Efforts to crack down on illicit massage parlors have had unintended consequences

Sacramento County attempts to strike a balance with new regulations, but activists say more services needed

Illicit massage parlors pose a challenge to local officials. Constituents want them gone, but sex workers and authorities say they are one of the safer environments to work.

Illicit massage parlors pose a challenge to local officials. Constituents want them gone, but sex workers and authorities say they are one of the safer environments to work.


This is an extended and updated version of a story from the June 16, 2016, issue.

The undercover operation went down like so many of its kind.

Outside of a low-roofed strip mall on Arden Way, in the Highland Oaks neighborhood, Sacramento County sheriff’s detectives waited as a plainclothes colleague opened the glass door of the Bamboo Garden massage parlor in October of last year. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the officer negotiated a $50 sex act with the business’ sole proprietor, a woman the sheriff’s department declined to identify. Then, with his “genitals exposed,” the officer informed the woman she would be going to jail for prostitution and other charges.

It was one of 63 massage parlor stings the sheriff’s department conducted in recent years, according to county figures.

Between 2014 and 2015, 45 businesses were cited for prostitution-related offenses, sexual battery and multiple violations of the county codes that govern massage establishments, the figures state. Twenty-one businesses had their licenses revoked in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015—more than five times the previous year’s number.

“Twenty-one is a lot,” said Sacramento County tax and finance manager Guy Fuson, who helped craft new business restrictions for massage establishments. “But the problem with enforcement is these operations are not easy to do.”

The other problem, at least according to sex-workers’ rights groups and harm-reduction specialists, is that they cause more harm than good.

“I can’t tell you how many of these people may want another job, but taking away their job doesn’t do that,” said Kristen DiAngelo, an activist and onetime escort who founded the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. “When starting all over, people get hurt. They take more risks … and end up in the mode of survival sex now.”

It’s a complicated issue.

Local officials face intense pressure from their constituents to crack down on brothels hiding in plain sight behind storefronts or camouflaged in residences. That pressure trickles up to the elected officials and back down to local agencies charged with making the problem places go away.

In turn, the political and legal responses are often sold as cracking down on exploitation and human trafficking, a politically charged term that refers to victims being moved across geographical boundaries to engage in prostitution against their wills.

But, at least locally, authorities say there is no connection between illicit massage parlors and human trafficking.

“None of our cases involve human trafficking,” said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull.

Meanwhile, the critics say that enforcement without services makes sex workers potentially more vulnerable to trafficking—by pushing them out of semi-controlled environments into the streets.

“This does not address abuse,” DiAngelo said. “It’s all a game. And it’s a political game.”

It’s a game DiAngelo knows well.

Disconnected from her family and in need of money, DiAngelo was first introduced to sex work as a young woman in the late 1970s, when a friend got her a job at a local massage parlor in Del Paso Heights.

On a recent trip to deliver food to a homeless encampment that included undocumented sex workers, DiAngelo and Julie Debbs, another former sex worker turned activist, recalled that there were several such businesses operating as fronts for prostitution in Sacramento back then.

The conditions weren’t ideal, they say, but they were more stable than working outside on “the stroll,” where workers have to make split-second decisions about whether someone is a client or predator.

But then local governments started using zoning and business codes to crack down on these establishments and, DiAngelo said, “dumped us out on the streets.”

The ripples followed.

By the end of the following decade, prostitution arrests had climbed 42 percent in the state—to 23,056 in 1990—according to an analysis of California Department of Justice data. In Sacramento County, prostitution arrests hit 1,277 in 1988, an increase of 81 percent in seven years. (A similar enforcement surge occurred two years ago when federal authorities raided myRedBook, a San Francisco-based escort website that sex workers used to screen clients and arrange paid liaisons.)

Along with the jump in arrests, the danger increased, too.

After the brothel raids of the ‘70s, DiAngelo says she was struggling to make it on the streets when a girlfriend put her in touch with the man who became her first pimp. After a few local tricks, DiAngelo was put to work at a San Jose truck stop.

“That’s how I first got trafficked,” she said.

A long cycle of physical and sexual abuse followed.

Local authorities acknowledge that parlors are one of the less-dangerous environments to conduct sex work.

“It’s sort of a controlled environment,” said Lt. Jason Ramos, who commands the sheriff’s department’s special investigations and intelligence bureau. “Guys go in and what you get is partly dictated by the house. But on the street, it’s almost like all bets are off.”

In an interview SN&R conducted last year with Ramos and two of his SIIB investigators, Detective Earl Helfrich said the parlor raids he’s participated in usually turn up undocumented foreign workers from Asian countries, but no traffickers.

“All the ones we’ve done, we’ve yet to turn anyone [against their employers] or get them to say they’re doing it against their will,” he said.

Instead, the narrative typically goes like this: The women started working at the parlor shortly after arriving in the country. They often owed some money to an immigration attorney, but continued to work after they paid off their debts, for personal financial gain. After they get arrested, Helfrich said it’s not unusual for them to move to a different area and find work in another illicit parlor.

That can make interdiction efforts feel like a game of whack-a-mole.

But to what end, DiAngelo wonders. Criminal charges only make it more difficult for sex workers to leave prostitution, and arrests sow distrust among those who might otherwise want to report violence and exploitation.

“If they saw you as a helping force, they’d be running to you,” DiAngelo said.

Some officials says they’ve gotten the message.

At a joint legislative hearing last week in Sacramento, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told state lawmakers that the government’s responsibilities don’t end after exploiters are prosecuted.

Describing a recent case, she said authorities had cracked down on a criminal ring of 18 massage parlors, run by Asian women from five families. Fifteen women from China were being circulated through the various fronts. O’Malley said these women were provided victims’ advocates and civil lawyers to help them pursue visas, as well as an unspecified portion of the illegal business’ seized assets.

“We need an aftercare plan for when we take down the trafficker, and can’t just leave [the victims] out in the cold,” she told lawmakers.

Bay Area sex workers have criticized O’Malley for not quite living up to that message. Meanwhile, Alameda County is currently roiling from a scandal involving numerous officers at three law enforcement agencies and the ongoing sexual relationships they allegedly had with a sex worker, including when she was underage.

The East Bay Express broke this particular story, but it’s a common one that individual sex workers recite when asked why they don’t trust law enforcement.

Crackdowns on massage parlors in Sacramento County, meanwhile, have slowed to a crawl.

There are currently 176 massage establishments in the unincorporated county, the most in at least a decade, according to business license data collected by the county.

Local officials are careful to point out that most of these businesses don’t operate illegally, but the terrain is constantly shifting. “There is a lot of churn in that industry,” Fuson said.

Prostitution sweeps and massage parlor stings can be subject to the “whims of the political climate,” acknowledged Ramos, whose bureau is responsible for investigating everything from murders for hire to state and federal gaming violations.

“Obviously, we’re driven by the board of supervisors to a certain extent,” he said. “The political climate is fluid.”

Fuson said the vice raids can take a backseat to higher-priority investigations, like the recent fentanyl overdoses that ended the lives of more than a dozen area residents.

According to sheriff’s spokesman Turnbull, the department hasn’t conducted any massage parlor investigations since the October 2015 sting at Bamboo Garden.

While the department declined to identify the arrested woman, online reviews posted to a website called Rub Maps just prior to the raid described her as an Asian woman in her 30s.

According a sheriff’s department summary, the proprietor denied the allegations against her. Nearly $6,000 in cash was seized from her wallet and she was booked into jail. A new salon has since taken its place, and has good reviews on Yelp, none of which indicate any illegal activity.

For now, the county is hoping two recently adopted policies filter out illegal operators.

In April, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved a policy that freezes a location from reopening as a massage business for two years if it’s been raided for county code violations. The policy toughens an older one adopted in May 2014, which enacted the business-specific moratorium for one year.

At that time, a finance department staff report said that illicit parlors tend to have the same basic layout: outer windows that are usually tinted and a door behind the reception desk that is typically locked. Because of the layout, the staff report stated, “it costs very little to ‘flip’ ownership from one illicit operator to another.”

“It doesn’t matter what name you place on the sign. … A lot of these places that are less legitimate look less legitimate,” Fuson said. “If illicit acts happen at a massage business, we want to be able to stop it and stop it from happening again.”

While the above policy targets business operators, another one adopted last week is aimed at the property owners who may be inclined to turn a blind eye.

During a brief hearing on June 8, supervisors adopted tougher zoning regulations that restrict where a massage establishment can go. Last week’s unanimous vote made the county one of the latest municipalities to align itself with Assembly Bill 1147, the Massage Therapy Act.

The law took effect in January 2015. Along with doubling the training requirement for certain massage practitioners and expanding the role of the California Massage Therapy Council, a private corporate entity that makes its tax-exempt millions through the “voluntary” certification of massage professionals, the legislation also granted broader zoning powers to local governments to limit or prevent massage businesses from establishing in their jurisdictions.

Under the compromise policies adopted by supervisors, exemptions were granted to sole- or dual-owner establishments, establishments that only employ CMTC-certified professionals and any business where massage therapy is a secondary focus, like health clubs and medical offices.

(Fuson said it was these businesses that caused problems 20 years ago. Like a tanning salon that also offered massage therapy, Fuson said, “only the tanning beds never worked and everybody got a massage.”)

Every other property owner has to obtain a $1,162 minor use permit from the county to operate a massage business. They also have to observe new zoning restrictions similar to ones in place for smoke shops and adult novelty stores, requiring massage establishments to be spaced at least 1,000 feet away from each other as well as schools, parks, churches and libraries, and 100 feet from residential or mixed agriculture-residential zones.

Any existing property not in compliance of the above rules has a year to obtain an exemption permit for $1,081.58.

“This is a long time coming,” B.J. Pitts, a certified massage therapist concerned about unlawful practitioners, told supervisors.

The new restrictions were based, in part, on concerns about human trafficking.

“Illicit massage businesses are a magnet for criminal activity including prostitution and human trafficking, and are an ongoing law enforcement problem that can be a detriment to County communities,” a county staff report asserted.

DiAngelo has her own theory.

“It’s almost like the county wants its cut,” she said.