Johnson County activists target illicit massage parlors in efforts to curb sex trafficking

Massage parlors have been a focus for activists trying to stop sex trafficking in Johnson County. Photo credit Walker Larry. Used under a Creative Commons license.

It hasn’t reached noon yet, but even so the heat has begun to shimmer off the hoods and pickup truck beds at the Johnson County strip malls. Driver Pam Jensen cruises through one parking lot after another, pointing things out.

Here’s the place where she tried to talk to two out-of-place looking women carrying groceries, women that seemed scared and ready to bolt. Here’s another place with an isolated door and cameras in the back of a strip mall. Notice the big signs covering the windows. Notice the long open hours, she says.

Jensen, of Olathe, never used to pay much attention to such things. But ever since she became aware of the signs of sex trafficking, it’s impossible not to notice the massage parlors that dot Johnson County, she says.

“I can’t just not do something,” Jensen says of the plight of women who may have been brought into the country with a promise of legitimate work and are now being held against their will. “It’s corruption and it’s just right under our noses.”

It’s hardly news that some massage parlors serve as a front for prostitution. But this year, with a high-profile raid on a Florida parlor that alleged the owner of the New England Patriots as a customer, public attention has become more focused on an even darker side of the shady massage business: human trafficking.

It’s not just the massage business. The jailing and suicide of socialite Jeffrey Epstein and the multiple accusations that he trafficked in pre-teen girls continued to keep the topic in the news.

“Illicit massage is only one avenue of sex slavery. It’s the visible one,” says Mike Jensen, Pam’s husband and Johnson County activist. “Kansas has a huge problem. The only thing that works is to do something different than what we’re doing now and what we’re doing now is turning a blind eye to the demand.”

So the Jensens have set out to do something about it. Mike Jensen, founder of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Government, will use his experience in activism to attack the sex slavery business. It’s his hope that with tenacity and good cooperation between law enforcement, education and advocacy groups, sex trafficking will end.

Couple sees battle against sex trafficking as ‘long game’

That’s no small order and Jensen knows it. But the community organizer who stopped a cold storage plant using anhydrous ammonia from locating in Johnson County knows what it’s like to play the long game. He’s set up a coalition to help all those groups communicate with each other and, he hopes, form a unified action plan.

Admittedly, the end of sex trafficking is still a ways down the road. But in the meantime, the Jensens are looking hard at what to do about what they see as the main problem in Johnson County – illicit massage parlors.

Pam Jensen got involved about three years ago when she noticed a massage parlor a couple of miles from her house. About the same time, she attended a meeting for Exodus Cry, a Grandview non-profit whose purpose is to raise awareness of human trafficking.

After that, the Jensens began to watch the parlors with new eyes. “We would see out-of-town plates coming and going all day long,” he said. “And we’ve noticed that there is almost 100 percent men going in. A lot of times they would park across the street. They would look around, they would wear sunglasses. They just looked guilty. And we also noticed that a lot of times you never see the girls leaving the place,” Mike Jensen said. “You’d see a carload get out of the car and then they’d leave in the same car.” Workers living on-site is considered a sign of trafficking.

Advocates for the victims of trafficking say the line between prostitution by free choice and coercion into a form of slavery is not a particularly clear one. Lucy Bloom, executive director of Veronica’s Voice, an advocacy group in Kansas City, said people who think of illicit massage workers as people who have chosen prostitution aren’t considering what went into that so-called choice.

An unstable or abusive home life, deception, intimidation and threats all play a role, and the fear of being without an income or a home keeps them there, she said. The idea that it’s normal to buy sexual favors keeps the machine running, Bloom said.

“It is oppressed people who end up getting lured and groomed and broken into trafficking, and the normalization of the buying is the thing that keeps it happening,” Bloom said. “The goal at the end of the day is money.”

Barry Feaker, executive director of the Topeka Rescue Mission agrees. “We begin to see a common theme in many of these folks. There has been a system of taking away their rights and exploiting their vulnerabilities.” Feaker is also working against human trafficking. His group has been a model for Jensen.

It’s difficult to track exactly how many illicit parlors may be operating in the county. That becomes clear as the tour of massage sites continues.

There’s no way to tell, just by looking. Some fit the stereotype of a dingy place in a down-on-its-luck strip mall. But others are in newer shopping centers adjacent to everyday businesses. To someone who wants a massage from a reputable business, it would be hard to know what to expect once on the other side of those windows.

The American Massage Therapy Associations agrees that big signs covering the windows and doors are one red flag, as are long work days (10a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week) and the willingness to accommodate walk-in customers. Robert Precht, spokesman advises potential customers use the association’s index to look for reputable massage.

Big online platforms for illicit sex may be gone — but others have popped up

One way illicit parlors get traction is through websites. Although two big ones – Backpage.com and the Craigslist “erotic services” section – no longer exist, there are still online sites that offer, for a subscription, lists of parlors and reviews of their services.

One of those sites, RubMaps, lists massage parlors by city. A recent check of that site showed Olathe the leader with 30. Next was Overland Park with 19 (five of which were listed as closed). The site attributed two listings to the city of Shawnee, though the addresses on those locations are actually in Merriam. Leawood had four listings. Lenexa had eleven listings, all of which were noted as closed.

A listing on RubMaps doesn’t prove guilt, however, and they aren’t verified by the site’s administrator. RubMaps is also careful to say it has zero tolerance for underage sex or sex between non-consenting adults, and lists the phone number of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline.

In Kansas, city councils have some power over whether massage parlors can succeed. Kansas is only one of four states to not require statewide licenses for massage operators. All of that is left to the city ordinances, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to shut down illegal massage in Johnson County. For the operators, it’s easy to just move a few blocks to a more permissive city.

Lenexa offers a rare success story. The city was tipped off to alleged sexual activity at a massage parlor in 2013. After an undercover investigation, four parlors were found to be doing “happy ending” massages, said deputy city attorney MacKenzie Harvison.

The city overhauled its code after that. The police department now keeps track of which schools will be accepted for the requisite training hours, since workers were using diploma mills before. And stronger language was written holding the business owners responsible if illegal activity is found.

“The owners’ consistent position had been that they had no idea the therapists were doing anything,” because they are independent contractors, Harvison said.

“We feel like it’s worked a lot better,” she said of the new code.

There were hints of human trafficking in some of those places, she said. “I would say we saw things that smelled and looked like human trafficking, e.g. none of them speak English, none had passports on them. Those are classic signs of human trafficking,” she said.

But the city was mainly interested in getting rid of the businesses. Anything with trafficking implications was referred on to the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time, she said.

Overland Park’s ordinance also has requirements for education and registration of massage therapists, said Eric Blevins, assistant city attorney. But it doesn’t hold landlords or management companies responsible unless they are aware the illegal activity is going on.

“In my experience, those who intend to engage in illicit activity in a massage setting tend to do so when they believe they can remain hidden from oversight,” he wrote in answer to questions about the city’s ordinance. Blevins also cautioned that on-line listings are not necessarily accurate because site owners may enter reviews to drive subscription prices.

To be clear, Jensen doesn’t want to just shut down the illicit parlors because it won’t solve the problem. In fact two or three operators who lost their Lenexa licenses four years ago moved into Olathe, Harvison said.

Advocates are especially concerned for the welfare of the victims. Many times arresting them only makes their problems worse, said Bloom. Instead, society should focus on changing the culture that normalizes the buying of sex.

“It’s as radical and simple as saying I will recognize that that person is exploited and I will not consume. I will support my friends in not consuming,” said Bloom. “It can only be done through empathy.”

What Jensen wants is understanding for the trafficking victims who face charges for crimes they committed under coercion, as well as protection, social and psychological services as they become displaced from their traffickers. Not to mention more arrests and re-education of the buyers, mandatory booking and big fines.

He wants to lay the groundwork by providing a hub for other agencies to talk to each other and work out strategies.

It’s a tall order. But Jensen said he’s just getting started.

Correction: The original version of this story noted that there were two massage parlors in Shawnee listed on the website RupMaps. Though the website lists Shawnee as the city for those two locations, they are actually in Merriam.