice.com.
Claire is not in debt and she’s certainly no one’s sex slave. But her life in New York has not worked out the way she’d hoped. She’s not given up on a return to her career in accounting, though for now she sees no viable alternative to massage work.
“Every year I save money so in the future I can buy a house,” she said. “Even if it’s a very small house, I will own it. I won’t need to pay rent or live with another family. And in the future when I have a house and more money, I will be able to go to college.”
She has high hopes for her son, a straight-A student with plans to pursue a medical degree.
“When my son’s a doctor, I will have a good life,” she said. “When I have a regular life, I will be happy.”