There is an elephant in the massage room: illicit Asian establishments.

Seeking a cheap massage, it is tempting to utilize one of the many illicit Asian massage establishments mushrooming all over Southern California.  Alarmingly, doing so supports human trafficking, tax evasion, and hurts legitimate massage therapists. These workers are being smuggled in illegally from overseas to work in sweatshops that masquerade as spas. This phenomenon is rising at exactly the time when the plight of the American worker has been the focus of those looking to explain the rise of Donald Trump.

Part two of this article here.

DISCLAIMER: This not an attack in any way shape or form on ethnicity, nationality or racial background. The well documented fact is that the massage industry is being infiltrated by illicit Asian establishments in Southern California. If it were any other group such as the Irish, Canadians or Brazilians, there would be no hesitation to call them out on it.

The massage industry is a perfect microcosm of a discussion of American workers vs. immigrants.

A lot of political turmoil during the 2016 election seemed to focus on immigration. The whole country debated the difference between “legal” and “illegal”, and the question of “Whom do we let in and whom do we keep out?” Supporters of broad and open immigration policies  accused their opponents of racism, and in turn were accused of being un-American.

A great deal of the argument centered on the price benefits brought to the consumer due to cheap labor measured against the protection of American workers. Contributing issues to the immigration debate included the burden of taxes and health care on small business and lack of enforcement of existing laws.  All of these topics pertain to certified massage therapists and how they are being hurt by illicit Asian establishments.

Lady liberty and the huddled masses.

Immigration vs. the American worker is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people.  Many people born in the U.S. are very aware of our immigrant roots and embrace the romantic symbolism that the Statue of Liberty expresses. On behalf of all our citizens, she holds her torch high and calls for the huddled masses, for the poor.

We don’t, however, expect the huddled masses to remain wretched, because we believe that entry into our country provides immigrants with the opportunities for hard work, so they can enjoy the privileges of our free society and become successful. The harsh truth, however, is that it is almost impossible to attain any quality of life here if you’re undocumented, don’t understand the language and are working under oppressive conditions.

Why isn’t human trafficking in massage given more attention?

Media attention has been given to the plight of migrant workers, prostitutes and nail technicians. It is surprising, that barely any media attention is given to the deluge of women who are similarly shipped to the U.S. in cramped containers without proper sanitation and care, in order to do “bodywork”.  They do not speak English and live sequestered from American society, sometimes sleeping in the same massage rooms they work in by day. Their passports are taken and they are forced to work illegally long hours to pay off inflated portage fees. It is another example of modern indentured servitude.

Workers without a net.

Due to their immigration status, the social safety net is non existent for these workers if they cannot complete their commitments due to injury. Bodywork is physically taxing, and it is one reason that the massage therapy profession has a very high attrition rate. On the job injuries are a leading cause of that. This is in spite of the fact that as part of their certification, massage therapists are trained to avoid injury.

On the other hand, the indentured servants, working longer hours, get no such education. Additionally, legal, licensed massage therapists enjoy the protection of workers compensation, health insurance and disability benefits. Illegal immigrants who have no access to these benefits, and become an economic burden when they can no longer work.

The unethical businesses who employ these workers extract a high human cost, as well as perpetrating multiple direct consumer frauds.

I wasted a lot of money, hopefully you can reap the benefit.

I recently sought services at a number of these places (in Los Angeles, New York and San Diego) in order to be able to speak from personal experience. In terms of quality bodywork, it was a waste of money, but the journey and my ability to now share it with you was well worth it.

My latest experience was completely representative of the other several dozen establishments I investigated over the last year or so. Here is the story of what happened.

The business is called “Foot Care”; it is one of five that I counted within a mile of my house in Point Loma. My foot was just over the threshold and the proprietor greeted me palm up. ” 30 dollars cash” she said. With an obvious language barrier, I resorted to hand signals, and could only get the advertised rate after taking her outside. There is a big sign by the front door that says:  “One hour for $19.77”.  She still managed to work an additional 23 cents out of me, and we settled on $20 cash, and an admonition to tip.

I immediately began stressing out about how much to tip.

In spite of it being discretionary, I also knew the practitioner probably was not getting paid any regular wage. Compassion dictated generosity. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the fact that the owner showed such entitlement as to push me on it. I wish I could say this was a rare experience, but it’s the norm.

Before the massage began my mind was spinning. While I was waiting in the dark for the worker to come in the room, mental calculations ensued. A  tip on $ $19.77 is only $2 (10%) or $4 (20%). I thought “I tip more for takeout!”.

When the attendant came in, my heart just broke. She looked so tired and had very sweet energy. I wondered how many people she had worked on that day and if she hated having to do massage all day, or if she loved it like I do.

A very predictable routinized session.

Forty minutes later, the service was over. It had been the usual orchestrated routine that is done at these places. It seems to be memorized;  “Three circles to the left, three to the right, push up and down the spine, percussion, press the butt area eight times” . I could almost hear her think.

I’ve never gotten a true full body at these places. Major body parts are skipped such as the belly and the front of the legs. Usually,  the back portion of the massage is adequate, but the sides and top of the shoulders are rarely attended to. A few minutes of face poking and head scratching signal completion.

The final result is a strange combination of relaxation and frustration. Sedating effects kick in regardless of the skill level of a practitioner when touched for more than 20 minutes. It is a natural result of circadian rhythms. However, receiving touch so “out of touch” with my body was irritating. I walked out retaining every bit of shoulder and neck tension that I walked in with. Additionally, despite the name “Foot Care”, the so called foot massage portion was nothing more than frenzied skin rubbing.

If you are wondering if and what I tipped:

Compassion won me over and gave a 100 percent tip of $20. This touches upon another thing that I hate about these places: they prey on the generosity of our American culture.

Strange experiences, groaning and other tales.

The other places checked out were basically the same, with some noteworthy variations. One of the more memorable experiences was an establishment called Foot Soak in Los Angeles. Chinese action films were playing on a big flat screen TV. Instead of relaxing background music, I heard gunfire and bombs. When the movie was particularly exciting, the massage would pause, and the worker would catch up on plot lines. When the heavy action in the died down, the massage picked back up.

As opportunities presented themselves, I would take a peek around. It sure looked like people are living at some of them. I’m not alone in that assumption as a cursory internet search pulled up plenty of people thinking the same thing.

There have been other unprofessional touches such as stinky cigarette fingers on my face, freezing rooms with inadequate blankets, being overstretched in Thai massage parlors and construction grade towel wipe downs. Some of them were clearly not well enough to work and should have been quarantined instead of touching and breathing on the public while sick.

Trigger Warning: This article contains content that may disturbing to some readers.

Story swapping with others, there are some twisted tales.

  • One man walked into the bathroom of an establishment in Orange County and walked in on a sexual act so aggressive that the male worker was bleeding from his anus.
  • A friend, desperate for bodywork randomly selected an establishment in Kearny Mesa. She was escorted to a back room by a woman with long nails and high heeled boots. Believing the woman to be the receptionist, red flags didn’t set in until the female worker unzipped her boots and attempted a teeter tottering mess of pressure inflicted with a foot on her back. When the worker crashed on the floor, my friend ended the session abruptly, and left an $8 tip from a sense of obligation. In a true case of “no good deed goes unpunished”, the worker berated her for not leaving more.
  • One patron watched in jaw dropping astonishment as the worker returned her half emptied cup of water back into the dispenser. This is the one time “washing your mouth out with soap” is a welcome concept.

Since these workers are not paid a fair wage, are they more susceptible to prostitution?

The majority of these workers are working off their portage in labor, and keep only their tip money. Logic dictates that they are more susceptible to doing things they might not normally consider in light of the opportunity to earn more money. Although it is clearly more common that a man is looking for sexual services from a female worker, a friend of mine in NYC was offered a referral to an Asian establishment with a male worker who has built quite a reputation with female customers.

It is a fact that many of these places are brothels. A sort of yelp for massage prostitution is a website called Rub Maps where patrons leave reviews. Without spending much time, I found reviews for almost all of the places I went to.

In my excursions, I heard groaning through paper thin walls several times. This was not surprising. What took me longer to figure out, is why at some places I was unsuccessful in getting an appointment with a female. Even though I was greeted by a female, and saw several sitting around, I was put with a male worker for the session. Is it that the female workers were being withheld for male patrons seeking “extras” and will pay more?  Additionally, I cannot rule out that the male may have been up for more if I had offered payment. Later I realized this was not an experience unique to me as evidenced by this article from San Francisco.

The people were better than the session.

I never got bodywork that was actually what I would call “great”.  On the other hand, I genuinely liked most of the people who worked on me. As misguided as their efforts were, it was clearly due to lack of training, not laziness. Most of them worked hard and tried to accommodate my requests. Two of them showed great potential. However, it always boiled down to the scene at the beginning of this article: they are unable to communicate, overworked and not educated up to industry standards.

The massage profession has done a lot to separate itself from the sex industry, and these businesses are undercutting those gains.

Massage services, until recently in San Diego, wore the smear of sexual services. In 1994, my first license to provide therapeutic massage was actually issued by the Vice Division of the San Diego Police. Many therapists found the whole experience humiliating, but we all recognized the reality of how massage was perceived. Schools included safety strategies and discussion of how to handle inappropriate clients in the curriculum. Women at school shared stories of being raped. At that time, there were still a lot of prostitutes getting massage certification in an attempt to avoid focus from the police department. It was easy to identify them: they were the only massage students with long nails.

For a long time after graduation, I fielded calls from men requesting appointments with  ‘happy endings”, “light touch” and “extras”. These are all code words for sexual services. It took years for that to change, and fortunately I haven’t had a weird call for quite some time.

An example of an establishment undercutting legitimacy is a multi-store location that may as well be called “Happy Endings”. Cautioned by an attorney to not be too specific, lets just leave it that they do an awful lot of google advertising and are easily found on Rub Maps.  “Happy XXXX” markets itself to the general public as legitimate, but in my opinion, any legitimate massage business would stay far from the smear of sexual service, not dive right in.

Dear reader, If you’ve figured out what that business is, please do not buy into the excuses I’ve heard. Some have said that it is perhaps insensitive and in poor taste – but not harmful. Others buy into the businesses’ own proclamation that they are using a cultural play on words.

The risk of injury to professional massage therapists rises every time that the line between sexual services and bodywork is blurred. Sexual innuendo as a business name while claiming to offer legitimate massage therapy is damaging to the profession.. It also adds insult to injury for those of us who are sick of hearing happy ending jokes, and seeing raised eyebrows when saying what we do for a living.

This brings us to a discussion of how hard it is at times to distinguish which businesses are legitimate:

Some of the establishments appear to be on the up and up and are not. Interestingly, two laws written to protect legitimate massage therapy, and the use of the word foot reflexology are being exploited with great harm to the profession.

Massage Parlors inadvertently legalized:

It used to be prohibitively difficult to meet the legal requirements to open a massage establishment in San Diego. In 1998, my partner and I opened Elements Day Spa and spent countless days navigating a gauntlet of regulation. It was ridiculous.

The California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC) came to our rescue and lobbied the State Assembly to shift regulations away from treating massage therapists as adult entertainers and instead be treated as any other business would be. This took regulatory power away from cities. The idea was that a certified massage professional in the healing arts should not have a harder time opening a business than lets say a shoe store for example.

This well intentioned law backfired and and made it easier for the less reputable to put a sign up. Illicit Asian businesses exploited the looser regulation and opened massage establishments which often front for prostitution.  Here is an article about how it has negatively affected Huntington Beach. That town went from 10 massage establishments to 75 in a short period of time.

Legal but fake licensing:

In another well meaning effort to protect massage therapists from uneven regulation, the CAMTC lobbied for a voluntary professional certification. This was so that professionals could legally work anywhere in California, instead of having to jump through the hoops and added expense of licensing in multiple cities. The application process for the state certification required submission of a massage school transcript.

However, unscrupulous vocational schools sold certifications for money without actually teaching. This gave illegitimate massage businesses and fake massage schools the opportunity to submit false transcripts and get legal certification from the state in return.

In several conversations with people who work with the California Massage Therapy Council this was confirmed to me personally. One recounted the story of an undercover Asian woman who went into an illegitimate school with $500 and and two hours later came out with a certification. She also managed to film a massage demonstration from a “so called teacher”. In it were techniques no trained professional would even imagine to use. The video shows a model  face down on the floor, 5 giggling observers and a demonstrator who scraped the point of her elbow across and over the spine. Ouch!

A loophole in using the word foot is being exploited

Offering massage without a license is illegal. Foot reflexology however, is unregulated.  I think this is why it is so common amongst the illicit Asian businesses to have names that incorporate the word “foot” into the title. Ironically, during my two dozen or so sessions at these places – not once was I able to get a decent foot massage. In fact, no matter how many times I requested it, the workers and business owners strongly encouraged me to go with the “full body” experience.

They are trying to bypass enforcement of massage regulations by appearing to be unregulated foot reflexology establishments, and yet serving up full body massages in real time. This is true, not just in Southern California, but in Seattle too. Check out this article about illicit Asian establishments there and the exploitation of foot reflexology to avoid massage regulations. The paragraph under the map in the middle of the story is where it is discussed.

Ironically, foot reflexology as a healing technique and modality is long revered in the alternative health. Massage therapists, acupuncturists and others in the healing arts often do not offer it as a stand alone service unless studying it as separate modality and many complete a separate certification in it.

So why are these illicit Asian establishments proliferating instead of being closed down?

For one thing, as discussed above, they are exploiting loopholes.

Additionally, there are no “teeth” in the regulations. I searched California and San Diego municipal civil code, and have yet to find a penalty of any financial consequence. It looks like a bust might run a penalty of $500.  When I went to school in 1994, the quoted penalty for operating without a massage license was $25. Couple that with the fact that initial massage licensing with the required health screening was roughly $1000, and being legal was disincentivized.

My understanding from talking to attorneys and people in law enforcement is that operating as a massage therapist or establishment without a license is a misdemeanor and subject to a 500 dollar fine.  It is unlikely in their opinion that the City Attorney would  pursue enforcement unless other violations were levied simultaneously. Combine that with an already taxed justice system, and fake massage businesses are not a priority.

Language and cultural barriers present difficulties too. The same sources explained that the Asian workers are less likely to talk and prosecution is more difficult when translators are needed in the judicial process.  The article cited above about Seattle’s human trafficking and illicit Asian massage establishments “touched” on that too.

I think some of it has to do with the very nature of massage therapists. It is for the most part a female industry – and healers are not exactly known for being fighters. Additionally, massage therapists work in isolated environments: one on one with clients for hours at a time. I think that as a result, we don’t have a strong network. I searched Meetup for massage therapists and found one school with a posting. A similar search for computer coders yielded thousands of results.

Understandably, massage regulation enforcement is a low priority for an already taxed justice system compared with more aggressive crimes.

How can you identify a genuine massage therapist?

  • Ask to see their massage certification card. Legitimate Massage therapists cary them when working. It’s easy to fake or use a certificate in someone else’s name, but the cards have practitioner photos and are harder to reproduce.
  • Can they speak English or Spanish well enough to complete a year of vocational school? Legitimate certifications have been obtained by illegitimate means. If the bodyworkers cannot speak well enough to get through school, they are working in the industry under false pretenses. They must be able to pass certification in English or Spanish.  See page 4.
  • Be aware of an industry trend right now which is that some illegitimate vocational schools are gearing their entire curriculum to passing the MBLEX. This is an exam that can be used to obtain licensure. It happens to be multiple choice, no essay needed. Unscrupulous training centers  are simply computer training stations that teach pure memorization of what words match certain questions. They don’t even need to know what the words mean or how to speak them. I have been told that the students are exclusively Asian and cannot speak or read English. However, they can recognize english letter characters by rote. If this is not stopped, people with legitimate certificates, and no massage training will enter the workforce. This is yet another reason why in the field of legitimate massage, the inability to speak English is such a red flag.

What are some indications of an illigitimate massage establishment?

  • I found that they share common attributes, such as neon-blinking “Open for Massage” signs and vinyl posters or mirrored facades which darken the windows and hide what is happening inside.
  • Foot, Asian, table shower or Thai in the establishment name is not conclusive, but –  highly suspect.
  • Sometimes there are certifications on the wall, but usually not. Even if there are, often the workers are operating under false certification.
  • An unsustainable pricing of $20 to $30 is a bad sign. Meeting labor law, tax law and business expenses are impossible at that rate.
  • Pushed to pay cash, and a higher than legal fee to use a credit card.
  • Pushed to tip. A professional therapist is honored by a tip, but never expects or requests one.

In the end, you get what you pay for.

At a time when general public is embracing massage for it’s wonderful benefits, illicit massage defrauds an unsuspecting public. They do not understand that they are not getting the real experience, or the health benefits associated with legitimate bodywork.

Check out part two of this article to understand why “cheap” services break down to be very expensive Part II Illicit Asian Massage cheap at great cost..


High attrition rate for massage therapists: Fraudulent massage certifications, and human trafficking in massage industry:

Human trafficking illicit asian massage and nail establishments:

Difficulties of enforcement, human trafficking, illicit asian establishment law violations:

Court transcript from Providence, RI court hearing illicit asian massage: Farrell, A., McDevitt, J., and Fahy, S. (2008.) “Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking. The Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, Final Report. Tagliacozzo, E. (2007). Thinking marginally: Ethno-Historical notes on the nature of smuggling in human societies. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 18(2), 144–163.

Safety of legitimate massage therapists threatened by false perception of massage parlor association:

Money laundering in illicit asian massage establishments:

1.) Organized crime and human trafficking: Väyrynen, R. (2003). Illegal immigration, human trafficking, and organized crime. WIDER Discussion Papers, World Institute for Development EconomicsNo. 2003/72

Health risks for the public: 2.) Nemoto, T., Operario, D., Takenaka, M., Iwamoto, M., & Le, M. N. (2003). HIV risk among Asian women working at massage parlors in San Francisco. AIDS Education and Prevention, 15(3), 245-256.

Shipping containers used for human trafficking: