Nearly a dozen massage parlors were raided this month.
Nearly a dozen massage parlors were raided this month. Getty Images

The Seattle Police Department, along with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, say they arrested five people and "rescued 26 victims of sex trafficking" earlier this month during raids of nearly a dozen businesses in the Chinatown-International and Beacon Hill districts.

The Seattle Times broke the story last Friday, reporting that the owners of these so-called "massage parlors" were illegally selling sex acts and are suspected of recruiting women, mostly Chinese nationals, to come to the U.S. to work in them. Nearly 200 law enforcement officers and other personnel worked on this operation for over three years before the arrests were made, and the initial complaint came from a neighbor of one of the massage parlors in Beacon Hill, who reported that she saw men coming and going at odd hours. During the investigation, law enforcement worked to connect the local operations to what the Seattle Times called "a vast prostitution and money-laundering investigation, tying massage parlors and spas in Seattle to a sophisticated criminal network that brings Chinese women into the U.S. through hubs in California and New York and funnels millions of dollars back to China." Police reportedly seized more than $120,000 in cash.

At a SPD press conference on Friday afternoon, Deputy Chief Marc Garthgreen said that the women were living in "squalid conditions" and that the business owners took a portion of their earnings for rent—which, according to the Seattle Times, was between $360 to $600 a month—as well food, travel, and other fees. Still, the women themselves seem to have made a bundle of money: The paper reported that "women working in the parlors can make $10,000 a month," although they mentioned that one woman was
"forced" to repay her boss for a $1,200 cell phone that he bought for her.

While the police, the Seattle Times, and the cadre of blonde network TV news women at the press conference on Friday seemed utterly convinced that these women were "rescued," none of the women, who were in their late 20s to early 60s, were made available to comment for themselves. When I asked if they wanted to be “rescued,” Deputy Chief Garthgreen said that “several” of them expressed gratitude to the police, so I guess that means yes.

"The life they thought they were going to have is one that was going to allow them to support themselves and their families," Garthgreen said. "Some of the interest really was to go from a really poor lifestyle to America, where they would be able to make some really good money and be able to then transition to other things."

One could assume that $10,000 a month would be enough to do just that. Of course, if these women were truly the victims of human trafficking and were being held against their will, the people responsible should absolutely be held responsible. But the five people arrested in these raids aren't actually charged with human trafficking or any other human rights violations; they're being charged with money laundering and promoting prostitution. Why? Maybe it’s because there's no evidence that trafficking was actually taking place.

This operation, which police dubbed “Emerald Triangle,” has echoes of a bust that took place last month in Jupiter, Florida. This one made international news because Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, was one of 150 men caught with his pants down when 10 spas in Florida were raided. Since then, the story has grown even bigger: Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Li Yang, the woman who founded (though no longer owns) the massage parlor where Kraft was busted has offered to sell Chinese nationals access to Donald Trump and his family, whom she’s been photographed with at Mar-a-Lago.

There are some notable differences between the bust in Florida and the one in Seattle. For one, SPD didn't arrest any of the patrons of the massage parlors here (that, however, could change at any time if King County decides to prosecute), and while some of the women in Florida may now face deportation, at the press conference Friday, SPD Capt. Mike Edwards said the department here is working with the feds to secure visas for all of the women.

However, there are some similarities between the two cases as well: In Florida, as in Seattle, no one has actually been charged with human trafficking, which could mean that these women weren't actually trafficked against their will or their knowledge, they were just people trying to make a decent living.

There's another parallel too: In Florida, police took six months to shut down these massage parlors, and this was after multiple undercover visits from detectives working the case (and, yes, they did enage in sex acts with the “victims” they later "rescued" themselves). In Seattle, the sting took three and a half years. The SPD says that their officers didn't engage in sex acts during the investigation and made up an excuse to leave when it came time to drop their pants. This may well be true, but even the SPD didn’t employ these women’s services, if they actually were being held and forced to perform sex acts against their will, why in the world would the police wait three years to rescue them?

Writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown brought this up when reporting on the Florida bust for Reason, writing, "It's hard to reconcile the cops' timeline with their heroic rhetoric. If the women employed at these businesses were really the victims of 'modern slavery,' why did police take six months to get them out of that situation? Why did it require repeat intimate undercover visits and building misdemeanor prostitution charges against all sorts of random men before these 'heroes' decided to intervene?" These are legitimate questions.

Human trafficking exists, in sex work, in agriculture, in manufacturing, fashion, farming, and in industries all over the world. Still, we don't even know how big a problem this is. According to the Department of Justice, there are no reliable figures on the number of people who are trafficked in the U.S. each year, but between 2010 and 2015, federal agencies identified and recovered just 2,071 victims of trafficking in all industries. Still, even if the number of victims turns out to be small, human trafficking is a terrible offense that should clearly be punishable by law. But the idea that all sex workers are the victims of human trafficking is a myth, and it’s one that has been perpetuated by law enforcement, the media, the government, a number of feminists, and non-profits and NGOs that advocate for sex work prohibition.

According to Butterfly, an organization that is run by and works to support migrant sex workers in Canada, “Asian migrant sex workers are perceived to be at risk of abuse from their 'traffickers,’ who are often in fact their colleagues, partners, or friends. In fact, Asian migrant sex workers who are being targeted through these policies are rarely (and based on current data, never) trafficking victims, and become at risk through these anti-trafficking policies which allow them to be exploited, locked up, abused, and violated by law enforcement officers." And yet, we don’t even have a good word for what happens to these women aside from “saving,” “freeing” or “rescuing,” even if they don’t want to be “saved,” “freed,” or “rescued.”

Local sex work advocates agree that these stories are more complex than the media and law enforcement tend to acknowledge. "This sting operation operates on sheer assumption about the autonomy of migrant women working underground in the U.S.," Seattle sex worker and activist Savannah Sly told me in an email. "The narrative that all Asian women working in massage parlors [are trafficked] is racist, infantilizing, and lacks any realistic understanding of how the sex trade actually works. This is not about resolving sex trafficking; this is about a moral crusade to appease local NIBMYs who can't stand the idea of whores operating in their neighborhoods. If this was actually about trafficking, then SPD is grossly negligent in allowing trafficking in these spas to happen for [almost] FOUR YEARS while they 'investigate.'"

"Is this really how we should be spending our tax dollars, given the dizzying homeless crisis in Seattle?," Sly continued. "How is taking away the income of so many migrant women going to benefit society, let alone the women involved?"

Now, it’s entirely possible that SPD did “rescue” these women working in massage parlors in Seattle. That, certainly, is what the police and most of the media seem to think happened. And maybe it is. Maybe these women were all brought to the U.S. under false pretenses and forced to do sex work against their will. But it’s also possible that they were doing exactly what Deputy Chief Garthgreen said they were doing: Making a really good living.

Some migrants sex workers know what they are getting into when they do it. They come to the U.S., make a shit ton of money, and creat new lives for themselves either here or back home. They aren’t victims or sex slaves: They are employees doing a job many people find unpalatable or immoral but one, nonetheless, that exists. And the way to help these women isn’t to “save” them, arrest them, deport them, or to put them out of work: It’s to decriminalize sex work, which would allow sex workers to report instances of abuse without fear of arrest or deportation. Human trafficking needs to stop, but not all sex workers need saving—from the police or anyone else.