In one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods, just a few blocks from the Brooklyn federal courthouse, a shady massage parlor is hidden in plain view.
The Ming Happy Spa on Montague Street, conspicuously open until 1 a.m. seven nights a week, is next door to a high-end women’s boutique and operates an innocuous second-floor storefront that sees a steady stream of well-dressed male clientele late into the night.
The alleged illicit massage business in the upscale neighborhood is one of at least 629 others currently operating across the five boroughs — a network of illegal enterprises so vast, they outnumber Starbucks 2 to 1 citywide, according to data from Heyrick Research.
For every Starbucks that’s in the five boroughs, there are at least two IMBs. In Queens, which has at least 269 open brothels, the illicit businesses outnumber Starbucks 5 to 1, the data from the intelligence-driven counter-trafficking organization that focuses exclusively on the illicit massage industry shows.
Like many other IMBs, the Ming Happy Spa looks innocent enough from Montague Street’s sidewalk. Mainstream chains like UPS and CityMD neighbor the business on the bustling block and stock art of men, women and couples receiving luxurious massages are displayed on the windows alongside the business’s phone number, hours and address.
But earlier this summer, a local teenager in search of an affordable massage after a boxing session at Gleason’s Gym wandered in and noticed the hallmarks of a place offering more than spa services.
“[There was] only one woman working there. She asked me what I wanted and I simply said an hour-long back massage,” 17-year-old Matthew Kodsi, who was 16 at the time, told The Post.
“She asked me several times if I wanted anything ‘other than the massage,’ including a shower beforehand. I said no, just the massage.”
Kodsi, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for over 50 years, quickly started to notice other red flags.
“She requested payment upfront and tried negotiating a tip, starting at 40 percent, but I requested she keep it at 20 percent. The one-woman show, mixed with the strange negotiations of service and payment, made me uneasy,” the teen explained.
Once Kodsi was on the table, the worker received “half a dozen calls” during the first 20 minutes from a man she said was inebriated and “begging for an appointment” and about halfway through the massage, the man burst into the room and demanded services in slurred speech.
“She told him to wait in the street and he left to go back downstairs. It was very clear to me at that point that this particular parlor had gained a reputation amongst men looking for a certain attention late at night,” Kodsi said.
Kodsi’s mother Rachel Foster is the co-founder of the anti-trafficking group World Without Exploitation — so the teen grew up learning about what the sex trade looks like and helped start the group’s youth coalition.
“When I was in the space, it took me a moment but then I quickly connected the dots,” Kodsi said.
“There seemed to be no issue with teenagers going into the space and paying for whatever ‘services’ they were offering. If I had not been a WorldWE youth leader, making videos and educating kids about these issues, I’m not sure I would have picked up on what was happening in the way I did,” he continued.
“What this establishment does is normalize prostitution and suggest that, for a price, women can be bought by men so long as they have the financial resources to do so … The money paid for sex doesn’t buy the consent of these women, only their compliance.”
The Ming Happy Spa has a heavy online footprint advertising “sexy” “full-body” massages from “beautiful” “Asian masseuses.” On a popular sex buyer review website, a sort of Yelp for “happy ending” massage businesses, the location has over a dozen reviews, the most recent from Aug. 4.
In all of the reviews, the men claim they paid $60 for the massage and between $40 and $50 for the alleged sex act that came at the end and described in repulsive detail what groping they were allowed to do, how skilled the workers were and their overall rating of the experience. When reached by phone, the spa declined comment.
Hundreds of such businesses across the five boroughs, from the Upper East Side to Staten Island, are reviewed on the website and many of them allegedly sell full-service sex, not just post-massage masturbation, the reviews indicate.
Experts told The Post the prevalence of these establishments, and their ability to operate in plain sight with impunity, reflects an unofficial, citywide shift toward the decriminalization of the sex trade. It coincided with a push from City Hall and three district attorneys to no longer prosecute people in prostitution because many of them are forced into the trade either as children or out of economic desperation as adults.
While many anti-trafficking advocates, politicians and experts largely agree that people in prostitution shouldn’t be re-victimized with an arrest, they say unfettered demand is what keeps pimps and traffickers supplying a steady stream of trafficked women for sale and is what keeps the industry thriving. There is no indication that the women at Happy Ming were trafficked.
First revealed in The Post’s expose of an open-air sex market in East New York, arrests for sex buyers and pimps have all but dried up citywide, according to data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. In 2018, there were 1,130 arrests for patronizing a prostitute and promoting prostitution and in 2019, there were 623. By 2020, that number dropped by about 50 percent to 316 and as of July 16, there were just 30 such arrests citywide, the numbers show.
“When you remove any veil of accountability, the demand [for sex] is going to go up because now there’s zero fear of consequence. In many ways, by default you are almost putting a stamp of approval and acceptance on it and that to me is alarming,” Chris Muller-Tabanera, the national director of Heyrick Research, told The Post.
“What I think is often misunderstood in the broader conversation is, yes, we don’t want to keep arresting those who may already be vulnerable or exploited, but by taking all eyes off the industry, you’re giving a free pass to buyers, you’re almost giving your consent to it and [IMB] managers are probably just counting their money like giddy schoolboys.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has been vague about whether he supports full decriminalization, which would legalize the illicit spas and remove penalties for sex buyers, or partial decriminalization, which removes penalties for sex workers but still outlaws sex-buying, pimping and brothel-owning.
In March, the lame-duck mayor outlined a series of police reforms that included some proposed changes to how sex work is policed — but they didn’t specifically address illicit massage businesses or sex buying. Shortly after, the Coalition Against Women in Trafficking criticized the proposed policy changes, saying de Blasio is “de facto supporting sex-trade decriminalization, which would green-light sex-buying, sex tourism, commercial sex establishments and third-party profiteers.”
The NYPD did not return a request for comment seeking more information on the work they’re doing to arrest sex buyers and pimps and shut down IMBs, nor did City Hall.
A spokesperson for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office said they continue to “aggressively prosecute traffickers and offers services” to people in the sex trade but noted long-term investigations into the owners of IMBs and undercover operations “have proven challenging for various reasons, including the complex nature of those illegal enterprises.”
“The reality is that law enforcement alone cannot effectively address the intractable issue of massage parlors and prostitution; it requires a multi-agency approach or an amended legal framework,” the spokesperson said.
“In years past, specific community complaints have led to operations that shuttered some establishments but yielded very few trafficking cases. We have not received similar complaints in recent years.”
Yvonne Chen, the director of private sector engagement with the anti-child sex trafficking group ECPAT-USA, spent years working with Chinese women trafficked in IMBs and agreed the industry is incredibly complex and differs from traditional sex trafficking.
“I think it’s important to recognize that America is very westernized, and it is about the individual and it is about my own rights … but a lot of people are coming from communities, specifically in East Asian culture, [which is centered] around collectivism,” Chen told The Post.
She said the people who are trafficked in IMBs are often vulnerable immigrants who came to the US so they could make more money for their families or help sick relatives and are often tricked into working at massage businesses under the premise that they are traditional spas.
“So the first, like, first few days might be what they would consider normal, like nothing abnormal happened, they were treated well, everything was kind of fine and then there would be a special customer or an old customer that came in, that then ended up wanting extra services and that’s when a lot of the coercion would happen,” Chen explained.
“Exploiters or traffickers would say, ‘Well, you know, this is a customer, like, we want to make sure they’re happy, if they’re not happy, you know, we might take money out’ or ‘Don’t you want to support your family? This is really the only job’ or they might even threaten to tell their community, things like that and then some people might get assaulted, or raped or harassed and then after that comes a lot of the shame,” she continued.
“Shame is a word that I feel like in the English term doesn’t necessarily portray how heavy that is for someone … shame is so heavy and it can really paralyze someone into feeling like they can’t even share anything.”
Chen said the level of coercion trafficked women in IMBs face is much more nuanced than traditional trafficking and exploiters don’t need to rely on violence to keep victims under their control. In many instances, they threaten to report them to immigration or their families and tell them the police will deport them if they try to call them.
When police do target IMBs, Chen said oftentimes, there were more arrests for trafficked women than customers, which “caused a lot of distrust in the community.”
While arresting buyers and traffickers is one way to target the IMB industry, Chen said the people who end up trafficked need more options and services so their vulnerability isn’t targeted by exploiters.
“I think employment opportunities, living wage opportunities, and things like that should definitely be a focus,” Chen said.
“You can’t tell someone to leave a situation if you don’t have something else that’s better and I think that’s something that we have to acknowledge as a society.”
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