From 17th century Europe to 21st century America, the debutante ball is a mainstay of some communities. But is it out of touch?
Last week, Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, was one of many men charged with soliciting a prostitute in South Florida.
Police connected Kraft to a spa that they say was tied to a human trafficking and prostitution ring. Through a lawyer, Kraft denied the charges.
The New York Times reports that law enforcement “estimated the trafficking ring to be a $20 million international operation” in which “men paid between $100 and $200 for sex.”
Beyond the lurid celebrity connection, however, lies the wretched story of women who the police believe were brought from China under false promises of new lives and legitimate spa jobs. Instead, they found themselves trapped in the austere back rooms of strip-mall brothels — trafficking victims trapped among South Florida’s rich and famous.
“I don’t believe they were told they were going to work in massage parlors seven days a week, having unprotected sex with up to 1,000 men a year,” said Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County, whose office opened the investigation. “We saw them eating on hot plates in the back. There were no washing machines. They were sleeping on the massage tables.”
The sting targeted international trafficking. But advocates for trafficking victims say one of the best ways police can assist them is not to arrest them.
In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown argues that the sting looks less like a trafficking bust and more like a crackdown on prostitution.
Police across the country have been ramping up stings at massage parlors, driven by a concentrated effort coming from federal law enforcement (including Homeland Security) and a whole lot of misinformation. In most cases, these investigations don’t lead to trafficking charges but do result in arrests for prostitution or people giving massages without a license. In at least one recent high-profile instance, they led to a Chinese sex worker’s death.
It’s not just undocumented immigrants who face deportation after an arrest in these stings. Prostitution charges can mean deportation even for immigrants here legally.
In The Appeal, reporters Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford write that “when a massage business shuts down, its workers — trafficked or not — are likely to remain vulnerable.”
What’s the best way to help human trafficking victims without retraumatizing these survivors? What’s the reasoning behind these sting operations? Who do these efforts help — and hurt?
Produced by Gabrielle Healy.
A Q&A With Kate Z. And Athena G.
Kate Z. is an organizer at Red Canary Song, a New York City-based group that works with migrant sex workers. She provided some extended answers to our questions about her activism and experiences in the industry. Kate connected us to Athena G., a Chinese massage worker, who also provided responses.
1A: What should the public understand about stings like the one that Robert Kraft was implicated in?
Kate: Chinese massage workers are collateral damage in the search for traffickers and johns. The multi-agency police investigation that led to the arrest of Kraft went on for eight months, during which time, they videotaped johns, leading to the arrest of over 160 people, with many more shutdowns of Chinese spas promised to follow. Agencies involved in this coordinated operation included Homeland Security, the IRS, and multiple police departments, who began this investigation after receiving a tip from the Martin County Health Department.
If this was such a severe situation of human trafficking and exploitation, how has it been justified for the police to stand and watch for eight months in order to entrap others? This shows either a lack of human regard for the suffering of Chinese massage parlor workers or a very disingenuous approach that focuses on trapping high profile men over protecting the welfare of immigrant women, used as tools for this investigation.
The public is led to believe that this is a case of human trafficking and that all Chinese massage parlors of this nature are involved in human trafficking. This assumption is racist and untrue. Most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other forms of employment training or opportunities. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home and makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.
Athena: The reality is that Chinese massage parlors like Orchids of Asia Day Spa are widespread nationwide because we serve a need in society. What happened to Robert Kraft is not news to me. There are so many men who visit Chinese massage parlors – we see them all the time on the street too, and they keep coming back because they are happy customers. Chinese women keep working because there is money to be made, and money makes life happier. This is why they call it a “happy ending” place. There are various types of massage parlors. Pro (normal) massage parlors (licensed and tax-paying) provide pro massage services, which the community needs. Other massage parlors also provide a service, which the community needs, but there is no license for it, so we can’t pay taxes in the same way. Not all massage workers are sex workers; it’s case by case. But our businesses contribute to society and should also be protected, not bothered or raided by police.
From my experience, working five years at massage parlors, across the U.S., massage workers and customers often build a connection, in which customers would come back on a regular basis. Some of them became friends with each other; some of them even build a family together. Many massage parlor workers end up marrying customers. They could be social and connect outside of work like any other business. In my experience, the Spa sometimes hosts a small celebration for regular customers. They share info and the massage parlor is a place to go for social contact, like many other community spaces.
Who was Yang Song? What is her story?
Kate: Yang Song was a Flushing massage parlor worker and beloved member of our community, who was murdered during a police raid at her workplace in Queens two years ago. Like many other Chinese immigrants, she was a smart, resourceful, and strong-willed woman who took care of her family in China. She was born in a poor village in rural China, and began working at age of 15 to support her family, in neighboring cities, where she took factory jobs and restaurant jobs before she found a way to New York City. She started her own restaurant in SaiPan, managing a successful business before coming to the U.S. — and in the months before her death, had been saving up for dreams of building an old aged home in Saipan with her younger brother, Hai Song.
In the weeks before her death, Yang Song had reported being sexually assaulted at gunpoint by someone whom she believed to be an NYPD officer. She reported this incident to the 109 Police Precinct and was worried about police retaliation. Yang Song had been previously arrested on prostitution charges and had attended the diversion program sessions mandated by the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. She was on probation from this previous arrest and feared another arrest would prevent her from getting clearance to travel back home for the holidays. Her tragic death brought together community members in support of seeking justice for Yang Song and for her family.
On the day that Yang Song’s workplace was raided by Vice, there were also other women in the building who reacted in terror to the police. Another worker jumped out of the back window of the building, from two stories up, and landed with severe back injuries which she had to return to China to treat. A third woman hid outside on the balcony of her workplace overnight, in the cold.
The police cause such an extreme feeling of terror for the women working in Flushing’s 40th Road, that workers would choose such high risk of bodily injury over arrest. The NY Human Trafficking Intervention Court system is supposed to be a more humane system for getting social services to sex workers who need help. However, arresting sex workers before giving them access to these services, is clearly the wrong delivery mechanism for these services, because arrest, itself, is a traumatic experience that causes terror for workers.
Anything else you want to share with our audience?
Kate: There is such a diversity of work arrangements across the “sex industry” that the only way to tackle the specific harms in each sector is to use labor laws, not criminal laws, to carefully look at each place of work and each subculture — to listen to sex workers, immigrants, trans and queer youth, and other people of lived experience — to know what sorts of labor protections, health and safety regulations, and welfare arrangements need to be put in order, so that the diverse people working in all these different spaces can get what they need to live healthier and happier lives.
Please take a look at the organizing work that over 250 Chinese migrant massage workers have done in Canada at our sister organization, Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network. Their work exemplifies what we, Red Canary, are beginning to build here in the United States. Over 600 Chinese massage parlor workers are also organizing in Paris, as Steel Roses – les Roses d’Acier (铿锵玫瑰). We, womyn of the Chinese diaspora, are organizing together across borders in sisterhood, in dignity, and in strength.
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