MONTPELIER — A form of sexual contact occurring with frequency at some massage parlors across the state is currently legal and should be addressed, a prosecutor told a panel of lawmakers Friday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Friday on prostitution and human trafficking, issues that arose last year after local police and federal agents raided two massage parlors in Bennington. Christina Rainville, chief deputy state’s attorney in Bennington County, said the investigation revealed gaps in current law that allows so-called happy endings to occur.
“Right now it’s inadvertently legal, and I believe the committee should probably make it illegal,” Rainville said.
The committee chairman, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said the state should amend existing statutes to broaden the definition of prostitution to include the sexual acts taking place at some massage parlors.
He also wants the law to deal with the owners of such spas as criminals but treat the women working in them, usually foreigners, as victims.
Local police joined the FBI in a joint investigation into the two Bennington spas after the agency’s human trafficking unit contacted local authorities with suspicions that the businesses were linked to a larger criminal organization in New York City, according to Rainville.
Police found the activity at the massage parlors was inconsistent with legitimate spas. Local police and federal agents eventually secured search warrants and raided them but could not make a criminal case for either prostitution or human trafficking.
The Korean women working at the spas in Bennington had appropriate living spaces and were in control of their own legal documents, Rainville told the committee.
“In the end they had absolutely no evidence of human trafficking, which may or may not mean that there’s human trafficking going on,” she said.
During the investigation, prosecutors realized prostitution charges also would not stick. Current state statute applies only to intercourse and not other sexual activities. Spas are setting up in Vermont for that reason, Rainville said.
“One of the owners said in her police interview, ‘Well, we only give … happy endings, and that’s legal in Vermont. That’s why we’re here,’” Rainville said. “I read that in an affidavit, and I was about to charge her with prostitution, and I thought, ‘That’s really odd.’”
The people running the spas are “incredibly sophisticated,” Rainville said, and have done their research. “I just instinctively knew that she was right because they’re so sophisticated,” she said.
About 14 Asian massage parlors are currently operating in Vermont, according to Rainville, mostly along the borders of New York and New Hampshire, states where prostitution statutes include the non-intercourse sexual activity taking place in Vermont.
“There’s a cluster of them on the border,” she said. “New York — we know the New York law; we’ve now looked at it — outlaws that. Their definition of prostitution includes happy endings.”
Rainville said law enforcement cannot do anything to stop the spas from current practices, and without the cooperation of the women working there, cannot prove human trafficking.
“It’s a risk because as long as they’re in business there’s a risk they could be trafficking Asian women in our community. We don’t know. It’s hard to prove,” she said. “A lot of people in Bennington are very upset that they’re right there on Main Street. They now know exactly what it is, and we can’t do anything about it or shut it down.”
Sears asked Rainville to work with other prosecutors and the attorney general’s office over the next two weeks on ways to address the issue. The current statutes dealing with prostitution have not been updated since 1919, and “the world has absolutely changed regarding all of these issues,” he said.
“I think we need to look at the prostitute as the victim,” Sears said. “I think in 1919 they certainly didn’t. It’s a law that was written who knows how long before 1919.”
Sears said there is a bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, to regulate spas through the Office of Professional Regulation. That could help prevent spas offering illicit services from setting up shop in Vermont, he said.
Meanwhile, Courtney Gabaree, a youth advocate with HOPE Works in Burlington, said the spas are an issue but other forms of human trafficking may be more prevalent.
“The majority of trafficking that we’re seeing and hearing about is happening through pimp-controlled prostitution, both minors and adults,” she said.
Many young women believe they have a new boyfriend who is showering them with attention and gifts, but they slowly become controlled through alcohol, drugs, threats or other means, she said.
“Before she knows it, she’s being forced to have sex with his friends and he’s receiving money for it,” Gabaree said.
Advocates are also hearing about “survival sex,” in which women trade sex for shelter, food and protection. Gabaree said some states are beginning to consider such situations under human trafficking laws, especially when it involves minors.
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