The killings of eight people at three massage businesses in Georgia have focused attention on an industry that has long been a target of law enforcement scrutiny.
Although many massage parlors are just that — places to get a massage — experts say there are more than 9,000 such businesses in the United States that are fronts for prostitution, and that many of the women working there are being exploited.
Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, stressed that the Atlanta Police Department had not had any calls to the two spas in her city where the shootings occurred on Tuesday.
“We are not about to get into victim-blaming, victim-shaming here,” she said. “And as far as we know in Atlanta, these are legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar, not on the radar of A.P.D.”
The owners of the three businesses where the shootings occurred could not be reached for comment. The suspect, Robert Aaron Long, told the police that he suffered from sexual addiction and viewed the spas as a temptation. The police said he suggested to detectives that he frequented such businesses but it was not clear if he had targeted for attack specific spas where he had been a client.
In 2020, Street Grace, a faith-based anti-trafficking organization, used a popular website used by those who frequent such spas to identify 165 illicit massage businesses in Georgia, more than three quarters of which were in the greater Atlanta area. The organization set up cameras outside the shops and reviewed the comments on the review website, RubMaps, to estimate that the illicit massage industry in Georgia has more than 1,000 customers a day and an estimated annual gross revenue of more than $42 million.
Yvonne Chen, an advocate for sex trafficking victims who works with Asian women who work at massage businesses, said not all of them are willing to provide sex to their clients, but those who refuse are often attacked by their customers.
“I don’t think there’s enough discussion of the violence that comes from the buyers,” she said.
Customers often go on membership-only review websites where they describe in detail what sexual services employees at a given spa are willing to provide. The two spas targeted in the attacks in Atlanta, Aromatherapy and Gold Spa, have dozens of comments on RubMaps.
Law enforcement agencies across the country frequently conduct raids and occasionally shut businesses down, but nimble spa owners frequently set up shop elsewhere, according to law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking advocates. The spa owners generally run as a loose network, with women often spending only a few months at one spa before moving to another state to work at another, they said. Owners often hold on to employees’ passports and require them to pay rent as live-in workers.
The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization, estimates that the industry generates at least $2.5 billion a year in revenues.
Many of the women who work at the salons are lured there with promises of good jobs or travel visas to the United States, and only find out later that the job involves offering sex for tips. They are often so indebted financially by the time they arrive, that they see no way out, Ms. Chen said.