NEW YORK (PIX11) — In April 2017, security footage from a Queens massage parlor showed a suspect leaving the premises after attempting to rape a female worker there. The NYPD released the surveillance footage and the man was eventually arrested and charged with the crime.
The dangers of this kind of work were hammered home with the fatal shooting of eight people near Atlanta Tuesday at three different massage parlors. Seven of the victims were female, six of them Asian.
“It’s easy prey,” said Shandra Woworunto, an advocate for women who are sexually exploited. “They don’t have weapons. They cannot fight. And they just want to satisfy.”
The women were working in a billion-dollar industry that often leaves workers with much worse than just a sore back. Massage parlors are often fronts for prostitution, where clients—usually white or Latino men—will be asked to pay a “house fee” just to walk in the door.
Many of the female workers—some lured to the U.S. under false pretenses—are often expected to sexually service the men. Because it’s a cash business, often with no security guards present, the women are vulnerable to being robbed, as well.
What’s long been considered ground zero for massage parlors is the area around that Queens location, the site of the attempted rape in 2017. Although police shut down a number of operations there down in early 2019, the women simply moved to new locations a block away.
On Wednesday, an NYPD van with flashing lights and two officers standing guard signaled an upgrade in security on 40th Road, after the Atlanta shootings. The massage parlors are sprinkled all over Queens and are often found on websites such as City X Guide. The client will receive a text from promising young Asian women for their enjoyment and a table shower.
Shandra Woworuntu, who founded the organization Mentari, theorized that a number of the massage workers killed in Atlanta might have started in the profession in New York City. “New York is the base of distribution of women that are taken from many different countries,” Woworuntu noted. “New York is the hub.”
In 2019, photographer John Frasse—from NEWS10’s sister station in New York City—went undercover in numerous massage parlors after finding advertisements for “The Girlfriend Experience” that promised “young Asian women.” His work took him to spots behind podiatrist’s offices and surgical supply stores.
A supervisor with the NYPD’s Anti-Trafficking Unit said at the time that legitimate business owners of restaurants may also dabble in ownership of illicit massage parlors because they’re so profitable.
Susan Liu, an advocate for these vulnerable Asian women, said in 2019, “we have met women picked up at JFK.” They’re often taken to other states, she said.
Businessman Michael Chu said, “Asian people, when they come to America, they come to Flushing first.”
Wherever the Atlanta victims started in their trade, they paid the ultimate sacrifice for what’s often a thankless profession, where the profits weren’t going to them.