An extraordinary exposé by reporter Ken Picard in Seven Days has led to the arrest of a business owner in Williston charged with allowing prostitution at a massage parlor he owns.
The Williston arrest follows prostitution-related charges filed earlier this week in Bennington against a woman at a spa there. Last month police raided two massage parlors in Bennington as part of an investigation into human trafficking and prostitution.
The Chittenden County arrest comes in the wake of the Seven Days exposé in which Picard went to three spas — in Burlington, Essex Junction and Williston — posing as a customer in search of a massage. He found that in each instance he did not have to request sex. Nor was it offered verbally. Rather, sex was assumed, as he discovered when his masseuse touched him sexually. He declined the offer but gained valuable insights into how the massage parlors operated and who worked there.
He found the employees in Chittenden County were from Korea, and they said they lived at the massage parlors. They said they worked from morning long into the night seven days a week. Their English was sketchy, and they appeared to have had little contact with the community outside the massage parlor. One woman said she went to Macy’s to buy makeup, but she didn’t know the name of the big lake next to Burlington. All of the women seemed embarrassed and afraid when Picard declined the proffered sexual services.
Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Often it is a form of sexual slavery in which women incur huge debts to the agents who bring them to the United States, who then force them into involuntary sexual servitude. It is a worldwide problem that has been described in detail by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Often women are kept in line through violence, are forced to work long hours and experience minimal contact with the world around them. They suffer not only the degradation of the work but the threat of violence and disease.
The women Picard encountered seemed friendly enough. It was their job to please. There were no overt signs of coercion or violence. Yet there were no signs that the women were ordinary members of the community, free to come and go. Rather, the rudimentary conversations he had with them suggested that they had been in an immigrant pipeline from brothel to brothel.
Prostitution is a difficult crime to prosecute because it does little good to prosecute the women. Investigators need to go higher up on the chain of exploitation to put a crimp in the criminal trafficking operations. Lower down, they can target the people who own the buildings and knowingly profit from the activities they allow. They can also target the customers as a form of deterrence, though over the millennia customers have never been deterred for long.
Ultimately, brothels like the ones alleged to be in operation in Bennington and Burlington are the manifestations of organized crime, and following the money is never easy.
It is tempting for police and the public to turn a blind eye to these crimes, persuading ourselves that little harm is done when consenting adults agree to have sex. And yet a trafficked woman cannot be said to have consented. She may put a smiley face on it because she is trying to survive. But fearful of retribution or deportation, she is reluctant to complain.
The trap of coercion has created a new 21st century version of slavery, enacted on the shady streets of quiet Vermont towns. Thanks to the work of investigators in Bennington and a reporter in Burlington, the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force now has good reason to take up its task in earnest.
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