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The term "massage parlour" (British English) or "massage parlor" (American English) refers to a front for prostitution, and was popularized in what is known as "the Massage Scandals of 1894". In 1894 the British Medical Association (BMA) inquired into the education and practice of massage practitioners in London, and found that prostitution was commonly associated with unskilled workers and debt, often working with forged qualifications. In response, legitimate massage workers formed the Society of Trained Masseuses (now known as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy), with an emphasis on high academic standards and a medical model for massage training.
Particularly where prostitution is illegal, massage parlors (as well as saunas, spas or similar establishments) may be fronts for places of prostitution. Illegal brothels disguised as massage parlors are common in the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, the UAE and many other countries.
Alternatively, the massages at certain massage parlors may have a "happy ending", meaning that the massage ends with the client receiving a sexual release. In addition to a "happy ending" service, given the restrictions imposed upon most striptease venues, some erotic massage venues now also offer a service where the client can masturbate himself while watching an artist perform a striptease.
Even though Thailand is rather well known for its unique spa experiences and particularly healthy and non-sexual traditional Thai massages, this section refers to a different type of massage parlor commonly associated with the term in Thailand, sexual massage.
The internal human traffic of Thai females consists mostly of 12-16 year-olds from the hill tribes of the North and Northeast of the country. Most of these 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 to 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 from forty sex establishments in eighteen border provinces that were actually brothels masquerading as karaoke bars, restaurants and traditional massage parlors. In some venues though, there were no Thai women at all. In mid-1997, an increasing number of young girls, more than 60% of which were under 18 years-old, were entering Thailand through the Mae Sai checkpoint into massage parlors, brothels, etc.
Fifty percent of the prostituted women in Chiang Rai are Burmese. Thousands of indigenous Burmese women from Shan State in the North and 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. The Policing and Crime Act of 2009 made it illegal to pay for sex with a prostitute who has been "subjected to force", and this is a strict liability offence, which means that 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 the UK.
In 2005, it was reported that, in Manchester, there were around eighty "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 followed a meeting between ministers and newspaper and advertising industry representatives. It also 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, 2007: "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 August 2012, the Manchester Evening News reinstated massage parlour ads. Many other local newspapers who had initially withdrawn these advertisements had already realised they were a lucrative source of income and had begun advertising again.
The massage therapy industry in the US is continuously increasing, with a projected 19% increase between 2008 and 2019. U.S. consumers spend between $4 and $6 billion on visits to massage therapists, as of 2009. As of 2007, thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia required some type of licencing for massage therapists. Most states in the United States have licensing requirements that must be met before a practitioner can use the title "massage therapist", and some states and municipalities require a license to practice any form of massage. If a state does not have any massage laws then a practitioner need not apply for a license with the state.
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 street walking to "indoor" markets (including massage parlors and escort agencies), a geographical change in the concentration of sex work, and the growth of a more expensive luxury market. In January 2011, an investigation by Time Out New York found New York City massage parlors charging a "house fee" (which is usually paid, up front to the parlor's mama-san) of $60 to $100 per visit, with an extra tip for the sex workers (usually around $40) for a massage and a basic “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 by the male client, but, in some parlors, further contact could be negotiated.
As of 2005, more than forty Asian massage parlors (mostly Korean) operated as fronts for in-call brothels in Washington, D.C., and each earned an average of $1.2 million a year. More than 200 other massage parlors (that did not openly advertise and were operated largely out of private homes and apartments) serving mainly Latino clients made an average of at least $800,000 a year.
Sex acts performed at massage parlors can range from a basic "happy ending" to oral sex or "full service". Some, mostly Asian, massage parlors offer a naked "table shower" or an "Asian body slide" as well as access to a sauna before a massage and/or any sexual activity takes place.
Many massage parlor operations in the USA have switched from advertising on Craigslist to advertising on Backpage because of recent pressure from outside groups. Other publications in major metropolitan areas of the USA have been under pressure in the past to not advertise massage parlor operations as well.
Law enforcement in the USA does try to shut down or fine massage parlor establishments that break federal, state or local laws. The penalty for breaking the law in these instances can be very high in some cases, especially cases that involve human trafficking.