In the past few decades, the sex industry has become easier to conceal, in part because of the internet. Back channels open pathways for anonymous transactions. Peoria Public Radio reports on one particular illicit business that's operating in many communities, including this one, in broad daylight.
(A note of warning: the topic we are about to explore may not be suitable for our young listeners/readers.)
Massage parlors. Not the kind with soothing waterfalls and facials. These are late-night businesses selling sex, using “massage” or “bodywork” as a cover. You’ve probably driven past one before, they typically have blackout curtains, a backdoor entrance, and at least one neon sign.
Communities across the US are just beginning to understand how to crack down on illicit massage businesses that are often part of a network, linked to larger cities, like Chicago or New York.
“In this business, women could take money home. It doesn’t mean that they have control over what happens to them, over who they see, over whether or not they can say no to this, over whether or not they can leave, and over whether or not any kind of actual real money being made.” Meghan Carton, strategic initiatives specialist at Polaris Project said. Polaris is a national, independent think tank that’s researching sex trafficking networks across the country, including Illinois.
“If you’re making $60 a day, but you’re on call 24-7, you can be beaten, you can be burned, you can be raped, and you don’t want to do this? That’s not really willing, and that’s not really a choice,” Carton said. “There is no 401-K for these women, there’s only what you can do what yourself. They are trying to survive.”
Polaris estimates there are as many as 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the US, and 300 in Illinois. It looks like there are at least 20 in Peoria and Tazewell Counties.
Illicit Enterprise in Broad Daylight
The internet is typically the first place buyers go to find massage places selling sex. Sites, like Backpage and RubMaps, let paid users review businesses and describe what services they received. They rate the provider, usually a woman, on physical features, like eye and hair color, as well as more obscene details describing her proportions.
In a review posted in July 2017, a buyer in Peoria describes receiving oral sex.
It reads: “She looks very innocent and naive, barely made eye contact.” The reviewer goes on to say when he finished, “she went back to being the dumb girl she was.”
And another describes getting what he called a “nice massage.” Then writes, “It was her first week in Peoria. She spoke a little English. She could tell I was willing so, she got some oil and took care of business. ”
These are some of the cleaner snippets posted from about 300 reviews of the 20 businesses listed in Peoria, Pekin, Morton and East Peoria. Reviewers who’ve commented on how much they paid for so-called “full service,” varies from $140 to $200.
“If there are the sorts of reviews, if it’s listed on Backpage, if it’s obvious they’re selling commercial sex at the place of business, it’s safe to assume there’s some level of exploitation happening,” Darci Flynn, Associate Director of Freedom from Trafficking program at Heartland Alliance.
Heartland Alliance, based in Chicago, serves as a pass through for federal dollars to organizations in Illinois to help communities address human trafficking.
Earlier this year, Heartland awarded a three-year grant to the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria. It works out to $78,000 a year to be used for building a victim resource network. It’s a tall order for a local response system that needs social workers, skilled legal counsel, translators and housing to match the complexity of domestic and international human trafficking.
A Complicated Crime
Massage parlors also present a variety of legal conundrums. Peoria county Sheriff Brian Asbell says his agency takes all complaints seriously:
“If we had anyone call in, there’s a suspicious activity. We’re going to investigate,” Sheriff Asbell said. “The level of investigation depends on the level of complaint.”
But no one is complaining.
Most of the working women are recruited in their home countries, often China or Korea, and brought to the US, owing layers of debt to their trafficker. Flynn says since the women have often experienced trauma, it’s ideal for a social service agency to make the initial interaction with the victims, rather than the police.
“We don’t have to ask about their victimization, we don’t need to hear their story. We need to ask them what they need. Often time it’s a meal. They need somewhere to sleep tonight. They need to Know their rights, so we partner with legal service agencies to explain their rights,” Flynn said. “Then we let the survivors sit with that. To say ‘this is what’s available to you, it’s free, it’s confidential, would you like to engage in these services?’”
Nine times out of ten, Flynn says, victims say yes. She adds, if survivors of human trafficking are engaging with social services, they’re more likely to aid law enforcement in an investigation.
But policing such an under-the-radar industry is dicey, even after law enforcement has a foot in the door. The Illinois Massage Licensing Act regulates individual practitioners, but not the businesses. There’s also an exemption written into the law that excludes what it calls “practitioners of Asian bodywork.”
Exemption “g” of the Illinois Massage Licensing Act:
“Practitioners of Asian bodywork approaches are exempt from this Act if they are members of the American Organization of Bodywork Therapies of Asia as certified practitioners or if they are approved by an Asian bodywork organization based on a minimum level of training, demonstration of competency, and adherence to ethical standards set by their governing body.”
Investigative and sting operations are also costly and personnel-intensive. But Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell says that wouldn’t deter his department from looking into a business suspected of enslaving workers and selling sex.
“It would be a priority, again, but if you had this complaint on the same day is a double homicide, that’s going the hottest fire for the day. That double homicide might take two weeks, two months, to work,” Asbell said.
Staffing challenges aren’t limited to the Peoria County Sheriff’s Department. Most local governments are struggling with revenue to afford full staffing of their police agencies. That includes the Peoria Police Department. The PPD’s public information officer says it also hasn’t received any complaints but would certainly respond if it did.
Cracking Down On Code Enforcement
City and municipal governments may also have a role to play when it comes to jurisdiction. In fact, conversations inside Peoria City Hall may be shifting to the topic. Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich says he’s seen massage parlors pop up throughout the city, particularly in strip malls, that often last a couple of months and then close up shop.
“Like we’ve done with payday loan establishments, or with other types of businesses, I think it is something within the regulatory purview of the council to take a look at the number and location of where they are,” Urich said.
Urich says in preparation for this interview with Peoria Public Radio, the city’s legal department realized there are certain ordinances that local government can enforce that might limit more questionable businesses setting up shop.
“Looking at appropriate regulations, like hours of operation, the types of regulations that we might want to impose on a business that operates in the city,” Urich said.
The Washington, DC-based nonprofit Polaris helps local governments draft ordinances to better regulate massage businesses.
“We want to give cities, counties, states, and those across the country as many tools as possible,” Carton said. “Going after this in a victim-centered way can be a longer investigation, and it can be resource-intensive.”
Carton says talking about the problem and looking at it from multiple angles is the best place to start.