The attention on modern-day brothels should renew a push to tighten anti-human-trafficking laws in Massachusetts and serve as a reminder for law enforcement in the Commonwealth to make breaking up sex trafficking rings a high priority.
An estimated 9,000 illicit massage businesses operate in the United States, including roughly 230 in Massachusetts. Women who work in these venues rarely choose that life, according to a 2018 report by the anti-trafficking group Polaris, which said “the vast majority of women are trapped in massage parlors by powerful mental and emotional chains built of lies, shame, manipulation and terror,” and that its researchers “have yet to hear of” an illicit massage parlor case that did not involve trafficking.
Often, women are lured from overseas with the promise of legitimate work or school. When they arrive, they are told they owe enormous debts and are forced into the sex trade. Sometimes their passports are taken from them. The Chinese women at massage parlors targeted in a recent Florida sting that ensnared some prominent men, including Patriots owner Robert Kraft, fit many of those descriptions. They slept on massage beds, cooked on a hot plate behind the store, and were expected to perform sex acts on about 1,000 men a year, according to officials.
Not only has Massachusetts experienced that very same kind of crime, it has experience with at least one of the very same criminals. One of the massage parlor managers swept up in the Florida sting, Lan Yun Ma, had been arrested in 2011 at a “health center” in Oxford, Mass., that was really a prostitution front. Police say they found three women trafficked from China at the location. “One such victim explained she had been brought from China under the ruse of attending college in California; however, she was quickly moved into a massage parlor,” read an Oxford police report.
Disrupting human trafficking requires a multifaceted approach, including focusing on the buyers of sex and giving law enforcement tools to spot and stop trafficking sooner. For many police departments, charging and naming johns has become an important enforcement tool in itself. The idea is that sex buyers will think twice if they know their name could end up in the paper. Like their Florida counterparts, Massachusetts prosecutors have also made certain to publicize arrests of johns, and a 2011 law stiffened criminal penalties for sex buyers.
But despite improvements, Massachusetts could do more. To crack down on trafficking, the state required workers at massage parlors to obtain state licenses. But it left workers at “body work” businesses unregulated. Body work is an amorphous term, and includes some legitimate services like reflexology. It’s also a giant loophole that traffickers have used — just this month , the Platinum Body Works Spa in Norwell was busted by police, and two individuals were charged with trafficking a person for sexual servitude and deriving support from prostitution.
Some municipalities have tried to regulate body work businesses on their own, but a better strategy would be for the Legislature to pass a bill authored by state Senator Mark Montigny that would close the body work loophole statewide and require body work employees to have licenses, just like masseuses.
Last year the legislation passed only in the Senate, but all the attention surrounding Kraft’s case should give it new impetus. Closing the body work loophole has support from Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, who, like her predecessor Martha Coakley, has cracked down on human trafficking. Over the past two years alone, Healey’s office has pursued indictments in connection with five criminal enterprises that set up illicit massage or body work establishments as a front for sex traffickers.
Some of the enforcement responsibility also falls on local police departments. In Norwell, as the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert reported Saturday, it took three years for police to make arrests after initial reports of suspicious behavior at the spa first surfaced. The police in Jupiter, Fla., mounted a sophisticated operation involving video surveillance, something not every police department can marshal.
Kraft has pleaded not guilty to prostitution charges and will have his day in court. It’s unclear if he and the other alleged johns knew the women were victims of sex traffickers. But however his case is resolved, the incident has already raised awareness of a modern day form of slavery that happens in plain sight at storefronts in strip malls. The arrests in Florida showed massage parlor prostitution for what it so often is: an organized-crime racket preying on poor and vulnerable women.