When someone thinks of prostitution, they may not think of the hundreds of illicit massage parlors—also known as “body rub parlours”—that exist across the world. Instead of working on the street or in a typical brothel, these sexually-oriented businesses operate like a typical massage parlor with one exception: the women there are paid for sex in addition to massages.
Often, these parlors act as mere fronts for the owners’ real money maker: the women whose bodies are sold in order to make a profit.
There are many myths that surround this form of sexual exploitation. In Defend Dignity’s latest video, survivors of body rub parlors discuss and debunk many of those myths in order to shed light on the reality of illicit massage parlors: they are a vehicle for sexual exploitation and trafficking across Canada, where Defend Dignity is located, and across the world.
Seven “popular” (read: pervasive) myths about illicit body rub/massage parlors are broken down here both in the video and in the text below.
Myth #1: Body rub parlors are a safe alternative to street prostitution
Massage parlors are not, in fact, safe for the women who work in them. Survivors describe being hit, spit on, choked, kicked, and beaten. One woman was fined by the owner when she ended a session early after being threatened by a client. Drug use was common and needed for many of the women to get through the day. Another survivor was so scared she didn’t feel it was safe for her to show her face.
Myth #2: Body rubs help to empower women
For many of the women working within illicit massage parlors, their work was anything but empowering. A typical day often looked like this: the women line up for a new client and he’d pick one of them from the lineup like he was choosing a piece of meat. The owners hire women based on looks, and one woman described being made to get naked for the interview. A survivor said, “the owner had power. The buyers had power. I was powerless.”
Myth #3: Men need sex and where else are they going to get it?
This is a common myth among many proponents for commercial sexual exploitation. Not only is it degrading to women, but the belief is also degrading to men. Men are fully capable of controlling their desires, and unfettered access to women’s bodies is not a right. This myth is only a way to justify the rampant male sexual entitlement inherent to the nature of commercial sexual exploitation. As one survivor said: “If sexual exploitation is the fire, then demand is the fuel. Get rid of the fuel, and the fire goes out.”
Myth #4: Proper regulation, oversight, and security measures will make it safer for women
This is another common myth for those who believe legalizing prostitution in all its forms will allow for safer environments and policies for the women involved in prostitution. However, research is showing this is not the case in places like Amsterdam and Germany, where prostitution is legalized, and even in the United States where women report being beaten, controlled, and exploited even when the work is considered legal. “I was exploited sexually, psychologically,” a survivor explains. “How do you regulate that?”
Myth #5: Body rub parlors provide economic opportunity and choice for women because “they can leave whenever they want”
Women who are involved in prostitution are frequently from the most vulnerable populations of society and have very little choice. Many are groomed, manipulated, and even trafficked into prostitution and often end up in illicit massage parlors by no choice of their own. And once in the business of body rubs, it can be almost impossible to get out. Survivors reported being threatened by their owners, beaten, and having no other job opportunities, forcing them to stay even though they wanted nothing more than to leave.
Myth #6: Licensing body rub parlors reduces organized crime
In Canada, where these women were working in body rub parlors, they reported seeing “human trafficking, sex trafficking, drugs, I saw it all.” Another woman was brought over on a false student visa. Illicit massage parlors are just another point in the vast web of sexual exploitation, and no amount of licensing will change that fact.
Myth #7: These are legitimate businesses owned by legitimate people
If these places were legitimate businesses, they certainly wouldn’t be exploiting women for profit. The problem isn’t the massages. It’s the blatant disregard for the women’s human dignity. These weren’t massage parlors: they were brothels and the owners were pimps.
Massage parlors that sell sex are profiting off the exploitation of women and they further fuel the demand for prostitution. Legitimizing and normalizing these types of establishments only serves to fuel the web of exploitation, human trafficking, and suffering for countless women, children, and even men. It’s time to stop and ask the question the video poses: “Should we be helping exploiters get rich or should we be helping women transition out and shut down these havens of sexual exploitation?”