144: The Deadly Nightshade and the Wealth of Nations

Good Folks,

Before–like those impressive clouds which floated softly above us yesterday afternoon—what we talked about in our previous post (Post 143) drifts out of awareness, I want to come back to the vital issue Ruskin raised therein, an issue which permeates all his work after 1860: his insistence that all economic transactions into which we enter, whether as consumers, participants, or producers, are moral affairs, all have imbedded in them, subject to how their complex variables are arranged, either life-enhancing or life-damaging elements, his argument being that, once we have recognized and accepted this fact, it becomes incumbent for all of us in all our future transactions to consider the likely helpful or hurtful effects for others as well as ourselves in such exchanges. Making or exchanging money, in other words, is not simply about making and exchanging money; it is about helping or hurting human beings–olthers and ourselves.

To place the issue in stark relief in that post, I outlined only some of the life-damaging effects which attend the production and consumption of pornography, intending, as I did this, to jar the idea, held by many casual consumers of this corrosive product, that theirs is but an innocuous indulgence, a not-very-serious choice of how to a few moments (sometimes more!) of their day. But, only a modest amount of analysis quickly showed that such indulgence was anything but inncuous, for, in whatever direction we looked, we saw that everyone who participated in the pornographic enterprise was demeaned, their hearts, minds, and souls damaged in one way or another (sometimes in many ways at once).

Then, a day after the post went up, fors stepped in with a front page instance in The New York Times which, or so it seemed to me, contained an example with the ability to make Ruskin’s lesson indelible, a report on another industry (not unrelated to pornography alas) exposing what really goes on in those massage parlors which, catering all but  exclusively to men, thrive in nearly every state in this fine nation. (Note: In truth, it is unfair to signal out the US; such parlors thrive in the UK and in many of the cities of Europe; in Asia, they are almost as common as children.) As you read the story, note that the massage parlor waiting room that is depicted is, as intended, to look lovely–comfortable, clean, a place where, certainly, nothing untoward ever lurks. (Note: I’ve shortened the article some)

Behind Illicit Massage Parlors Lie a Vast Crime Network and Modern Indentured Servitude

A massage parlor in Jupiter, Fla., where the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, was charged for soliciting prostitution. [Photo credit: Saul Martinez, The New York Times]
  • She was 49, a recent immigrant and deeply in debt to a loan shark back home in China when she answered an employment ad three years ago that promised thousands of dollars a month, but offered no job description. She realized too late that she had been tricked into working at a massage parlor in Flushing, Queens, New York, where besides kneading backs, she was expected to sexually service up to a dozen men a day.

Some of the clients were violent, she said, and the boss charged $10 a day for her to sleep on a sofa in a room at the parlor where rats nibbled on her food. “The customers were very terrible,” said the woman, who, ashamed of the stigma of her former profession, asked that her name not be used. “After you perform a service, they would find an excuse to take the money away.” They would also, she said, “do even worse things.”

In strip malls across the country, neon signs and brightly colored placards promise hot stones, acupuncture, and shiatsu with photos of women or couples receiving relaxing shoulder rubs. But a traditionally Asian form of therapeutic relaxation with deep roots in big-city Chinatowns has spun off a different kind of massage parlor that has little to do with traditional remedies. It has exploded into a $3 billion-a-year sex industry that relies on pervasive secrecy, close-knit ownership rings, and tens of thousands of mostly foreign women ensnared in a form of modern indentured servitude.

The frequently middle-aged women who work in parlors with names like “Orchids of Asia” and “Rainbow Spa,” are often struggling to pay off high debts to family members, loan sharks, labor traffickers, and lawyers who help them file phony asylum claims. In some cases, their passports are taken and their illegal immigration status keeps them further in the shadows, with some women rotated every 10 days to two weeks between spas operated by the same owners. Forced to pay for their own supplies and even their own condoms, many women must sleep on the same massage tables where they service customers and cook on hot plates in cramped kitchens or on back steps.

“We stopped thinking about just cages, bars, and chains as the means of coercion,” said John Richmond, the State Department’s top anti-trafficking official. “All these places thrive on using nonviolent forms of coercion.”

The arrest warrent filed against Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots professional football team — and the solicitation charges filed against nearly 300 men in multiple jurisdictions as part of the same case — recently riveted national attention on a stretch of Highway 1 along Florida’s Treasure Coast near Palm Beach which is dotted with strip malls, gas stations, and sapphire ocean views. Across the region, parlors were empty and many frequent clients were phoning their lawyers, wondering if more warrants were going to drop.

Law enforcement officials said there are an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors across the country, from Orlando to Los Angeles. The epicenter of this national underground is the bustling Chinatown in Flushing, in New York City’s borough of Queens. Women — typically Chinese, but also Korean, Thai and East European — arrive at Kennedy International Airport, learn the trade and are sent out to places like Virginia, Iowa, Texas and Florida. Women are recruited locally through ads in Chinese-language newspapers or over the social network WeChat.

“Flushing is the center of the network,” said Lori Cohen, director of “Sanctuary for Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative,” which has interviewed around 1,000 massage workers over the past five years and helped the 49-year-old immigrant who was sexually assaulted leave the business after she was arrested. “They are showing up in different parts of the country, but all of them have addresses in Flushing, Queens,” she said.

Regularly, the women are paid just a sliver of the $60 or more a client pays for an hourlong massage. Their real money — and chance at a better life — comes in the form of tips. A 60-year-old former massage worker from Taiwan, who agreed to be identified only by the nickname she commonly uses, “Tina,” said she was lured into working at a massage parlor in New York a decade ago by the travel agency broker who helped secure her visa to travel to the United States. “People come here and don’t have a place to live,” she said. “These places offer a place, and it seems like a nice idea. They say, ‘It’s not safe to keep your passport on hand,’ and so ask to hold the passport.”

Tina was arrested several times before getting out of the business. She feels comparatively lucky. One close friend was spirited away to Texas by traffickers, she said, had her passport taken and was forced to see eight to 12 customers a day. One day the tearful calls she often received from this friend came to an abrupt halt. “A lot of the businesses that look like either nail salons or massage places, especially the places that offer massage, are where bad things are happening,” she said. “100 percent of it is controlled by organized crime.”

The ubiquity of the massage parlors offers an accessibility and sheen of normalcy not offered by traditional brothels. And as the massage parlors have expanded even into small-town America in recent years, meticulously detailed review sites like Rubmaps have served as the Yelp and Foursquare of the illicit parlor business, with graphic anatomical descriptions of the women and explicit breakdowns of the sexual services proffered.

Even at illicit parlors, owners and managers can claim ignorance of the additional services offered by employees behind closed doors. The evidence gathered during raids and searches often tells a far different tale. The police say it is common to find ledgers tracking the number of “dates” women have had, as was found in a bust in Dallas in 2016. In one case in Kansas, a search of the premises yielded a notebook with handwritten Chinese-English translations that “included sexually explicit phrases such as ‘did you bring condom’ and ‘happy ending.’”

A federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because this person is involved in active cases, said that the most common method for smuggling women from Asian countries was either a fraudulent tourist visa or a fraudulent work visa, such as for nursing work. Many came as students, then overstayed to work in the sex industry. Many women arrive in the United States from China bearing heavy debt burdens and try to find work in restaurants or nail salons. But the money isn’t good enough for the five-figure debts weighing them down. The massage jobs are presented as opportunities for fast, easy money.

“They will talk about how they used to work in a restaurant and it was really hard physically and they couldn’t make that much money, and then they heard from somebody or saw an ad saying they could make a lot more money in a massage parlor,” said Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s exploitation intervention project in New York.

One reason the Asian massage parlors remain so poorly understood is the extreme reluctance of the women to speak with police or even with their own lawyers. “Even though I’ve represented many, many women arrested in unlicensed massage parlors, because of the level of distrust of [everyone working in the business], many of whom are undocumented, they don’t trust even their attorneys to know what’s actually happened to them,” Ms. Latimer said.

Some fear retaliation by traffickers on their families in China, and some feel morally indebted to those who helped find them a job, said Chris Muller, the director of training and external affairs at Restore NYC, an anti-sex-trafficking organization. “This is a powerful exploitation tactic,” he said. “Any favor implies that there is going to be a payment back. ‘Look at what I have done for you. I found you a job. I found you a place to live and this is how you repay me?’”

Above the on-site managers almost always is a person who appears on paperwork as the massage parlor owner, but even that person is often just a frontman running a shell company. The payouts from the shell company go to what is legally known as the “beneficial owner.” “Very little is known of the behind-the-scene owners,” one investigator said. “They are hiding behind the shell companies, hiding behind…fake people.”

The Florida Department of Health disciplined 62 massage parlors or therapists last fiscal year, up from 14 the year before. The agency receives upward of 300 complaints about unlicensed massage facilities every year. Department inspection reports described the women inside the spas as living in tight quarters cluttered with essentials, including rolling bath carts stuffed with toiletries, shelves lined with coffee mugs and cooking pots and stashes of assorted snacks. The women slept on individual cots and in some cases appeared to keep their belongings and blankets inside locked plastic trunks.

Bob Houston, a former F.B.I. agent, who now works as a consultant to combat trafficking, said that Thai traffickers often employ elaborate schemes to help women intended for the massage industry apply for tourist visas. The traffickers create false back stories, giving women the appearance of an established life at home, including a spouse and bank account, all to help them qualify for a visa. They even produce fake diplomas from massage schools. The tab is usually $40,000 to $60,000 to come to America,” he said. “And so, these women owe a bunch of money to the people who recruited them.”

In December, thirty-six people in Minnesota were convicted for their roles in a Thai sex trafficking ring that shuttled hundreds of women from Bangkok to cities across the United States, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Minneapolis.

The women, referred to as “flowers” by the criminal organizations, were forced to work at massage parlors with no choice about where, when, and with whom they performed sex acts until their debts were paid off.


[Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting from Jupiter, Fla; Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.]


The Deadly Nightshade

Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna (“beautiful lady”) or as deadly nightshade is a perennial herbaceous plant in the nightshade family–which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. It is native to Europe, North America, North Africa, and Western Asia. Its beauty is seductive because its leaves and berries are extremely toxic when ingested, causing, among other deleterious effects, dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, increased heart rate, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rashes, severe dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, confusion, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and convulsions.


Ruskin (from “The Veins of Wealth,” Unto this Last, second essay:

And these are not, observe, merely moral or pathetic attributes of [economic transaction] which the seeker of riches may, if he chooses, despise. They are, literally and sternly, material attributes of [exchange], depreciating or exalting, incalculably, the monetary signification of the [money given or made in them]. One mass of money is the outcome of action which has created, another, of
action which has annihilated, ten times as much in the gathering of it–such and such strong hands have been paralyzed, as if they had been numbed by nightshade; so many strong men‘s [or women’s] courage broken, so many productive operations hindered…

[In brief, that] which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin, a wrecker‘s handful of coin gleaned from the beach to which he was beguiled, a camp-follower‘s bundle of rags unwrapped from the breasts of
goodly soldiers dead, the purchase-pieces of potter‘s fields, wherein shall be buried together the citizen and the stranger.

Wealth, unjustly established, has assuredly injured the nation in which it exists during its establishment, and, unjustly directed, injure it yet more during its existence. But…wealth, justly established, benefits the nation in the course of its establishment, and, nobly used, aids it yet more in its existence.

And therefore, the idea that directions can be given for the gaining of wealth, irrespectively of the consideration of its moral sources, or that any general and technical law of purchase and gain can be set down for national practice, is perhaps the most insolently futile of all that ever beguiled men through their vices.

So far as I know, there is not in history record of anything so disgraceful to the human intellect as the modern idea that the commercial text, “Buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest,”represents–or under any circumstances could represent–an an available principle of national economy. “Buy in the cheapest
market?” Yes: but what made your market cheap? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after a fire, and bricks may be cheap in your streets after an earthquake, but fire and earthquake may not therefore be national benefits!

“Sell in the dearest?” Yes, truly; but what made your market dear? You sold your bread well to-day. Was it to a dying man who gave his last coin for it and will never need bread more, or to a rich man who to-morrow will buy your farm over your head, or to a soldier on his way to pillage the bank in which you have put your fortune?

None of these things you can know. One thing only you can know: namely, whether this dealing of yours is a just and faithful one–which is all you need concern yourself about respecting it; sure thus to have done your own part in bringing about ultimately in the world a state of things which will not issue in pillage or in death.

Buy and sell well out there!

Until next time.


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