Compiled by Prostitutes' Education Network

Massage Parlor Busts in Califorina

Read San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed Sex Panic and Trafficking
by Carol Leigh of BAYSWAN, Responding to Article
Visit Trafficking Policy Research Project (For more extensive information on trafficking issues from a sex worker rights perspective)

Links to Reports About California Massage Parlor Arrests:
July 1, 2005- SF massage parlors raided as part of smuggling probe-SF Chronicle

July 1, 2005 -Massage Parlor Raids Net 29 Arrests For Sex Trafficking
July 2, 2005 Alleged sex-trade ring broken up in Bay Area Police say Koreans in massage parlors were smuggled in

July 2, 2005 Raids on Brothel Rings Net 45 Arrests ("No firm evidencewomen were coerced into working as prostitutes")
July 3, 2005 Officials ask if sex trade forced on South Koreans -Women allegedly not told they'd be prostitutes in U.S.

July 4, 2005 Korean Prostitution Ring in California Shames the Korean Community
 July 13, 2005 SAN FRANCISCO Deportation sought in brothel probe
July 13, 2005 San Francisco Human Trafficking Trial Postponed

Related and Background Material:

San Francisco Adminsitrative Code Establishing San Francisco as a 'City of Refuge.'

June 30, 2005 South Korean sex workers demand rights

Archives: Trouble for Massage Parlor Workers
November 16, 2000 Sex trade ensnares female immigrants in U.S. (Story of an immigrant who paid her debts, continued working, then was arrested)

December 16, 1998 Policing the Vice Squad -Investigations launched into money collected from massage parlor workers

Links to proposed revisions for AB22, California Trafficking Victims Protection Act
This website documents the process of dissecting and revising AB22 with welfare of sex industry workers and migrants.

Recent Essays

San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed Sex Panic and Trafficking by Carol Leigh, Responding to Article
July 3, 2005 Officials ask if sex trade forced on South Koreans -Women allegedly not told they'd be prostitutes in U.S.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris' Counterpoint, San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed

Leigh's Response To District Attorney Kamala Harris' Essay

San Francisco Chronicle, OPEN FORUM, Friday, July 22, 2005
Carol Leigh

When hundreds of federal and state agents descended on massage parlors in San Francisco earlier this month, declaring some women sex slaves, another story was obscured by this moral panic: This rescue operation was not necessarily in the best interests of these women.
The complex story behind the headlines is about migrant workers who have made various deals in exchange for jobs and transportation to the United States. Some of the workers may be relatively satisfied with these arrangements, even though they are vulnerable and can be exploited.

In the early '80s, I worked at several massage parlors in San Francisco. I liked working in them, and I especially liked spending time with the other women, who were upbeat, smart and resilient, nothing like the stereotypes. Since then, I have followed the news and rumors about the parlors. I hear stories about strong women trying to make their way, establishing families and gaining legal status in this country. I also hear stories about contract labor and debts, and about the repercussions women face when they don't make the payments. As an activist, I have been an advocate for the massage parlor workers, networking with health outreach agencies and advising on city legislation.

Over the years, factions -- from gangs to the police -- have taken advantage of these women. In 1996, former San Francisco police officer Francis Hogue was convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a massage-parlor worker. Throughout 1997, local newspapers ran accounts of gangs robbing and shaking down massage parlors. In 1998, San Francisco Police Department's vice squad was discovered to be receiving checks directly from massage-parlor workers for a diversion program but claimed to lose the records of those payments because of a computer glitch. Recent reports about massage-parlor busts sounded like more of the same, with women caught between gangsters (i.e., "traffickers") and law enforcement.

In a twist in the latest cases, the federal government is detaining women in an effort to "rescue" them. Chronicle reporter Heather Knight explained their status in a story July 3: "The women can at any time decide to return to South Korea, although law enforcement officials could then declare them a 'material witness' to the case, forcing them to stay in the United States without any benefits." This sounds like another offer they can't refuse.
Now in federal custody, the status of these women is based on their "innocence" about prostitution, according to Bradley Scholzman, acting assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, who told The Chronicle, "The fate of the women will hinge on whether prosecutors determine they were forced to work against their will or whether they participated in the sex ring voluntarily."

The premise of separating the "innocent victims" from the "sex ring volunteers," however, ignores the realities of their situation. Some may have originally "participated voluntarily," but may still be victimized through abusive working conditions and when payments are not applied fairly to the worker's debt. Plus, although the government claims to offer special visas to protect these women, in order to qualify for these visas, federal law states that she remain only as long as she assists with the investigation and prosecution of the traffickers. This cooperation and ultimate deportation could result in extreme jeopardy for the migrant and her family.

Activists call for decriminalization as a way to apply labor codes and oversee these industries. But the combination of migrant workers' rights and prohibitions on erotic massage create a particularly sensitive situation. How to avoid the pitfalls of law-enforcement intervention, how to help those who want assistance to escape debt bondage and other forms of abuse, without singling out Asian women in the massage industry as a target for police and further victimizing the entire community? Are we following the policies of the 1989 Board of Supervisors resolution establishing San Francisco as a "city of refuge"?

Migrants could greatly benefit from real justice and equity in terms of immigration law: options for refugee status, enforcement of labor laws and a fair system of migrant-work visas. This will do more good and less harm than raids and special visas bequeathed to a few. It wouldn't end the exploitation of migrants that accompanies illegal migration, but it would mean they would be less dependent on a criminal underground.

Another solution is inclusion. The tourist business in the area benefits from the massage industry, so it's time to acknowledge the contribution of the women who work in it. San Francisco must provide a venue for workers to discuss grievances, while protecting identity of those workers. The city could thus begin to take some responsibility for the welfare of these women.

Assistance should be provided for victims of trafficking. But before we buy into the "sex slave" melodrama, we should consider the complexities of sex work, migration and trafficking. Framing the range of abuses in the sex industry as a moralistic concern about "sex slaves" obscures the real violations (and advantages) of this industry. Until we can begin to support rights for migrant workers and craft policies to support their needs to work, we are stuck in a quagmire that attracts, then rescues "innocent victims."

Carol Leigh is director of Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network (


Response to San Francisco Distict Attorney's Essay on  Trafficking Law and Enforcement

Activist and writer, Carol Leigh, is featured author in the San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum asking readers to see through the "sex slave melodrama" and consider the real lives, needs and challenges of local massage establishment workers. After recent highly publicized arrests in San Francisco massage parlors, Leigh reveals the hypocrisies behind these rescue efforts.

"I am very pleased to have this opportunity to present an alternative view of sex work and migration in the context of discourses on forced labor and slavery, aka trafficking. In academic and human rights circles there is a great deal of criticism of the anti-trafficking strategies and perspectives of the US government, but this criticism has received little notice in the media. The public is ready for these complexities. They are ready to look squarely at the growing criminalization of immigration, the scapegoating of prostitution and sex workers and at the destructive and ineffective aspects of the US anti-trafficking policies."San Franciso District attorney Kamala is also featured in an Op-Ed ( from a different perspective.

"San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is a feminist and a progressive. She has demonstrated some support for justice for women in the sex industry, although her portrayal of trafficking is inaccurate, even contradicted by recent US government reports. For example, she repeats the estimate of 50,000 people trafficked to the United States this year. In fact recent US government statistics contradict these estimates, as noted in a Hastings Women's Law Journal article by Kathleen Kim ( HUMAN TRAFFICKING PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION: CIVIL RIGHTS FOR TRAFFICKED PERSONS IN THE UNITED STATE, Winter 2004) "The 2003 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report approximated that 18,000 to 20,000 trafficked persons enter the United States annually, while the 2004 Report reduced that estimate to 14,500 to 17,500. Previous estimates placed the number of persons trafficked to the United States on an annual basis closer to 50,000."

Although District Attorney Harris champions current anti-trafficking efforts, many legal experts have questioned the effectiveness of anti-trafficking legislation. In an article from Stanford Law and Policy Review, authors note that the protections offered in the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act protect few:

"Many Victims, Few Protected...What is almost as disturbing is the shockingly low numbers of victims that have been granted protection in the more than three years since this broad anti-trafficking law went into effect. Despite multi-million dollar programs, victim identification has been extremely slow, and federal agencies have recognized that they are not finding victims at an 'acceptable rate.' There is a 'significant difference between the estimated number of people trafficked into the United States annually and the number of victims that the U.S. government has reached'. The T-visa cap has not come close to being reached in any of the three years reported so far. In fact, of the estimated tens of thousands of victims in the United States annually, only a few hundred have been identified and protected since the TVPA became law. By March 2005, fewer than 500 victim-witnesses had been granted temporary trafficking victim T visas since the law went into effect in 2000.": (Stanford Law and Policy Review 2005 Symposium Globalization, Security & Human Rights: Immigration in the Twenty-First Century HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN THE UNITED STATES: EXPANDING VICTIM PROTECTION BEYOND PROSECUTION WITNESSES, Hussein Sadruddin, Natalia Walter, Jose Hidalgo.)

In her article, D.A. Harris claims that "100 victims were discovered". The SF Chronicle report holds that "In a series of searches begun Thursday, investigators said they found more than 100 women working as prostitutes at 10 San Francisco massage parlors." D.A. Harris seems to be asserting that all the above were 'victims.' In fact, in the California Bill AB 22 (which we also contributed to), prostitutes are not trafficking victims unless they were victims of forced labor. The Chronicle story of July 13 claims that "Fifty-nine of the women came here willingly and will face deportation proceedings." These women certainly are victims, of the INS, that is. Other aspects of their victimization are unclear and current anti-trafficking efforts 're-victimize' them.

More about California's AB22
Although AB22 specifically targets forced labor in general and forced labor in the context of the sex industry, and NOT VOLUNTARY sex work, early versions of this bill were confusing and actually (inadvertently, I assume) made it a crime to (even unknowingly) be a customer of any businesses that may include trafficked workers. I call this the "Kathie Lee Law." The satire is that anyone who bought a dress from Kathie Lee might be in danger of prosecution. Although this satire stretches the reality, AB22 was ultimately rewritten to clearly target those who traffic in forced labor. My fellow advocates are concerned however, that in it's current form AB22 does not sufficiently address sensitivities in issues of confidentiality for victims.

Perhaps the District Attorney could revisit our concerns and support our recommended changes. Our objections are documented at

These inaccuracies and weaknesses belie a general tendency to allow moral panics and sensationalism to obscure the details and therefore reduce effectiveness when dealing with the serious issues of forced labor, slavery and other abuses in all workplaces, for immigrant workers and in the sex industry.

Author Bio:
Carol Leigh formerly worked in massage parlors and she has worked with members of the Network of Sex Work Projects to advise from a rights perspective on early drafts of the UN Protocol and the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Leigh has also advised on local legislation addressing massage industry regulation. She represented the Commission on the Status of Women on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Task Force on Prostitution.
Carol Leigh is editor of Trafficking Policy Research Project: Examining the Effects of U.S. Trafficking Laws and Policies



 Compiled by Prostitutes' Education Network