Partnership Aims to Safeguard the Massage Profession from Human Trafficking

The brochure is available in English, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese

The issue of illegal brothels posing as legitimate massage parlors is tied to Polaris Project’s first moments as an organization.  Our founders, Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman, became passionate about the issue of human trafficking after learning about one of these brothels in Rhode Island, which operated a couple blocks from their college apartments.  Over the past nine years, our organization has focused on combating all forms of human trafficking, but we’ve always maintained an expertise and understanding of this particular network.

These brothels are part of a national network for trafficking Asian women into prostitution where traffickers use force, fraud, and/or coercion to control victims, making them believe that they have no other choice.  Women exploited by this network are often lured by false promises of employment or a better life, and enter with heavy debts that are increased through exorbitant fees for transportation, personal items, food, and security.  They’re typically forced to live on-site, isolated from the outside world, and coerced through these debt schemes into providing commercial sex to as many as 10 men a day, 7 days a week.

To put this problem into perspective, there are an estimated 4,000 illegal brothels operating across the United States disguised as legitimate massage parlors.  In comparison, that’s nearly half of the 11,000 stores owned by Starbucks nationwide.

In recent years, we’ve celebrated several strategic successes.  A decade ago, there were an estimated 20-30 of these brothels operating across the District.  Today, most of these operations have been shut down through the efforts of the DC Human Trafficking Task Force.   This surge in political will is demonstrated through increased efforts by law enforcement, as well as an increase in the number prosecutions through the US Attorney’s Office – District of Columbia (USAO) and Office of the Attorney General (OAG). Additionally, these successes would not be possible without active grassroots advocacy.

That said, given the scope of this network, we still strove for a national impact and sought to build partnerships and foster collaborations with key national stakeholders.  As the premier national certification program for the massage industry, we were eager to work alongside the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) and their School Compliance Program.  This strengths-based partnership capitalized on Polaris Project’s expertise on the issue of human trafficking and the unique position of NCBTMB as gatekeeper to the massage industry.  Together, we developed a tri-fold brochure that is being distributed to more than 1,000 massage schools across the country.

The brochure defines human trafficking and describes red flags and potential indicators; educates current and future massage therapists of their rights; and advertises the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline, 1-888-373-7888, as a resource for reporting and referrals. This information may prevent potential victims, many of whom may think they are applying for legitimate jobs, from getting involved in situations of human trafficking.

By recognizing the need for public awareness and tighter eligibility and school compliance requirements, NCBTMB has set an industry standard designed to safeguard therapists and consumers alike.

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