What’s a city to do when there is ample anonymous evidence on various websites that at least some of its inordinately large number of massage parlors are gaining a reputation for providing not massage, but sexual services?
That’s the dilemma facing the city of Warren where there are 10 massage parlors, many of which can be quickly referenced on Internet sites where customers rate the sexual services they have received.
City officials, however, say they are virtually powerless to build legal cases against the businesses, and those operators of the parlors who will talk to reporters deny that they are trafficking in sex. It is not a new problem, but one that is gaining increasing attention in a city that is losing population and is struggling to stabilize its neighborhoods.
The Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative is taking an active role, defining the issue as one of human trafficking and modern-day slavery of women in the sex trade. Members of MVOC have met with state and federal lawmakers to express their concern and seek support.
To the extent that women working in these massage parlors are providing sexual services, the massage parlor business in Warren may be — quite literally — a federal case. Even if the women aren’t being moved across state lines in the course of their employment, their are federal issues involved.
The Justice Department has in any number of cases charged massage parlor owners and employees with conspiring to use interstate facilities — that is telephone lines that transmit credit card information — in a racketeering enterprise, namely prostitution.
While the value of community activism and tougher local laws should not be minimized, federal law enforcement agents may have the bigger club and greater means of cracking down on illegitimate massage parlors.
Some defend the parlors as tax-paying businesses that should be left alone. And that is true, if the parlors are not breaking the law.
Unless or until the law is changed, however, prostitution is illegal.
Little wiggle room
While the evidence on the Internet is anonymous and insufficient to support criminal charges, it is explicit enough to leave little doubt that prostitution is taking place.
Warren is one of several dozens cities with its own thread on one website devoted to rating the sexual performance of various massage parlors and the women who work there. And those who post on such sites take their conversations seriously. Consider this posting by a site moderator when he thought that the conversation was getting off track: “Gentlemen: The purpose of this Forum is to provide for the exchange of information between Men on the subject of finding Women for Sex. Let’s get back to the subject.”
Warren police say they are following up on citizen complaints about massage parlors as houses of prostitution, but that making a case is a long, tedious process. Given demands of trying to make a case that could have a low probability of conviction, such an investigation may not be the best use of local manpower.
If the city is serious about cracking down, local police should be taking what they have to the feds. Maybe they already have.
Those conspiracy charges we mentioned earlier may sound innocuous, but they’re not. The charges carry maximum potential sentences of five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.
That’s enough time to make some people think twice about trying to make Warren the destination of choice for men seeking what’s known in the trade as a “happy ending.”