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Amy points to the sign scrawled in black magic marker, Scotch-taped below an anatomical drawing of the human form. We're in a small, dark room on the second floor of a brick building on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, the heart of the Asian massage industry in America. Amy, a year-old massage worker—her name, like that of others from the industry who appear in this story, has been changed to protect her identity—is clad in a not particularly seductive outfit: a canary yellow t-shirt and black leggings, a royal blue visor atop her head, black hair pulled back in a ponytail.
I'd read on RubMaps, the so-called Yelp of massage parlors —a subscription website where people provide detailed reviews of their sexual experiences at "rub and tugs"—that happy-ending massages occur here. I'm wondering if Amy provides them, but the sign isn't promising. In fact, Amy is insistent that she doesn't offer massage either, but "body work," a distinction that may be unimportant to customers, but is essential to her. Many massage workers don't have licenses, and so refer to massage offerings by euphemism because operating a massage parlor in New York without a license is a class E felony that can result in up to four years behind bars.
Unlicensed massage providers who offer sex usually don't get charged with prostitution, but instead get slapped with this felony technicality. Ninety-five percent of New Yorkers charged with this felony from to were of Asian descent, according to an Urban Institute report. Hence the sign. Amy says they put up the "no sex" sign after clients kept requesting sexual services.
Asian massage parlors reentered the national consciousness earlier this year, when New England Patriots owner and Donald Trump pal Robert Kraft was, according to police, caught receiving hand jobs at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida. Many news reports presented women of Asian descent working at parlors as victims of human trafficking, spurred on by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, the public faces of the sting.
At Aronberg's press conference, he declared that "human trafficking often occurs in plain sight," and Snyder said "the tentacles of this go from here to New York to China," and that women had "no access to transportation. They were moved from location to location. They were averaging eight clients a day… with no days off. With court-ordered video surveillance in place, we found that the women selling sex acts in these strip mall brothels were virtual slaves. But as I previously reported for Deadspin, no charges were ever filed to that effect, and the police admitted there wasn't sufficient evidence of trafficking.