Massage parlors under scutiny

| Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Pittsburgh city councilman wants to crack down on massage parlors whose employees are offering more than a rubdown — possibly against their will.

Doug Shields plans to introduce legislation on Tuesday that would require city massage parlors and their employees to be licensed. He said the issue came to his attention when he learned that a parlor in the city might be offering sexual services and that the female employees in parlors could be part of human trafficking schemes.

"It's very obvious, very blatant this is happening at these places," said Jaime Turek, assistant director of the Project to End Human Trafficking at Carlow University in Oakland. "It should make everyone in the city of Pittsburgh angry that this is happening our city."

Jessica Dickinson Goodman, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, researched local massage parlors that advertise their services online, on so-called "johns boards." Goodman mapped 15 such places within the city, and seven more in Allegheny County, and shared the information with Shields.

"Johns on these boards review cup size, sexual skills, prices," said Dickinson Goodman, who interned last summer with the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to combat human trafficking. "They're extremely open."

Pittsburgh police Lt. Bill Mathias, who heads the narcotics and vice squad, said not all massage parlors are involved in prostitution but detectives have raided one in Overbrook multiple times to no avail.

"We've hit that place probably seven or eight times in the last couple of years for prostitution," Mathias said. "We stripped the place, we're taking all the furniture out, and within a day or two they're back open, going again.

"We have other places where we hit them once and they close down and they're never opened again."

Shields said his bill would allow auditors access to "rub parlors" to make sure they are licensed and paying taxes.

"What that does is it puts them on a radar and shines light into places where light is not shown," Shields said.

While it's clear some establishments engage in prostitution, it's hard to determine when women are captives, especially with Asian parlors, Mathias said.

"If they have any inclination, they usually aren't able to vocalize that they are being held against their will," Mathias said.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Bradley Orsini declined to comment on whether any human trafficking investigations are ongoing in the city.

"The FBI gathers all intelligence and assesses the information on a case-by-case basis," said Orsini, who's in charge of the FBI's civil rights unit in Pittsburgh.

Sgt. Craig Campbell, who oversees vice, said there are about a half-dozen parlors that people complain about. He said detectives typically raid massage parlors four to five times a year.

In most city cases, the women charged with prostitution plead to summary offenses and aren't seen again, Mathias said.

"The girls disappear, and they bring in new girls," Mathias said.

A quick turnover of women can be a sign of human trafficking, Turek said.

"There are a lot of women trafficked from Asian countries to the United States to do this work."

Additional Information:

Call it in

For more information on human trafficking, call the Polaris Project hot line at 888-3737-888. To report tips to the FBI, call 412-432-4122.

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