Nevada bill would target owners of illicit massage parlors, a growing concern in Las Vegas (2024)

Nevada bill would target owners of illicit massage parlors, a growing concern in Las Vegas (1)

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AB 166 targets the owners of businesses that are knowingly facilitating or offering prostitution services. The bill would make it a felony to advanceprostitution.

By Miranda Willson

Monday, April 1, 2019 | 2 a.m.

It doesn’t take more than a quick internet search for massage establishments and spas in Las Vegas to find references to illegal sexual services offered at some of these businesses. Phrases like “happy ending” and “rub and tug” abound on Yelp and Google reviews of some massage establishments, and the controversial rupmaps.com, a self-described “erotic massage parlor” review site, lists more than 200 businesses in the Las Vegas area that reviewers say offer sexual services.

But the PG-13 euphemisms for sex acts mask a darker reality: Many of the employees at these spas — who are mostly women from China or South Korea — are victims of sex trafficking, forced into prostitution and facing threats of violence. And the way the law in Nevada currently stands, police are rarely able to prosecute the owners of these establishments without testimony from witnesses or victims, who often are afraid or unwilling to speak up.

That could change if the Legislature passes Assembly Bill 166, which would make it a felony to advance prostitution. The bill, which has support from the city of Las Vegas, targets the owners of businesses that are knowingly facilitating or offering prostitution services.

“We have this bill right now that basically gives us some more teeth to go after the owner or operator, and we don’t need a victim to come forward to testify,” said Mary McElhone, the city’s deputy planning director.

Since 2014, the city has closed, denied licenses to or revoked the licenses of 18 massage parlors that were fronts for illegal prostitution and sex trafficking, McElhone said. But police investigations into the establishments, McElhone said, suggest that the individuals who have been charged in these cases were not the criminals who were actually running the enterprises.

“The people we’re dealing with [now] are these women who were probably brought into the sex trade a few years back and have risen in the ranks a little bit,” McElhone said. “They don’t have a criminal record.”

The bill would aim to put the owners of illicit massage parlors behind bars, and to prevent them from opening a new establishment under a different name after the first one gets shut down, a practice McElhone says is all too common in Las Vegas.

“It becomes a vicious circle that is really hard to stop,” she said.

To address sex trafficking at massage parlors and other businesses, the city’s Business Licensing Department has adapted some measures to crack down on the activity. The department conducts background checks on all applicants of these businesses, and the city recently ruled that new massage establishments can only be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., which McElhone said has curbed the problem slightly.

The department has also become familiar with the potential indicators of human trafficking at parlors, such as the presence of beds or mattresses at the back of house and kitchens full of food — signs that employees are living at the businesses full-time.

“Sometimes there’s certain things we see. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to us and don’t have ID,” McElhone said. “Sometimes they speak no English or very little English.”

Massage establishments in Las Vegas are also required to obtain a business license and a special use permit for a particular site. As a result, if a massage business gets shut down for prostitution or sex trafficking, it is near-impossible for another massage business at the same location to get city approval, McElhone said.

Clark County has seen the majority of arrests for prostitution at massage establishments in Nevada, said Sandy Anderson, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy. Most of the problem businesses she has encountered, she added, have been off the Strip.

The state board, which licenses massage therapists and inspects businesses throughout the state, provides another check on these establishments, conducting routine inspections for hygiene requirements at all massage establishments. Like the Licensing Department in Las Vegas, it will alert law enforcement if signs of human trafficking are present.

Nonetheless, prostitution remains the most common reason that the board revokes licenses or disciplines massage therapists across the state, Anderson said. Because of the difficulty in prosecuting those behind these businesses under current state law, Anderson is in favor of AB166.

“It’s one thing to go after the girls, but we really don’t address the problem of who’s putting the girls to work,” Anderson said.

Mark Brooks is the owner of a therapeutic massage business, the Vegas-based Rubb Massage, which provides full-body massages at off-site locations such as hotels. Although the Rubb Massage states on its website that it doesn’t offer sexual services, Brooks lamented that about 70 percent of the calls he receives are for “something other than a therapeutic massage.”

“For instance, they’ll call and say, ‘I want a young pretty blond,’” he said.

The Rubb Massage screens its employees thoroughly, Brooks added, to ensure that they will only give therapeutic massages. He also only sends his employees to hotels that he trusts. Still, the calls about “happy endings” and the physical appearance of his masseuses keep coming.

He said that any law that would make it easier to crack down on these businesses in Las Vegas, where, he noted, many tourists come expecting to indulge in all vices, would help address the issue.

“If they really would hit these people hard, if they really hit them and there was some kind of repercussion, you wouldn’t have so many of them,” Brooks said.

McElhone hopes that by passing AB166, the city will be able to better address human trafficking in massage parlors and other businesses. She also hopes that patrons of these establishments and those who dismiss the severity of the issue educate themselves about the human trafficking taking place behind the scenes.

“A lot of people don’t realize the conditions they’re living in,” she said. “The money they make they generally don’t get to keep. And a lot of them are sometimes being held against their will.”

Metro Police could not be reached forcomment.

Nevada bill would target owners of illicit massage parlors, a growing concern in Las Vegas (2024)
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