Grand Rapids Study
The market for commercial sex includes two categories, which have been coined “street” and “indoor.” Indoor commercial sex typically occurs through massage parlors, brothels, escorts, and call girls (Weitzer, 2009). One major location for indoor commercial sex, and the focus of the current study, is massage parlors, sometimes referred to as illicit massage businesses (IMBs) or the illicit massage industry (IMI). These IMBs exist in various locations and are registered businesses but often have unlicensed massage therapists who offer a variety of sex acts in exchange for money. The appearance of legitimacy is often portrayed through licensure exception tag lines such as “Asian bodywork therapy” (Public Health Code Act 368 of 1978). Massage parlors are considered IMBs if the customers are predominantly male and if there is evidence on review sites (e.g., rubmaps.com) of sexual services being received at the location. In addition, IMBs have been shown to have the highest customer demand mid-day (Bouché & Crotty, 2017).
The Polaris (2018) report, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” acknowledges that while there may be some women who choose to sell sex along with or under the guise of massage therapy, evidence suggests that many of the workers may be victims of human trafficking. IMBs provide a unique cover for human trafficking since they are registered as legitimate businesses. To be considered sex trafficking, there must be one of the following: (1) force: violence or the threat of violence; (2) fraud: such as deceitful recruitment practices or fraudulent debt accumulation; or (3) coercion: including emotional manipulation, document confiscation, or threats using legal process like deportation (“Hidden in Plain Sight,” 2018). Labor trafficking is defined as force, restraint, threats of harm, abuse or threatened abuse of the legal system, or any scheme intended to cause the person to believe that if they did not perform labor, they would suffer serious harm or restraint (U.S. Code Chapter 77: Peonage, Slavery and Trafficking in Persons, n.d). In regard to massage parlors, force is rarely an element of control, but rather a combination of fraud, coercion, and manipulation is used to make the victims/workers believe that they would be arrested by police or dismissed by society if the illicit activity was brought to light (“Hidden in Plain Sight,” 2018).
Collective community wide research
Cross-sector community response to the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation in Grand Rapids, barriers to reduction and the need for solutions