Nearly two years ago, Robert Kraft made national media headlines. The owner of the New England Patriots had apparently been linked to a massive, multimillion-dollar sex trafficking ring spanning from Florida to New York, where authorities claimed immigrant Chinese women working in massage parlors were trafficked, brought to the United States under false promises of legitimate spa jobs, only to be forced to provide sexual services to customers on the side. The media and a curious public descended on Orchids of Asia Day Spa, a small massage shop tucked away in a strip mall in Jupiter, Florida to get a glimpse of the alleged crime scene that Kraft had visited.
The only problem? There proved to be no evidence of human trafficking, and the “victims” law enforcement and some prominent American anti-trafficking organizations sought to help, ultimately said they were not coerced into providing sexual services. With this, law enforcement did a 180 — if these immigrant Chinese women would not admit to being victims of trafficking then they would be prosecuted for prostitution to the fullest extent of the law.
Indeed, as the case wrapped up in January 2021, four Chinese women working at Orchids of Asia Day Spa were slapped with criminal records for prostitution and have been ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines, totaling some $45,000. A former manager of the spa pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of soliciting another to commit prostitution, while three other women accepted plea deals. All face months of probation.
This case should serve as a warning to the anti-trafficking sector and the media — erroneously concluding that this was a clear-cut case of sex trafficking from the outset, before a full investigation was completed, only served to backfire, criminalizing working immigrant Chinese women who they assumed needed rescuing from a non-existent sex trafficking ring. In particular, anti-trafficking organizations and “experts” that cheered on the sex trafficking narrative in the media must take responsibility for the repercussions of their actions.
Too often these types of “raid and rescue” operations are based on misguided, cultural assumptions about Asian communities, and when it becomes clear that no proof of trafficking is evident, immigrant women like those in Florida are instantly demonized, going from “victims of sex trafficking who deserve support” to “prostitutes who must be punished for committing a crime.”
Criminalizing adult, consenting sex work is not the path to address sex trafficking, nor is it a side-effect of failed sex trafficking investigations that anti-trafficking organizations should accept as just. If the sector truly wants to live up to the promise of “do no harm,” it must recognize alleging sex trafficking can have real, negative consequences for when it turns out that immigrant workers are not trafficked, leading to criminal prosecutions and immigration offenses.
While it is true that some immigrant Asian massage parlor workers may be trafficked for sexual exploitation in the United States, recent research points to many choosing this line of work as their best option considering their limited economic mobility. Rather than approach all Asian massage parlors as hotspots for trafficking where victims and consenting sex workers can be swept up together in police raids, we need to make clear distinctions, recognizing the needs of trafficking victims, the agency of women who choose this work, and the challenges some immigrant communities face accessing economic opportunities. The focus should be on removing those barriers and improving working conditions to prevent abuses instead of criminalizing them for selling sex.
The story unfolds and a sex trafficking narrative takes off
At the end of February 2019, the New York Times published an article titled “‘The Monsters Are the Men’: Inside a Thriving Sex Trafficking Trade in Florida,” detailing how authorities came to the conclusion that they had busted a sex trafficking ring operating out of Asian massage parlors in South Florida. Criminal charges for soliciting sex were brought against high-profile figures, including Robert K. Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots; John Havens, former president and chief operating officer of Citigroup; and John Childs, founder of the private equity firm J.W. Childs Associates.
The New York Times took the sex trafficking narrative as fact, propelling it to a national audience, writing:
Beyond the lurid celebrity connection, however, lies the wretched story of women who the police believe were brought from China under false promises of new lives and legitimate spa jobs. Instead, they found themselves trapped in the austere back rooms of strip-mall brothels — trafficking victims trapped among South Florida’s rich and famous.
Sheriff William D. Snyder of Martin County, whose office opened the investigation, told the New York Times, “I don’t believe they were told they were going to work in massage parlors seven days a week, having unprotected sex with up to 1,000 men a year. We saw them eating on hot plates in the back. There were no washing machines. They were sleeping on the massage tables.”
He added, “I would never consider them prostitutes — it was really a rescue operation.”
Health inspectors had raised concerns that the immigrant women were living at the spa. A police report noted that “Inside the kitchen of the business, [the health inspector] located a refrigerator filled with foods and condiments consistent with individuals living inside.” Officers also found napkins in the trash containing seminal fluids.
Some American anti-trafficking organizations added their voice to the sex trafficking narrative, asserting that the South Florida raid was a textbook case of human trafficking. Many explained that immigrant Asian women, largely from China, were struggling to pay off debts and were tricked into working at massage parlors — from those in big city Chinatowns to suburban strip malls in Florida — where they were forced to provide sexual services to customers by “mamasans.”
Yet all of these reported “red flags” of human trafficking did not add up for Freedom United, and we suspected that this would ultimately turn out to be a “raid and rescue” operation that risked ensnaring immigrant Chinese women in prostitution charges. While it is true that some immigrant Asian women working in massage parlors in the United States are trapped in debt bondage and trafficked for sexual exploitation, too often the experts quoted by the media made gross generalizations of Asian massage parlors as sites of sex trafficking. Even the search warrant from Martin County racially profiles Asian massage parlors as it refers to their operations as the “standard Asian model,” where “the establishment is as a place to operate prostitution under the guise of a massage therapy business. This is very common in crimes involving prostitution and the Asian community.”
Moreover, while the health inspection may have indicated that the women were living at the massage parlor, that in itself is not evidence of human trafficking, which requires an element of force or coercion in exploitation. It was especially concerning that authorities pointed to the hot plates used for cooking as an indicator of abuse, a claim that has racial undertones to it. As any Chinese immigrant in the United States can attest, cooking with hot plates is an entirely common activity, and one that should not raise suspicion any more than an American workplace having a microwave for employees.
But the greatest hole in the sex trafficking claim? The Chinese women working at the spa wouldn’t say they were victims — a problem police and anti-trafficking organizations chalked up as them being afraid of retaliation against their families back in China and their limited English proficiency. It did not help that Sheriff Snyder reportedly asked the women why they would “go and allow themselves to be trafficked. . .They had the ability, they could’ve walked out into the street and asked for help. But they didn’t.” Yet rather consider that this indicated that the women were willingly engaging in sex work, the authorities continued to press ahead with the investigation into human trafficking.
Kraft’s lawyer, William Burck, quickly pushed back on the solicitation charges and said “There was no human trafficking and law enforcement knows it.” Attorneys for Kraft and nearly a dozen other men facing charges filed court paperwork in March 2019 to ask that evidence not be publicly realized.
This would mark the unravelling of the sex trafficking narrative and begin a public spat between Burck and Sheriff Snyder. In an interview with WPTV, a local Palm Beach television station, Sheriff Snyder admitted that “It looks like trafficking. It feels like trafficking. It sounds like trafficking. I believe it is human trafficking. But we are just a little short of being able to prove that.” Burck, in response, capitalized on those comments, saying “He lied about it. His officers lied about it. I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.”
Sheriff Snyder and Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking expert witness in criminal and civil court, went on the defense, penning an op-ed in USA Today on April 4, 2019 titled “Robert Kraft spa scandal: Sex trafficking is hard to prove, that doesn’t mean it’s a lie.” They argued that the evidence in the case was simply not enough to result in a conviction for human trafficking, stressing that sex trafficking cases are difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
The attempt to salvage their reputations aside, it was clear that the case was falling apart. Less than two months after the media and the authorities heralded the successful raid on a lucrative sex trafficking ring, on April 16, 2019 Florida’s Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos announced that there was not enough evidence to suggest that women working at the spa were doing so against their will. “No one is being charged with human trafficking. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” he said.
The change in tone signaled a complete reversal from the February press conference announcing the arrests, where Florida State Attorney Dave Aronberg decried human trafficking as an “evil in our midst,” adding that the women at the spas across South Florida were there against their will.
By mid-May 2019, Kraft and other men charged with solicitation would win a string of legal victories due to the authorities’ missteps in the investigation, from obtaining sneak-and-peek warrants to install hidden video cameras to traffic stops of those who had just left the spa. Palm Beach County Judge Leonard Hanser accepted that planting cameras was necessary to infiltrate crime, yet concluded that the warrant broke federal law because the police didn’t do enough to focus only on recording crimes. Judge Hanser called the five days of secret videotaping “unacceptable” as “some totally innocent women and men had their entire lawful time spent in a massage room fully recorded.”
With the video recordings being deemed illegal, this then raised scrutiny on traffic stops by police. Prosecutors argued that no traffic violation need occur, that it was a legal way to obtain the identities of people videotaped in the spa. Kraft’s lawyers argued that since the videotaping was illegal then the identification of Kraft must also be thrown out, and Judge Hanser agreed.
In the end, judges in Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties would all rule that the warrants were illegal and that the videotapes could not be used to prosecute Kraft or any of the men facing charges. Indeed, in September 2020, Aronberg dropped all charges against Kraft and other men as without the video evidence, they could not be convicted. Finally, on January 25, 2021 a federal judge in Florida ordered the videotape to be destroyed because the surveillance was unlawful.
The backlash against immigrant Chinese women workers
As it became clear that the sex trafficking claim was unravelling, authorities focused their efforts on interrogating the Chinese spa workers, pushing them to admit that they were victims. In June 2019, the AP obtained a video of one such questioning of a Chinese masseuse by Martin County Detective Mike Fenton. As CBS Miami reported, she would not say that she was forced to provide sexual services — she was not a victim:
The Chinese masseuse shrinks into her chair as the Florida sheriff’s detective tells her deputies installed hidden cameras in her spa’s ceiling. He knows she and other women had sex with men for money.
But you can save yourself, Martin County Detective Mike Fenton and others tell her. We will give you an apartment. We will provide food and education. We will bring your children to the United States.
Just tell us you are a human-trafficking victim and testify against your captors.
“We know what goes on in the spa. It is not just massages,” he tells her. “I know this is not the funnest thing to talk about, but we know this is what happens. I don’t think this is the kind of work you want.”
He assures her she is not in trouble — yet. But we must know: Are you forced to prostitute yourself?
No, she responds, shaking her head.
Would someone be angry if you quit? No.
Then why do it?
She pauses, then responds softly, “I don’t know.”
“You know. You are intelligent,” Fenton says. “The reason why you got into this line of work is because somebody told you about it. Is this your dream job?”
She says she does it to support relatives in China. Would they be proud? She doesn’t know.
During the four hours of questioning, the spa worker would break down into tears and repeatedly tell Damian Spotts, a Mandarin-speaking police officer, that she was not a victim and felt like she was being treated like a criminal. Blanca Chang, a representative from an anti-trafficking organization spoke with the woman as well, telling her the raid was “was very bad luck. Good luck, too. Otherwise you would be suffering more. You were rescued.”
While this spa worker would be free to go after questioning and her identity kept anonymous by the press, other Chinese spa workers linked to Kraft were not so fortunate.
By the end of 2020, four women from the Orchids of Asia Spa would ultimately face extensive charges and fines related to prostitution. In what began as a human trafficking probe evolved into a crackdown on prostitution. Lei Wang, the manager of the spa, would plead guilty to the sole charge of soliciting another to commit prostitution, though the conviction will be withheld from her record if she fulfills her yearlong probation conditions, including a $5,000 fine and 100 hours of community service. Hua Zhang, the owner of the spa pleaded guilty to a count of soliciting to commit prostitution and a count of renting a space to commit prostitution. Lei Chen and Shen Mingbi would also face prostitution charges, tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and probation sentences. Prior to entering her plea deal, Shen Mingbi had her bank account frozen and passport taken away. Now she must pay $20,000 to the city of Jupiter’s police department and $5,000 in other fees. If that wasn’t enough, the women must undergo STI tests as part of their sentences.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg — who had pushed the sex trafficking narrative — celebrated the charges, saying “Orchids of Asia Day Spa was a notorious brothel in a family shopping center.”
It had all come full circle. Sheriff Snyder’s remark at the outset that “I would never consider them prostitutes” would foreshadow the precise opposite conclusion to the case.
A lesson in caution (and anti-racism)
The claim that a vast sex trafficking ring was operating out of Asian spas across South Florida was problematic for several reasons, though the underlying issue is the support for the “raid and rescue” model among authorities and some anti-trafficking organizations. Combined with the fact that Asian spas were singled out as likely sites of sex trafficking or prostitution, as evidenced by the search warrant lamenting the “standard Asian model,” we cannot ignore that race played a role in how “victims” and “prostitutes” were framed by the authorities. Raids premised on saving immigrant sex trafficking victims can go two ways in the United States — either victims are identified and given assistance, or if they are found to be consenting sex workers, prosecution, jail time, criminal charges, and immigration offenses are all on the table.
As Dr. Jill McCracken, professor at University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and cofounder and co-director of SWOP Tampa Bay, told Rolling Stone, “We tend to see Asian massage parlors in general through a very prejudiced lens,” adding that they are often targeted as a result of a sort of “racial profiling.” Similarly, May Jeong wrote in Vanity Fair that “It was somehow easier for law enforcement officers in South Florida to believe that the women had been sold into sex slavery by a global crime syndicate than to acknowledge that immigrant women of precarious status, hemmed in by circumstance, might choose sex work.”
Admittedly much of the problem boils down to the conflation of sex trafficking — which requires an element of force, coercion, or deception to indicate exploitation — with adult, consenting sex work. Under the “raid and rescue” model, consenting sex workers may be rounded up alongside victims of sex trafficking, but the latter can be slapped with prostitution charges as collateral damage, a criminalization approach reasoned by authorities as a means of combatting the commercial sex industry.
A policy path forward
At Freedom United we recognize that sex trafficking and sex work are not the same thing. We recently responded to Scottish Government’s ‘Equally Safe: challenging men’s demand for prostitution’ consultation, arguing that criminalizing the purchase of sex was not an effective strategy for tackling human trafficking and that full decriminalization of sex work was needed as criminalization puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, abuse, and HIV infection. Under the “Nordic model,” which criminalizes the purchase of sex, sex workers are pushed into less safe working environments and accepting clients they may not have chosen otherwise.
As UNAIDS points out, “The legal status of sex work is a critical factor defining the extent and patterns of human rights violations, including violence against sex workers. Where sex work is criminalized, violence against sex workers is often not reported or monitored, and legal protection is seldom offered to victims of such violence.”
Full decriminalization of sex work should apply to immigrant Asian massage parlor workers in the United States as well. It is unconscionable that the raids in South Florida resulted in criminal charges for prostitution and massive fines for women workers, not to mention the trauma of being profiled by the national media. Furthermore, criminalizing their customers — the “end demand” strategy — ignores the reality that immigrant massage parlor workers often choose to engage in sex work amongst limited options available to make ends meet.
While it should be noted that the immigrant Chinese women working at day spas in South Florida are clearly not victims of sex trafficking, it may also be true that they did not have safe working conditions or know their rights, which merits further analysis in understanding how to reform public policy so as to not further victimize or penalize immigrant Asian massage parlor workers. We also recognize that some frontline counselors have reported some women only come to recognize their exploitation after months of building trust.
With this in mind, one critical need is to better understand the lived experiences of immigrant Asian massage parlor workers, ensuring their voices are centered in discussions about addressing the challenges they face. A recent in-depth research report, “Illicit Massage Parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City: Stories from Women Workers,” aimed to do just that. Authored by Professor John Chin from Hunter College and Professor Lois Takahashi from the University of Southern California, they interviewed 116 immigrant Chinese and Korean women massage parlor workers who had provided sexual services, listening to their experiences and concerns without judgement.
In the report’s policy recommendations, the researchers point to four areas for reform:
1) Modify police practices and court services to protect the safety and rights of illicit massage parlor workers, including a scaling back on arrests
2) Increase employment options
3) Increase access to healthcare, prevention education, and health screening
4) Work with key community institutions, such as religious institutions and local neighborhood organizations, to reduce stigma of illicit massage parlor work
Notably, the study found that “women often chose illicit massage parlor work from a very small number of employment options; some women described being coerced or deceived into this work, but most women said that they chose this work as their best alternative among limited options.”
Though it is true that a minority of the women interviewed may have been victims of trafficking, approaching the entire Asian massage parlor industry as inherently suspicious, assuming that all workers are trafficked or oppressed, is misguided. There must be space for discussion of the challenges facing immigrant Asian massage parlor workers through a labor and immigrants’ rights lens, especially given the fact that most women chose this work, albeit that for some, their choices are limited.
While sex work may not be their ideal job or one they necessarily want to tell their families about, given limited economic mobility and a desire to support their families, these women are choosing what makes sense for them based on limited options.
Indeed, as the study points out, there are benefits and drawbacks to this line of work:
On the positive side, the pay was higher than in other industries and could provide opportunities for self-employment.
On the negative side, there were risks to physical health (HIV, STIs) and mental health (isolation, stigma); risk of violence from clients and owners, and robbery in this cash- based industry; and possible arrest, fines, and jail, as well as deportation in the case of undocumented immigrants.
Researchers also highlighted that the “fear of arrest almost always superseded fear of robbery or assault,” noting that women workers were reluctant to seek help from the police and that those with limited English proficiency were often unaware of what was happening after their arrests.
It may not be their dream job and they may lack labor protections, but it is their choice based on limited economic mobility, especially if they are undocumented or have limited English proficiency. The aim should be to make their work safer and improve working conditions, not eliminate their means for economic survival.
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