“In strip malls across the country, neon signs and brightly colored placards promise hot stones, acupuncture and shiatsu with photos of women or couples receiving relaxing shoulder rubs. But a traditionally Asian form of therapeutic relaxation with deep roots in big-city Chinatowns has spun off a different kind of massage parlor that has little to do with traditional remedies. It has exploded into a $3 billion-a-year sex industry that relies on pervasive secrecy, close-knit ownership rings and tens of thousands of mostly foreign women ensnared in a form of modern indentured servitude.”
New York Times
March 2, 2019
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I’m standing naked in the middle of a dimly lit room, waiting for a woman who is not my wife to reenter.
Moments earlier, that woman, a pretty Asian girl with long black hair and a distant but not disinterested look on her face, repeated the question the older Asian woman had asked me when she ushered me back to the room, one of several along a hallway.
“You been here before?”
It was very quiet and very dark inside the room, and I told her what I told the older woman. “No,” I said. “I’ve never had a massage before. I don’t know what to expect.”
The pretty Asian girl nodded without expression.
She leaned slightly on her hip indicating that she planned on taking the money right then. It was less transactional than holding out her hand, but it got the point across.
Clumsily, I thumbed the $80 out of my wallet and passed it over. She counted it in front of me without embarrassment.
“Take off clothes,” she said, pointing to an open hook on the wall, then to a neatly folded towel on the massage table in the corner. “All clothes. I’ll be back soon.”
I did as she directed, but the towel that was meant to cover me didn’t quite make it around my waist, which is why I’m standing there naked, waiting for the girl who is not my wife to return.
On April 1, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department along with the FBI’s Human Trafficking Task Force, conducted an investigation of the Bo Bo Skin Spa. Located prominently on Washington Road, Bo Bo was not properly licensed to give massages.
“Supposedly, they had a license that they could maintain your skin,” says, Sgt. Richard Elim of Richmond County’s Vice Squad. “They could scrub it. Clean it. Give you lotions for it. But they couldn’t administer a massage.”
They couldn’t, but they did.
“Not only did they illegally give massages there, they branched out into masturbation for hire,” Elim says.
Masturbation for hire is the official term for what’s commonly called the happy ending.
In the case against Bo Bo, Elim had the good fortune of walking in on a massage at precisely the right time.
“Typically, we get information that something else is going on,” he says. “We have to check it out, and that can involve surveillance, it can involve actually going into a place and purchasing a massage or it can involve a site investigation. In this case, we went in, and while we were inside we went into one of the rooms and caught the process ‘in the act.’”
That act proved costly for Suki Park Laszlo, the spa’s owner, who was not only operating without a massage operator’s license, she was operating without a certified massage therapist.
In other words, the girl Elim caught in the act was a prostitute, not a massage therapist.
“The code allows us to suspend their license before we take them before the commission for actions against their license,” says Rob Sherman, Director of License and Inspection. “Then, at the same time, the Sheriff’s Department can cite those that were doing the prostitution or whatever and take them straight to court.”
While Elim says he started receiving calls as soon as the Bo Bo sign went up, he thinks the operation probably remained legitimate for the first few months of operation, crossing the line more and more the closer it got to Masters Week.
And Elim has good reason to believe the offerings went far beyond happy endings.
“I’m convinced there was more going on in that location than masturbation for hire,” he says, describing a bag of condoms he found in the room.
“Imagine you buy a pack of condoms,” he says. “Now, imagine having a hundred of those not in the pack, but all lubricated and ready to use in a big plastic bag – just reach in and grab one.”
Bo Bo isn’t the first questionable operation to utilize the same location on Washington Road. Years ago, it was home to the notorious Osaka Spa, which was closed along with three others during a sting operation in 2002.
“One night, we just went out and made cases on all four – shut them down – and took them to the commission,” Elim says. “Shortly thereafter, we were able to work with the city attorney to draft a new set of ordinances where you have to be nationally certified and where you can verify the license. That cut down a lot of it right there.”
The state massage therapy board was established in July of 2006 and has the authority to license individual massage therapists, leaving the local jurisdictions to license the spas themselves, which Sherman says involves getting an operator’s license and submitting a list of the actual therapists who work there.
Sherman, after commission approval, issues the license – or occupational tax – and because the massage industry is regulated, it’s up to the Sheriff’s Office to check up on them.
Massage therapists pay a regulatory fee along with the occupation tax.
According to Kim Wood, who owns the Balanced Body, the cost of playing by the rules is steep.
Georgia requires a massage therapist to have a minimum of 500 hours from a Board recognized massage therapy education program. Sitting for that test can cost up to $225, and a massage therapy license in Augusta is $95 per year.
In addition to the administrative costs, there’s the cost of the equipment, which can be significant. A portable massage table, for example, can cost between $500-$1,000.
“School itself can cost anywhere from $7,500 to $25,000,” she says.
In spite of the money and effort that goes into establishing yourself as a professional in the field, many people are suspicious of all massage therapists because of reputations earned by places like Bo Bo.
“Any time that there is anybody that is questionable, I try to get them out of business,” she says. “I’ve been talking to vice for a couple of years. We have a good relationship and they’ll call me and say, ‘what do you know about so-and-so.’”
A few years ago, she says she was approached by a massage therapist who said she was looking for some office space right way. Something didn’t feel right about the situation, so Wood declined to offer the woman space at her practice. Later, while looking for a massage table on Craig’s List, she ran across the woman’s advertisement.
She was obviously selling sex.
The intermingling of the sex industry with the massage industry leads to a greater amount of bad behavior, Wood says. Before she moved to her current location on Professional Parkway, she used to be on Washington Road near Bo Bo, which was then Osaka, and people were constantly calling up and asking if they did happy endings.
Because of all the questionable activity, Wood, who also teaches business and ethics at the Georgia Academy of Massage, says she spends a lot of time with her therapists talking about desexualizing the room and desexualizing the service.
“You have to be very careful how you market yourself and your attire,” she says. “So many things can give the wrong impression – music, lighting…all kinds of stuff.”
The pretty Asian girl slowly cracks open the door and slips inside, preserving the sensual rosy light that I’m still trying to get my eyes to adjust to.
She’s wearing a tank top and a short jean skirt, and I suspect she is probably not as pretty as she appears, but I’m in no position to hold that against her, standing as I am trying to pinch that little towel closed around me, my earlier “take me as I am” brazenness long gone.
If my feeble attempt at modesty amuses her, she doesn’t let on. Instead, she takes me by the hand and leads me to the table, where she takes my towel, forces me to stand naked before her, then finally tells me to lay down.
I climb up on the table and do as she says. After a moment, I feel her drape the little towel on top of me.
On the end table beside me, next to a bottle of lotion and a box of Kleenex, there is a cheap portable stereo, and with my head turned to the side, supported on a rolled up towel, I watch as she pushes the button that suddenly fills the room with the relaxing sound of a wooden flute. It’s playing the kind of music we westerners are conditioned to hear packaged with water sounds and sold as relaxation aids.
The table is solid, so I don’t feel her weight on it as she hops up, but I do feel her bare legs open up as she straddles me, then sidles up against my lower back, nestling in. She leans down into my shoulders and starts to kneed, rocking slowly forward and back. Then she works down my arms. When she’s done working them, she folds them in against my sides and I can feel he softness of her bare legs against my finger tips.
“Do we need the towel?” I ask, and immediately it’s gone.
She moves back up to my shoulders, and I know the rocking motion is meant to arouse me. It’s much more than a perfunctory massage, but it doesn’t take $7,500 worth of coursework to realize she’s not working by the book. It feels good, though – very good – and after a little while I start to forget that she’s a stranger and that I’m naked and that outside this room is the bright, noisy world where I belong.
Then, suddenly, it’s over.
“Have nice day,” she whispers in my ear as she dismounts.
We’re far short of our hour, and of course she’s only massaged half of me. I’ve been spared the embarrassment and intimacy of rolling over.
“What?” I ask, propping up on an elbow. “What about the front?”
“You want more?” she asks, now backing away. “I’ll be back soon.”
She quickly leaves the room, but not before her eyes usher mine over to the end table with its radio, its bottle of lotion and its box of Kleenex.
“I’ll be back soon.”
When she returns, she’s slightly more confident.
“You want more?” she asks again, and her voice, which has never been loud, falls into to a whisper. “You want…”
Here, the pretty Asian girl simulates sex. It looks a little like a skiing, or a dog paddle, but it’s unmistakable and electric in the little room.
I pantomime another option, which she pantomimes back, eyebrows raised.
“How much?” I whisper, pantomiming once more.
“With clothes or without?” she asks.
There’s a price for everything, I learn, and if I want her to finish the massage without her clothes, it will cost me an additional $100.
I agree, and by the time I dig the money out of my wallet, she’s already naked.
Kim Wood coaches her employees to tell clients that they provide a therapeutic, nonsexual service. Not every reputable establishment is quite that explicit about it, but she likes to make it clear right up front. It minimizes the “what do you wear” questions, she says, and helps avoid most of those awkward moments that occur toward the end of a massage because of mismatched expectations.
And if the whole “we provide a therapeutic, nonsexual service” thing isn’t clear enough on its own, the two pages of paperwork her clients fill out usually gets them up to speed, especially the box that indicates any sexual remarks or inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.
Yet no matter how professional she and the other legitimate practitioners make it, those other places remain, clouding the waters.
Not all massage parlor violations deal with prostitution, however. Sherman says that within the last couple of weeks, a nail salon at the mall was shut down for offering massages without the proper licensing, and while that hurts the legitimate industry too, Wood says the cuts aren’t nearly as deep as those caused by the spas that offer prostitution.
“Something that tells me that a place is probably not legitimate is a lack of signage and a lack of marketing materials,” she says. “Especially if you come in and there’s nothing indicative of a massage practice and if the walls are bare or look like a boudoir.”
The general rule of thumb applies, she says: If it looks like it’s not legitimate, it probably isn’t.
“We all kind of know who the violators are,” she says. “Like King Spa over on Belair Road. They’ve been busted and busted and busted. It’s like they’re thumbing their nose at everyone.”
With suggestive internet ads and Craig’s List posts that emphasize table showers and body rubs and pretty Asian girls, King Spa seems to be doing Bo Bo one better – hiding in broad daylight right in the heart of Columbia County.
According to Captain Steve Morris, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department periodically conducts undercover operations to make sure the law is being followed.
“The way we feel about it – the legitimate massage therapists deserve a respectful environment and our citizens deserve to have seedy businesses removed from Columbia County,” he says.
But with King Spa having been busted for masturbation for hire three times since 2008, it doesn’t always seem like the county’s doing such a good job of removing those seedy businesses.
Development Services Director Richard Harmon, who oversees the License and Inspection department, is well aware of King Spa’s past and its current reputation in the community.
“The bad thing about that one – they came back and we had to issue another business license, because it was somebody who was licensed by the state,” he says. ”The person who was tried and convicted didn’t get the license. Somebody else came in and opened up under the same name.”
In cases like that, where they can’t make a connection between the current and former owners, Harmon says there is little they can do to stop it, as long as the owners meet the requirements and the property is properly zoned.
And while he has the ability to send in the fire marshal and do other forms of spot inspections, he says it’s up to the Sheriff’s Department to conduct investigations.
Morris says those investigations aren’t always easy.
“In most cases we would receive a complaint and send undercover operatives into the business, but the undercover operatives have to be careful about the communication between the two,” he says. “We can’t induce them to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, so it’s all carefully worded and it’s all recorded for court purposes.”
Richmond County’s Elim acknowledges it’s not easy, especially in the era of stretched resources, but says he thinks they ultimately do a pretty good job, considering.
“We shift resources where we need to,” he says. “We’re not immune to the budgetary restraints within the organization, but we don’t put this any lower than any of them. If we find a need, we’re going to try to deal with it as quick as we can. There may be some things that prevent us from dealing with it as quickly as people might think we should, but it’s a big area and there’s a lot going on.”
When my massage is over, the pretty Asian girl puts her clothes back on and then helps me into mine. I thought this part might be rushed, but it’s not. It’s pleasantly relaxed, almost a ceremony, and if there’s any room in all of this for sharing something beyond the business arrangement we’ve just concluded it would be here, with her squatting at my feet tying my shoelaces. But the most you could say is that her face is no more disinterested now that we’re partying ways.
“Come again,” she says before opening up the door and letting the harsh light of the world spill into our little room. “I always here.”