What It’s Like to Work in an Illegal Massage Parlor
‘For a lot of people this is normal life.’
When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was busted for allegedly getting a hand job in a Florida massage parlor, it put a national spotlight on the strip-mall spa where he was serviced.
Orchids of Asia was one of an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors that anti-trafficking charity Polaris says account for a $2.5 billion industry in the United States. Florida police said the workers at the spas targeted in the six-month sting were trafficking victims, forced to live and eat in the same parlors where they worked, with armed men moving them between locations.
Two women told The New York Times last month that they had been lured into similar massage jobs in New York City under false pretenses and forced to service up to a dozen men a day.
“People come here and don’t have a place to live,” one woman told the Times. “These places offer a place to live, and it seems like a nice idea. They say, ‘It’s not safe to keep your passport on hand,’ and they will ask to hold the passport.”
But some advocates say this narrative is only part of a bigger picture. While some women are trafficked, they say, others enter the industry—and endure harsh labor conditions—because it is one of the few jobs available to a recent immigrant. Others may need to pay off debts to those who helped them into the country, or want to send money back home. Police raids, they add, only result in criminalizing these women and further restricting their opportunities.
“What happens with trafficking—which is a horrible thing—is it often pits trafficking victims against people doing sex work by choice or by circumstances, when in fact the boundaries between both are fluid,” said Julie Xu, an organizer with sex workers’ rights group Red Canary. “It’s not as black and white as it’s being painted, and it’s being used in a way that does not help people.”
The Daily Beast spoke with two former New York City massage parlor workers about how they ended up in the business and what goes on behind closed doors. Below are their reflections, edited and condensed for clarity.
“Amelia” is a 50-year-old woman from China who has worked in massage parlors off and on for the last three years.
“When I first came here I very much expected some kind of community center, organization or agency to tell me how to land a job with my previous career, but I didn't really find that kind of place. When I came here in 2012, the major media [outlet] was called the World General Chinese newspaper, and almost everybody read that newspaper at that time. In that newspaper, more than half the page was recruiting related to massage jobs. They will tell you this is the thing everybody does. You have a restaurant job, you'll have a nail salon job and then you have the massage jobs.
(Amelia says she started as a telephone operator at the parlors but would occasionally fill in for massage workers who went on vacation, because it paid better).
Sometimes I’d go somewhere and they’d say, ‘OK, this is the holiday season. This girl needs to see her family, this girl needs to travel back to China and we need a part-time [worker].’ I said OK.
The majority of those girls work there the whole year. I can't. If you stay there, you're expected to stay longer hours and then you're living in the massage parlor, which means you sleep in the massage bed, which is very uncomfortable. I think I stayed there one time and I woke up with half of my body almost paralyzed because it's too high, too narrow. It's not a bed for sleeping.
Most of the owners, they don't have the budget to offer you a dormitory somewhere nearby.… It's the same thing for a restaurant. When people work in a restaurant, you can't give everybody a place to sleep somewhere nearby. This is an additional cost. And if you want to work longer hours, it is a good choice to just stay there.
I don't think massage parlors are some kind of an underground corner in this society. This is right there in the neighborhood; it's in the plaza, it's in the mall. Some massage parlors you don't even need to make an appointment, you can walk in. So what kind of a secret business is it if you walk in? You can walk into a barbershop, you can walk into a nail salon, you can walk into a massage parlor.
For a lot of people this is normal life. The authorities think you’re being trafficked, you’re a slave worker. Maybe that’s what they saw. But when you go to a Manhattan restaurant, that’s the same workers behind the kitchen.”
“Kasey” is a 31-year-old woman who worked in the massage industry for 12 years.
“I was born in China. I came with my mom to this country. She's a domestic worker, so we lived in different people’s houses until we were able to get reunited with my dad. And because I didn't really know my dad growing up, when we first started living together we just really didn't get along… So I left.
When I first left home I lived with a friend of mine who was a few years older and she was working in this [massage parlor] arrangement. I was staying on her couch and after a while I had to chip in more—or I just wanted to. She wasn't making me do anything, I just felt guilty. I wanted to do what she was doing. At this time I was on the cusp of being 16, I wasn't even legally allowed to work… I ended up just asking her if she would take me to her workplace and introduce me as someone who was older. I had prepared an older ID just in case, but I don't even remember them being very particular.
My first day [the boss] was really busy and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, your friend has already showed you all this stuff so you're OK, right?’ And I was like ‘Oh, OK.’ Some bosses take more time to give you an orientation and break down the rules.... I worked in one place that had a really complicated water system, and the boss was really persnickety that every piece of metal had to be polished so there were no water stains left. So after we used the space we'd spend an hour doing free labor of cleaning it, which made people pissed off.
The boss gets 50 or up to 60 percent of your base pay… and then whatever you do on top of that is your negotiations [with the client]. Some girls charge more than other girls because they're younger or they're more popular, so they set a higher fee. Some places understand there's different tiers of women charging different things. But regardless, your extra is still your extra. It's true that people are making the bulk of their money for tips, but that's because people are charging a lot more for tips than they're getting paid per hour.
I think that's also something that people often don't realize is that in most massage parlors, it's completely negotiated by tip. So the girl negotiates what she's willing to do and how much she gets paid for the extras. And the only thing you can guarantee going in getting is a very basic massage. Everything else is usually up to the girl.
It's competitive. There's usually less work to go around than there is people who want to do it, so people spend a lot of time waiting for work. Sometimes you're waiting in the room for like half a day… I’ve never been in a situation where it was a problem if I wanted to refuse, mostly because someone else will be very eager to pick up the customer.
Sometimes girls will get into relationships with clients and they'll stop working—the ‘Captain Save-A-Ho’ kind of thing. A lot of clients, especially if they're new to this type of service, will come in thinking they need to save you. If you're one of those girls that look really small and innocent, a lot of times clients will have this idea about you that they need to rescue you.
I’ve had incidences where I’ve been like pushed around by client who came in... I’ve been raped before on the job. In the incidents that that happened, my boss was super-supportive. I've heard of other ones where bosses have not been, but at least in that instance for me, he got the guy out of the place right away was it was OK.
You build really strong relationships with a lot of people—both customers and with other workers. It's interesting because on one hand you are willingly living out a fantasy with [the customers]. You're embodying something that's not real for them... But on the other hand, it's such an intimate space and it becomes a nice ritual sometimes. A lot of people will just keep coming back, the same time every week. You just build a rapport. You're part of their ritual, you're part of what gets them through their week, and in some ways they're the same. They get you through your week.”