Massage parlors offering customers sex aren’t just hidden away in the seedy parts of Texas cities. They can be found in middle-class neighborhoods just down the street from public schools, too.
That’s according to a new analysis by the nonprofit Children At Risk, which identified 689 suspected illegal businesses, 97 of them in Dallas County. And 55 of these parlors are within 1,000 feet of Texas public schools.
“We want people to be shocked at how close this is to them and how close it is to their children,” said Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children At Risk, a children’s advocacy group. “People think that there are massage parlors in bad parts of town and that there’s illegal sex trafficking in bad parts of town, but what we want people to see is that these are in nice neighborhoods.”
According to the analysis released on Tuesday, large clusters of spas or massage parlors were listed on a website as being in suburban areas including Richardson, Plano and Arlington,
Businesses calling themselves massage parlors or reflexology businesses are close to Prairie Creek Elementary in Richardson ISD; Austin Elementary in Coppell ISD; and Tom W. Field Elementary in Dallas ISD, according to the group’s analysis.
The Houston-based advocacy group mapped the businesses across the state using listings from the website Rubmaps.com, which includes sexually explicit reviews and graphic details of sex acts that are offered at some businesses. And a sampling of many found that they didn’t have a state license to offer massage services.
Children At Risk officials say undercover police often raid such establishments. But it’s usually the women — who are often Asian or Latina — who ended up getting arrested and not the men running the illicit businesses.
“These girls are victims, a lot of them are essentially hostages,” said James “Jamey” Caruthers, an attorney for Children At Risk. “They are in debt bondage or are afraid. There are language barriers or cultural barriers, so they don’t understand the American system of justice. They will never testify against the owners.”
But Texas already has laws on the books that go after operators.
The state passed a new law last year allowing the Texas Attorney General to use deceptive trade practice to go after businesses marketing themselves as massage establishments when they don’t have a state license for such services.
State law allows the AG’s office to not only shut down the businesses but to assess financial penalties as well. But the law is so new no cases are known.
The group credited the AG’s office for its aggressive efforts in the area. Just two years ago the office created the Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime Unit that works on criminal prosecution.
A University of Texas study released this January estimated that the state had about 300,000 victims of human trafficking. Nearly 80,000 were minors who were victims of sex trafficking.
Children At Risk officials have worked with the state to develop training for teachers to help identify kids who might be victims but noted that such training is not mandatory. They said more needs to be done to address the culture that props up such dangerous businesses.
“We wouldn’t have trafficking if we didn’t have men who wanted to buy young women,”Sanborn said. “We need to take the market away and end the demand. That’s what’s happening here with all these massage parlors.”
The group’s analysis comes just after federal officials shut down the classified website Backpage.com and charged seven people associated with the site with human trafficking and money laundering.
Last month, Congress passed federal legislation that allows victims of sex trafficking to sue websites for facilitating in their abuse. Craigslist closed its personal ads listings just a few days later.
But Sanborn said the law that shut down Backpage won’t be much help in addressing Rubmaps, which is based in Cyprus. Officials representing the site could not be reached for comment, but there is a tool for reporting suspected human trafficking on its site.
“In the event we become aware of any incident of trafficking, we take swift internal action and cooperate enthusiastically with state and federal law enforcement officials assigned to combating this vile abuse of human rights,” says a statement on Rubmaps’ site.