illicit massage businesses



The following slides show actual items and photos recovered in our work fighting trafficking here in Houston, Texas.

Women from Chinese, Thai, Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese backgrounds are often trapped in commercial sexual exploitation in Houston.

When Asian women are trafficked into the sex trade, there are as many factors to consider as there are contexts from which they come. Some are lured by the promise of legitimate jobs, while others have been exploited for sex since they were children. Victims are also exploited by investors and loan sharks through brothel owning/operating.

illicit massage businesses

When a woman is targeted by traffickers and arrives in the United States, she is subject to fraudulent and coercive methods of  traffickers. Debt bondage, document servitude, and threats are all used as methods of control. In many cases, the woman does not know that the agents she interacts with are accomplices. Rarely does she see the underpinnings of the criminal enterprise she is now a victim of.

illicit massage businesses

journey to the united states from an asian country

A woman in Bangkok contracts with an “employment agency” for a job in a restaurant in the U.S. The loanshark issues a loan to amount for the cost of fake documents, travel and employment at $20,000 USD + 10% interest weekly.

When the woman arrives, the trafficking agent in the U.S. confiscates her documents and demands that she work in prostitution to pay off her debt. The actual amount of debt is never fully disclosed, fines are assessed and the woman is charged for food and the “rental” of clothing.

journey to the united states from an asian country

The full amount of the debt (which is legally unenforceable anyway) is never itemized, and the woman is kept in servitude to an ever-shifting dollar figure.

journey to the united states from an asian country

Image of a Korean calendar recovered from a local Houston brothel that was trafficking Korean women. 

Debt bondage occurs when a person's services are used for repayment of a debt or  obligation.  The terms are not reasonably stated and may change during the repayment period.  As a result, the person who holds the debt controls the laborer. 

"Customers paid from $40 to $60 to get in the door, and then a girl could charge whatever she could get in tips, usually about $120. Out of that she paid the spa owner for her daily expenses and her transportation to the next spa in the next city. Sometimes workers even had to rent the sexy underwear the customers liked so much. A manager controlled all the money. Often, when Kiki arrived at a new parlor, she would notice that the previous girl had scratched a tally above the bed, to make sure she wasn’t cheated out of her tips."

Swartz, M. (2010, April 1). The Lost Girls. Texas Monthly. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from

In 2004 there was an estimate of just over 100 illicit massage businesses in Houston and the surrounding counties. In 2020 that number grew to over 300.


The number of illicit massage businesses have rapidly increased in the previous 40 years. According to one study, illicit massage parlors in Houston generate about $107 million in revenue per year.  The research also estimates that 2,869 men per day visit illicit massage parlors across Houston, most frequently between the hours of noon and 2:00 pm.

Bouche, Vanessa, and Sean M Crotty. “Estimating Demand for Illicit Massage Businesses in Houston, Texas.” Journal of Human Trafficking 4, no. 4 (2017): 279–97.

Organized crime is responsible for the growing number of illicit massage businesses that profit from manipulation, loansharking, debt bondage, and coercion. Some networks operate across multiple states and evade law enforcement by using complex money laundering and tax evasion tactics.


Information provided by Dale Consulting.

Life inside a brothel is horrific. Often women both live and work in the brothel and are subject to forced drug use, rape, beatings, and torture. Traffickers use force, fraud, and coercion to keep women from leaving or reaching out for help. The following slide is one letter we received that described life in a brothel.


case study:  Angela Day SPA

Located at 5818 Southwest Freeway, Angela Day Spa operated as a business front that illegally trafficked Thai women. When men walked in to buy sex, women would come line up at the window in the lobby.


Trafficked women lived inside the brothel and were sometimes forced to work 24 hour days.  Traffickers kept the victims' identification documents in a safe. They told the women that they would be deported if they were arrested with the documents.


This brothel had a control room with screens and video cameras. Surveillance also screened the entrances and rooms for control of victims and protection from violent sex buyers.


During an Elijah Rising Van Tour, one attendee recognized the name of the landowner. After the landowner evicted the managers of Angela Day Spa, Elijah Rising was able to use the property as our main headquarters for several years.


"The Asian sex trafficking market landscape is changing, new prostitution models are emerging. Hostess bars (room salons), doumi services, and high-class escort services marketed through private social apps are growing in the U.S.    As the massage parlor brothel model gains attention, new emerging models will become prevalent."

Dale, Y., & Levesque, A. (2017). Beyond massage parlors: Exposing the Korean commercial sex market in the United States. Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, 2(4).