NEW YORK—One late summer day in 2013,”Olga” (not her real name) was browsing through a Russian newspaper in Brooklyn, looking for a job. One ad caught her eye: “Masseuse wanted.” They were common ads, along with those for hairdressers or just “hiring young women.”
Normally, Olga would have skipped past it, but not this time—it was her last option. “I tried so hard for so long to survive,” she said through a translator. “There was nothing else.”
Olga came to the United States from Siberia, the harsh far-east of Russia, in 2001. Due to family circumstances, her trip turned into a permanent stay—and she became an illegal alien.
She settled in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, home to many Russian immigrants, legal and otherwise. She picked up odd jobs as a babysitter or store clerk, but then everything dried up.
So she called the number and was given an address for an interview.
Olga was apprehensive, but the place was a pleasant surprise. It was a cosmetology salon on an upper floor of a part-residential, part-office building in Manhattan. It was clean and set up as a medical office. People came by appointment, some for a facial or other cosmetology services, and others for a massage.
The interview went well. They wanted a masseuse and made it clear to her there was no sex involved. They asked about her immigration status. She said she was legal. They didn’t believe her for a second. But it was no problem.
Still, something was off. She was told they needed a blonde, but what did that matter for a masseuse? She also quickly realized the other masseuses did more than just massage some clients. But she was told it was perfectly legal, as long as there was no intercourse. Moreover, she was told that all she had to do was give massages.
“One of the major ways that prostitution and commercial sex happens in New York is through these shady massage parlors and massage salons and spas,” said Joy Ziegeweid, attorney with the Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit helping sex trafficking victims.
According to accounts posted online by patrons of such establishments, over 250 operate in New York City, more than 450 across the state, and about 6,000 nationwide.
Olga took the job.
It didn’t take long before a customer asked her to do more than a massage—a sexual service. She refused and the man left, but not before demanding a refund from the owner.
The owner told Olga she had to foot the $60 loss. She paid, all the while realizing the nightmare she had gotten herself into.
Many illegal immigrant women, the majority Chinese, get pulled into sex trafficking because parlor owners know how to exploit them—the key is maintaining the semblance of normalcy.
The bosses seldom resort to violence, Ziegeweid said. Instead, they gradually erode the women’s standard of what is acceptable.
“They said there’s no sex—nothing like that,” Olga said. “Later you find out that it’s not just massage. Maybe you can try to avoid it for a little while, but eventually…” She paused.
“I wouldn’t say it was some horrible pressure,” she said, explaining that it was more an incessant wheedling. “You’ll get used to it,” they told her. “We’ll teach you and you’ll get used to it.”
Sticking with her “massage only” creed was increasingly difficult.
“They blamed me, said that I was spoiling their business,” she said. “[But] what kind of business is that?”
“I hated that place,” she said. She tried to go as seldom as possible, two or three times a week. Sometimes to the Manhattan place, sometimes to another place in Queens belonging to the same owner. That one used a colon hydrotherapy office as a cover, with a nice little waiting room with magazines. But inside the massage rooms, men asked for sexual services and received them.
“I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to leave. All the time, I wanted to leave,” Olga said. But she also felt they wouldn’t let her. They would have kept calling her until she ran out of options again.
“They understand just how hard it is for an illegal to survive,” she said.
She was still “the new girl” and coming only few times a week. The other girls were probably controlled more tightly.
“You’ve got to get out of here. Why do you stay here?” she said to the other girls.
They told her they needed the money, or that they could make more money there than anywhere else.
In February 2014, three men came to the Manhattan parlor while Olga was on a shift. They asked for a massage. Olga took one and one other girl took another. Olga started to chat with the man in her limited English. Then suddenly she heard loud banging on the door and the other girl yelling in the hallway. She opened the door, stepped out, and then it hit her—these men were police.
Fear consumed her. “I don’t know how to put it in words. It’s as if my soul sank to the very bottom,” she said. She was shaking and started to cry. The police officers took pictures of the girls, handcuffed them, and walked them out to a car.
Olga’s six months in a sex trafficking massage parlor were over. The girls called the owner for help, but she told them it was none of her business. They were on their own.
Under New York State law, prostitution is illegal and punishable by up to three months in jail and up to a $500 fine. Prostitution covers not just paid intercourse, but other sexual acts too. The prostitutes can choose to have their cases handled by the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. If they complete five or six classes that include therapy, a social worker session, and sometimes an immigration consultation, the case against them will be dropped, unless they get rearrested within six months.
Shame plays a powerful role in controlling women in the shady massage business, Ziegeweid said.
The parlor owners are “really playing on shame and fear of shaming your family who thinks that you’ve come to America to earn money and make a better life,” Ziegeweid said.
Some also go into debt to come to the United States, “and then if you don’t pay it off, they’re going to go after your family in China,” she said.
The system of gradually luring in women makes the shame even worse. In most cases, nobody violently coerced them. It was their own choice to take the job.
Still, the parlor bosses cajole women into prostitution through manipulation and deception, and the state law considers that human trafficking (which includes sex trafficking).
“A person is guilty of sex trafficking if he or she intentionally advances or profits from prostitution by [among other things] making material false statements, misstatements, or omissions to induce or maintain the person being patronized to engage in or continue to engage in prostitution activity,” the law states.
Olga was told by her boss that providing sexual services short of intercourse was legal. But that was a false statement because any sexual services are “still absolutely prostitution and commercial sex under the laws of New York,” Ziegeweid said.
And sex trafficking is a felony punishable by 3 to 25 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.
Even the customers, by patronizing a prostitute, commit a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine.
The Human Trafficking Intervention Courts help break women out of the system. And for many it works. Many are also eligible for a little-known visa for human trafficking victims. If illegal immigrants who become victims of human trafficking cooperate with authorities, they can receive the visa, get a work permit, and in fewer than four years, also get a green card.
The visa has allowed Olga to find a job as a store clerk. Her life is “normal” now, as she said. But she’s still afraid she may one day run into some people from the massage parlors. “I’m still afraid of them. I know the law works. But I’m still afraid of them,” she said. “They make really big money and they don’t want anything to stand in their way.”
Olga believes the sex trafficking massage business thrives on New Yorkers’ indifference.
“In Russia, everybody is always sticking their nose in everybody else’s business,” she said. “If you try to do something like this in a residential building in Russia, people would be like, ‘What’s going on? What are you doing?'”
She noticed no such interest in New York. On one hand, she appreciated that people respect others’ privacy. But it can lend impunity to the people who operate illegal establishments. “I think it really helps them,” Olga said.
Ziegeweid said if people know someone who may be a victim of trafficking, they can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. If people doubt the legitimacy of a massage parlor, they can call the New York City 311 service line or contact their local police precinct.