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Particularly where brothels are illegal, massage parlours (as well as saunas, spas or similar establishments) may be fronts for places of prostitution. Illegal brothels disguised as massage parlours are common in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, UAE and many other countries.
Alternatively the massage may have a "happy ending", meaning that it ends with the client being masturbated, thus providing a light version of prostitution.
However, not all massage parlors are involved in prostitution.
Even though Thailand is rather well known for its unique spa experience and particularly healthy and non-sexual traditional Thai massage, this section refers to a different type of massage parlor commonly associated with the term in Thailand, Sexual massage.
The internal traffic of Thai females consists mostly of 12-16 year olds from hill tribes of the North/ NorthEast. Most of the internally trafficked girls are sent to closed brothels, which operate under prison-like conditions. Thousands of women from rural Thailand, China, Laos, Burma and Cambodia are sold to brothels in Bangkok or in other countries by "job brokers," who often operate in organized international syndicates. One million women from Burma, southern China, Laos, and Vietnam have been trafficked into Thailand.
In 1996, foreign women made up the majority of prostitutes in 40 sex establishments in 18 border provinces that are brothels masquerading as karaoke bars, restaurants and traditional massage parlours. In some venues, there are no Thai women at all. In mid-1997 an increasing number of young girls, more than 60% of which are under 18 years old, were entering Thailand through Mae Sai checkpoint into massage parlors, brothels etc.
50% of the prostituted women in Chiang Rai are Burmese. Thousands of indigenous Burmese women from Shan State in the north and from Keng Tung in Eastern Burma have been sold into brothels in Bangkok and throughout Thailand.
In the UK, prostitution itself is legal, but associated activities such as kerb crawling, soliciting in public, keeping a brothel and pimping are not; and the Policing and Crime Act 2009 makes it illegal to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been "subjected to force" and this is a strict liability offence (clients can be prosecuted even if they didn’t know the prostitute was forced). (see Prostitution in the United Kingdom).
Many illegal brothels are disguised as "massage parlours".
In 2005, it was reported that, in Manchester, there were around 80 "massage parlours" which were fronts for prostitution and that the police ignored those establishments, focusing instead on reducing street prostitution.
On October 12, 2005, the Evening News reported that "A self-confessed pimp walked free from court after a judge was told police had 'turned a blind eye' to organised prostitution in massage parlours in Manchester."
In December 2007, the Manchester Evening News removed all advertisements for massage parlours from its personal columns. The move follows a meeting between ministers and newspaper and advertising industry representatives. It followed comments by Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, in the House of Commons on October 25 that some local newspapers were promoting slavery by running sex adverts for foreign women.
The meeting between the government and news and advertising industries - chaired by Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker - included Ms Harman, Margaret Hodge, a junior minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Solicitor General Vera Baird, Newspaper Society Director David Newell, Christopher Graham from the Advertising Standards Authority, Baroness Buscombe of the Advertising Association and Roger Wisbey of the Committee of Advertising Practice.
Mr Coaker said after the meeting, on November 1[year needed]: "We agreed a number of important steps today, and will continue to work together.
"The Government will continue to work with the Police and Local Authorities, and the Newspaper Society has committed to strengthen its guidance to local papers on what adverts to accept, and to raise awareness of this link to trafficking.
"This is just one strand of a range of initiatives, which together will work to eradicate this intolerable trade once and for all."
In Rhode Island, prostitution was legal "behind closed doors" from 1980 until 2009. For this reason, massage parlors, also known as "spas" were known to be involved in prostitution. (See Prostitution in Rhode Island.)
In New Jersey, there are an estimated 525 massage parlors acting as fronts for the prostitution industry.
An ongoing study of the prostitution business in New York City by the Sociology Department of Columbia University found that between 1991 and 2010, the rise of the internet and mobile phones “have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade,” with a shift from streetwalking to “indoor” market (including massage parlors and escort agencies), a geographical change in the concentration of sex work, and the growth of a more expensive luxury market.
An investigation by Time Out New York in January 2011 found New York City massage parlors charging from $60 to $100 per visit, with an extra tip for the sex workers (usually $40) for a massage and “happy ending” (or manual stimulation of the penis until orgasm). Most of the massage parlors reviewed were very strict about the female masseuse not being touched back by the male client, but in some parlors, further contact could be negotiated.
In Washington, D.C., an Asian massage parlor can earn up to $1.2 million a year.