Crack Down on Massage Parlors Underway in Rhode Island

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At each massage parlor, at least one woman was charged with pandering

There’s a crack down on massage parlors underway in Pawtucket and Providence.

In late March, Pawtucket Police raided the Harmony Spa and Far East Acupressure. Then the Providence Police raided Xin Xin Foot Reflexology and Apple Spa. And yesterday, they raided Smilers Day Spa.

That’s five raids in a little over a week by two police departments. Times are tough for massage parlors that are fronts for prostitution. That’s as it should be.

At each massage parlor, at least one woman was charged with pandering, that’s the legal term for being the manager or to use a slang term—the “mamasan.” A few of them are experienced “mamasans” with connections to massage parlors up and down the East Coast.

Pandering is a felony—a serious charge that fits the crime of organizing prostitution. In Rhode Island, if a person is found guilty of pandering or permitting prostitution, they shall be punished by imprisonment for one to five years, and be fined from $2000 to $5000.

Let’s hope the police and prosecutors can make the charges stick.

If sex trafficking is occurring, the “mamasans” are the ones monitoring and controlling the victims. There are many indications that there is sex trafficking occurring in these alleged brothels. A number of the women are from Korea and China, according to their passports or the language they speak. Some of the women don’t speak English—or don’t speak it fluently. Many of them are from different states. They appear to be living on the premises. They don’t have their own form of transportation. These are classic conditions under which women are controlled.

A number of the women at the massage parlors were arrested for prostitution—a misdemeanor crime. These are the women who solicited the undercover police officers for sex. These are the women who are possibly the trafficking victims.

The police will question the women, but Asian women in massage parlors are notoriously tight-lipped. They know who holds their debt or has the power to hurt their families. They know about the power of the international organization that extends from Rhode Island, across the U.S., and back to Korea or China. And look what happened to them in Pawtucket. According to the Providence Journal, they were all released from court together, and all arrived back where they were arrested. The “mamasan” came and ordered them pizza. The police have made no charges for sex trafficking, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

There is a very important group of people who were not arrested: the men, the sex buyers—who are also criminals under the RI Criminal Code. They were allowed leave the massage parlors or were turned away by locked doors. So often they are allowed to remain anonymous and walk away while the women pay the price of being arrested and having their photos in the paper. A colleague of mine said earlier this week: “I am so sick of women being punished by a male driven enterprise.” She got that right.

Police have to start holding the men who are driving the demand for the victims accountable. The news reports noted the bags of condoms in the massage parlors. There must then be a lot of used condoms around. Maybe the state crime lab could run some DNA analyses. See if they find any matches.

Or, look what’s happening in Florida, where police set-up video surveillance inside the massage parlors. That takes time and resources. However, they arrested hundreds of men—including a few big fish.

I hope this is the end of these massage parlors. I hope they are shut down for good instead of just waiting to re-open. But if there is a next time, go after the men—the real cause of the problem.


Donna M Hughes
Eleanor M and Oscar M Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies
University of Rhode Island
Member of Board of Directors of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Co-founder, Citizens Against Trafficking 

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