Need help? Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline: Call 1 (888) 373-7888 | Text “BeFree” 233733 | Live Chat | QUICK EXIT

Sex Trafficking in the Illicit Massage Industry

By Jessica Barnett and Olivia Wachtel

The Problem

The illicit massage industry (IMI) is one of the largest and steadily increasing sex trafficking markets in America. Exploiting vulnerable workers under a façade of legitimate massage and spa services,[1] thousands of illicit massage businesses (IMBs) exist across America and right here in Pennsylvania.[2]

Often, IMBs offer legitimate massage and spa services. Yet, during abnormal work hours or in hidden rooms with private entrances, IMB owners then coerce workers to provide sexual services to clients.[3] In addition to this sex trafficking, victims may also be labor trafficked, receiving little or no payment, employee protections, or safe work conditions.

It is important to note: not all massage and spa businesses offer illicit services or traffic workers. Many East Asian cultures value therapeutic massage and workers may enter the field out of a passion for massage and do not offer illicit acts.[4] Rather, illicit massage businesses are those in which traffickers, frequently within a large network, recruit and control victims by exploiting pre-existing vulnerabilities, and using threats and isolation to retain control.[5] 


Illicit massage businesses permeate the U.S. and Pennsylvania, providing a venue for sex buyers and adding fuel to the demand for sex trafficked individuals. Consider these statistics:

  • Scope An estimated 11,000 illicit massage businesses exist across the U.S., a steady increase since data tracking began in 2016. This makes the IMI one of the largest domestic sex trafficking markets with over 90,000 daily sex purchases.[6] 
  • Revenue The IMI generates an estimated $2.5 billion[7] to $4.3 billion annually.[8] Contrary to early predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic would undermine IMI finances and growth, it instead exacerbated the conditions making people vulnerable to trafficking and the IMI continued to grow.[9]
  • Known cases The IMI accounts for the second largest number of domestic human trafficking cases – 2,949 cases between 2007 and 2016.[10]
  • Pennsylvania As of 2019, Pennsylvania had an estimated 387 illicit massage businesses, the fifth most of all states. Illicit massage and spa businesses were the most-cited venue for known human trafficking reports in 2021 (18%).[11]


Given the scope of the issue, how does such a practice continue?

Trafficker Operations

IMBs are typically protected within large organized crime networks of other IMBs, nail salons, restaurants, grocery stores, and cleaners that skirt labor law, launder money, and evade taxation.[12]  

  • Roles There are various roles within an IMB network, including landlords, attorneys,  managers, and recruiters. 
  • Nationality Typically, network operatives are of Chinese or Korean nationality residing either in the U.S. or as recruiters in China or South Korea, and families may also run an IMB. 
  • Gender Men frequently perform roles like driving, recruiting, and managing operations logistics, while lower level managers and owners within the network tend to be female. Of note, one study found that most female owners/managers provided sexual services, suggesting they were also victims of network traffickers.[13] Because women are typically onsite when police investigate IMBs – and traffickers remain safe in other locations – it can be difficult for law enforcement to distinguish victims from traffickers.


The Victim Workers

All victims of trafficking have unique stories and experiences. Yet, certain trends emerge in the IMI. Victims have typically immigrated from Eastern Asia,[14] arriving on visitor visas to pursue opportunities for themselves and their families.[15] They receive fraudulent job offers through online media ads or from traffickers within their own communities.[16]

Victims then remain trapped in an IMB due to key vulnerabilities:[17] 

  • Economic instability Many victims of IMB trafficking endure pre-existing economic needs. To navigate the cumbersome visa process, they often incur debt to brokers between $5,000-$45,000, with accounts as high as $200,000. Traffickers either pose as brokers or exploit this known financial need when victims arrive in America needing to quickly pay down debts.
  • Cultural values Many victims come from collectivist cultures emphasizing group support and reciprocity. Traffickers know and exploit these cultural patterns. For example, many victims search for jobs within their community of immigrants. Traffickers make fraudulent job offers from within this community. Once the spa and massage services become illicit, victims often stay because they seek to reciprocate the trafficker’s “favor” in finding them a job.
  • Language barriers Many victims speak little or no English, keeping victims isolated and unaware of their rights. Traffickers assume a protector role, telling victims that women in U.S. society are always mistreated or that they will be arrested for prostitution if they try to leave.[18]


Isolated, penniless, and fearing police, sex trafficking victims remain trapped.

Solutions to Combat IMI Trafficking

Masquerading as legitimate businesses within sophisticated criminal networks that exploit regulatory shortcomings, IMB’s face minimal risk. The few laws and regulations that exist usually target worker licensure rather than business management, subsequently overlooking the possibility of worker victimization or trafficking within management.[19] As a result, laws and regulations unintentionally punish victims more than traffickers.

Specifically, the Pennsylvania Massage Therapy Law (Act 118 of 2008) sets massage therapy licensure regulations and established the State Board of Massage Therapy to safeguard public safety.[20] Pennsylvania has no laws preventing massage businesses from exploiting their workers beyond standard labor law regulations. Massage businesses can simply register with the Department of State as any new business would.[21]

Further, state law meant to penalize human trafficking — including professional license suspension, fines, and operating revocations on businesses knowingly aiding human trafficking[22] — does not systemically harm IMI networks. These networks absorb the blow of one store closing down from human trafficking charges, if evidence is even uncovered.[23]  

Evidence-based practices to eradicate human trafficking from the massage industry requires improved civil codes and focusing resources not on prosecuting potential victims of sex trafficking, but on reducing demand and targeting those who exploit workers through IMB networks.

Improving Civil Laws and Regulations

State and local policymakers can implement more and stronger civil laws and regulations to combat IMB trafficking by implementing the following best practices:[24]

  • Hours of operation Some successful laws mandate that massage businesses cannot operate outside reasonable business hours, shutting down many IMBs. 
  • Entryway standards Many IMBs have buzzer doors or back entrances. Prohibiting these obscured entrances has been successful in shutting down IMBs in parts of Santa Clara County, for instance.
  • Commercial licensing  Categorizing massage businesses as health businesses rather than “sexually-oriented businesses” makes it easier to regulate massage business practices. 
  • Collaboration with local massage therapists Collaborating with massage therapists can inform policy makers of how regulatory changes affect non-illicit massage businesses. The goal of legislation is to shut down IMBs without damaging non-illicit massage businesses.
  • Code enforcement Inspectors must access businesses to enforce civil regulations. Inspectors can fine business owners or landlords for code violations, which can eventually force an IMB to close. 
  • Recording code violations can also provide evidence if IMB owners ever face trafficking charges.
    • Code enforcement can help victims gain access to more resources, since inspectors are generally perceived as less threatening than police and are more likely to build rapport with potential victims. 


While statewide enforcement is ideal, counties don’t have to wait. 

In 2022, Bucks County became the first Pennsylvania county to adopt a county-wide ordinance to regulate massage businesses with the goal of reducing prostitution and sex trafficking. It includes prohibiting anyone under 16 years old from unsupervised massage salon access and setting standards for licensing, hours of operation, and lighting.[25] Currently, IMBs simply change locations if a city attempts to crack down on operations. Therefore, county-wide ordinances, in the absence of state regulations, can meaningfully deter IMB networks. 

Implementing The Equity Model Legislation

Currently, selling and soliciting commercial sex is illegal. However, sellers (including trafficking victims) are more likely to be arrested and convicted than buyers.[26] Prostitution charges, in turn, place massage workers at even higher economic risk of trafficking. Only 6.4% of men who buy sex in the U.S. are arrested.[27] This low perceived risk keeps demand for commercial sex high, and traffickers continue finding victims to earn profit.

But the reality is, when demand for commercial sex decreases, fewer IMBs will survive. Rather than focusing on arresting workers and potential victims, which will do nothing to slow demand, states should focus on arresting buyers to deter victim exploitation. 

The Equity Model decriminalizes the selling of commercial sex but keeps purchasing or managing commercial sex illegal. Focusing penalties on buyers and traffickers would shift away from making sellers more vulnerable and would instead decrease demand for commercial sex and the exploitation of workers.

Improving Law Enforcement Practices

Most law enforcement combats IMBs through undercover sting operations. These investigations generally target just one storefront, arresting workers for prostitution while traffickers monitor the situation from offsite.[28] Victims, then, often suffer wrongful and/or aggressive arrests for illicit massage work and then fear police. Meanwhile, traffickers remain safe.[29] Thus, current policing techniques place prosecuted Asian massage workers in higher economic vulnerability, increasing their susceptibility to trafficking. 

Instead of performing isolated raids from which IMB networks easily bounce back,  police could approach IMBs as networks and conduct thorough organized crime investigations. Best practices include:[30]

  • Focus on buyers   Law enforcement often uses the current raid approach as a result of limited funding. Even if law enforcement lacks resources for full organized crime investigations, they can instead target buyers of illicit acts rather than victims.
  • Expand prosecutions Building a case against IMB owners that incorporates money laundering and tax evasion means prosecution doesn’t rest on victim testimony alone. Police and prosecutors can also utilize civil code enforcement and code violations as a paper trail of misconduct.[31]
  • Support victims Offering victims culturally competent and trauma-informed resources will help break the cycle of abuse.


Encouragingly, targeted interventions are showing early promise at successfully reduced sex trafficking within this industry.[32] Further, Congress took an important first step in 2021 by authorizing The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA).[33] Traffickers traditionally register their IMB under a shell company with no legal documentation of their business connection.[34] The CTA intends to require all new corporations and LLCs to disclose their beneficial owners when registering a business. As the law’s rule-making process continues, it could become a hopeful first step in curtailing the practice.[35]

So what can you do?

Encourage state and local officials to strengthen protections for workers, penalize IMB owners, and target buyers instead of potential human trafficking victims. With evidence-based prevention and responses, Pennsylvania can decrease demand for sex trafficked victims and eradicate this network of exploitation.


[1] “The Typology of Modern Slavery,” Polaris (2017),; “What is the Illicit Massage Industry?,” The Network (May 2022),; “Is There Massage Parlor Trafficking in my Community?” Polaris (May 22, 2018),

[2] “Northampton County Massage Business Prostitution Arrests,” The Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation (March 2023),

[3] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses,” Polaris (2018),; Elizabeth Ranade-Janis, “Illicit Massage Businesses: The Pervasive, Insidious Form of Trafficking Happening Across the United States,” Human Trafficking Institute,

[4] Lindsay Whitehurst and Michelle Price, “Stigmas on race, gender and sex overlap in Atlanta slayings,” AP (March 18, 2021),

[5] “The Typology of Modern Slavery”; “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[6] “What is the Illicit Massage Industry?”

[7] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[8] “The Illicit Massage Industry: A Financial Baseline,” The Network,

[9] “Snapshot–IMI Remains Largely Intact” Heyrick Research (July 2020),

[10] “The Typology of Modern Slavery.” 

[11] Elizabeth Ranade-Jani; “National Hotline 2021 Pennsylvania State Report,” National Human Trafficking Hotline (2023),

[12] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses”; “Human Trafficking in the United States: The Illicit Massage Industry,” Heyrick Research (2020),

[13] Choo, K. et al., “Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Korean Women for Sexual Exploitation to the United States,” Korean Institute of Criminology (2009), p. 60,

[14] “The Typology of Modern Slavery.”

[15] Elizabeth Ranade-Janis; “Temporary (Nonimmigrant) Workers,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,  

[16] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[17] Elizabeth Ranade-Janis; “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses”; “What is the Illicit Massage Industry?” 

[18] “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Corporate Secrecy Facilitates Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Parlors,” Polaris (April 2018),  

[19] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[20] State Board of Massage Therapy, “Act 118 of 2008,” Pennsylvania Department of State (October 2009),; “State Board of Massage Therapy,” Pennsylvania Department of State (June 11, 2021),

[21] “Basic Business Regulation Overview,” PA Business One-Stop Shop,

[22] Title 18, Chapter 30, Pennsylvania General Assembly,

[23] Title 18; “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Corporate Secrecy Facilitates Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Parlors.” 

[24] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses”; “Factors of Successful Massage Ordinances,” The Network (September 2021),  

[25] Peg Quann “Does Human Trafficking Happen Here? Bucks County Says Look No Further than Illicit Massage Businesses. Here’s the Plan to Stop It,“ (January 2022),

[26] Cho, Seo-Young et al., “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” (2013),

[27] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[28] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[29] John J. Chin et al., “Illicit Massage Parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City,” (November, 2019),

[30] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses”; “Prosecuting IMI Networks Effectively,” The Network (September 2021),

[31] “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Corporate Secrecy Facilitates Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Parlors.”

[32] “What is the Illicit Massage Industry?”

[33] “H.R.2513 – Corporate Transparency Act of 2019,” Congress (October 23, 2019),; Lewis Zirogiannis et al., “What You Need to Know about the Corporate Transparency Act,” National Law Review (January 12, 2021),

[34] “Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses.”

[35] Lewis Zirogiannis et al.; “Whitehouse, Grassley, Wyden, Rubio, Warren Push FInCEN to Irpove Implementation of Corporate Transparency Act,” Sheldon Whitehouse (March 2023),

Why am I redirected to Christian Life Assembly's giving page?

Greenlight Operation is a newly incorporated 501(c)(3) and is in the process of filing its 1023. For now, Christian Life Assembly provides operational support to Greenlight Operation, such as our giving platform. Your donations are 100% tax-deductible and go toward Greenlight Operation’s mission.

Have more questions? Contact us.