SEX FOR SALE: Inside the business of illicit massage parlors

Published: Mar. 8, 2018 at 10:45 PM CST
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Prostitution doesn't just happen online or on street corners. In a month-long investigation, TV9 found it running out of storefronts here in eastern Iowa.

"It's disheartening," said Amber Henline, a Cedar Rapids massage therapist. "If someone has never had a massage before, and the only thing they've ever heard is bad things, they might think my profession is less than professional."

Henline has been working in the field for two years. It's been plenty of time to hear all the rumors about some of the local parlors offering more than massages.

"I've been in this industry long enough that I know most of the massage therapists in town," said Henline. "We see each other at conferences. We go to the same functions. None of these places are a part of that."

That may be because they're apart of an online underworld. It's there illicit massage businesses have been able to advertise their services for years.

Perhaps the most notorious of these types of sites, one called

Operated by a company outside the country in Cyprus, RubMaps calls itself an "erotic massage parlor review" site. It's a place where users can sign in and anonymously post about their experiences-- in gratuitous detail-- at shops across the US.

Reviewers even share the physical attributes of their masseuses, a list of sexual acts employees will perform and the fees associated.

"Welcome to our outrage," said Rochelle Keyhan, who works with the D.C.-based nonprofit Polaris. "It is brazen."

Polaris recently released a report on illicit massage businesses, finding it's a $2.5 billion-dollar revenue generator each year, with more than 9,000 parlors open in the U.S.

The report featured RubMaps, saying the site has more than 325,000 unique visitors a month.

"A lot of reviews you'll read-we quoted one in the report-something like, 'Don't worry. Even if it gets shut down, just lay low for a couple days and come back,'" said Keyhan. "They're just literally unafraid of any consequences for themselves."

If you throw Iowa into the search bar, you'll find listings all across eastern Iowa, from Dubuque to Iowa City. In Cedar Rapids, hits for 19 different parlors. Not all of them had reviews explicitly mentioning sex acts for money. But, TV9 found at least 10 businesses that had one sexually-explicit message or more.

One of the most recent reviews was written about two weeks ago for a spot called Relax'n Day Spa, off Boyson Rd. The user wrote in vulgar language about his sex for money experience.

"I am looking forward to trying this again with her if she lets me," the man said in his review.

Through an anonymous profile, TV9 reached out to the user asking him if what he said was true. He responded saying it was and that in order to get the same service "the code word is just put the money out front and hope she likes you."

TV9 called Relax'n to get a comment from management about the allegations made online. The woman who answered told us to message her boss. We did, but have yet to get a reply.

Prostitution isn't the only concern at illicit massage businesses. Polaris' report found masseuses are often the victims of human trafficking.

Polaris suggests they are mostly immigrants from Asia, age 35 to 55, seeking a better life.

Those in charge of the illicit businesses are taking advantage because victims often don't know the laws, speak the language or are under pressure to do as their told in fear of deportation.

"They're in the US," said Keyhan. "They're isolated. They don't know who else to turn to because this person who's employing them is giving them all of their information and resources."

Human trafficking concerns are one of the big reasons regulators and law enforcement want to shut down illicit parlors. It's just not easy. The businesses are often part of a larger criminal organization-- according to Polaris. Masseuses have access to diploma mills or are given fraudulent licenses.

At the Iowa Board of Massage Therapy, their power is stripping a license away-- but it's of little deterrence.

"For this illicit prostitution and other human trafficking, it's not licensees that are involved," said Tony Alden, the board's executive. "It's unlicensed individuals. Really, very, very little that the board can do."

For law enforcement, busting individuals won't typically help either. Clients and illicit masseuses likely won't want to testify in court.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks says taking down a parlor often relies on a big undercover effort.

"Basically, a sting operation is quite an endeavor," said Maybanks. "Everything would have to be recorded. People would have to be trained for it... It's a major operation."

A major operation that needs resources, time, officers, funding. Right now, there are other priorities."

"Our office and the local police departments in Linn County are focused on violent crime," said Maybanks. "Violent crime involving guns. Violent crime involving gang-type issues. That's a very laborious endeavor."

Maybanks said in the last two years his office has only filed four charges of prostitution. None were at massage parlors.

"What I really want to emphasize," Maybanks said, "there's nothing that will be done to curtail this unless people speak up and demand that activities such as this not exist in their community."

To read the full Polaris report and check out some of the solutions the group suggested, click