Closed Doors, Sealed Mouths

The racial politics of Rhode Island’s sex trade

by J.G.

Illustration by Andres Chang

published September 12, 2014

Trigger warning for sexual violence


The building that stands at 385 South Main Street is a three-story brick structure: nondescript, its windows papered over from the inside. A weathered sign hangs over its awning: “OFFICE SPACE FOR LEASE / UP TO 10,800 SQ. FT. AVAILABLE.”

Located five minutes away from Brown University by foot, the building is situated on an upscale avenue in Fox Point, littered with law offices and beauty salons, small shops and restaurants. The street is nice, albeit a bit bland—the type of place upper-middle-class families might go shopping on a Sunday morning.

But beyond the paved sidewalks lined with new European cars and coffee shops lies an Asian slave camp—an entryway into shaded hallways and coded language, surveillance cameras and boarded-up windows. On the second floor of 385 South Main resides a business that Providence police thought they had eradicated eight years ago. But the world’s oldest industry is back—and business is better than ever.

The seemingly abandoned building has been occupied since 2006, with what the Providence White Pages lists as a massage parlor called Downtown Spa, but its clientele doesn’t appear to be going for spinal adjustments. In fact, the only role of the massages here is as foreplay for the male clients that frequent it.

Downtown Spa calls itself as an Asian massage parlor (or AMP), which is a front commonly shared by brothels across Providence and the rest of the country. Its entry on Backpage—a classified advertising website notorious for its listings for sex—offers “skilled young Asian staff,” “gorgeous Asian staff,” and “sweet soothing Asians” alongside images of young East Asian women posing suggestively in various stages of undress. There are dozens of other listings on Backpage’s Providence sector just like this one.

But apart from these ads and the spa’s business listing in the Providence White Pages, the only real clue that Downtown Spa exists is the neon “OPEN” sign that flashes on the second floor every night until 2 AM.

Owners of nearby businesses either deny knowledge of Downtown Spa or are unaware of its existence. The owner of Tir Na Nog Spa, just one building away, could list every other spa or massage parlor on South Main Street. The receptionist at Tax Credit Finance, which shares a building with the spa, vehemently denied knowledge of the business on the second floor. (She had been working there for over two years.) Tanya Sar, the owner of Radiance Laser Skincare located in the basement of the building even responded with hostility. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know,” she said, upon being asked if she knew anything about the business on the second floor. “I have my own business and they have theirs.”

So, given this fog of secrecy, how do Downtown Spa and other brothels in Providence stay in business? With a cultural cone of silence, clients, or johns, have turned to the darker recesses of the internet to share tips, contributing to forums dedicated to the search for Asian prostitution services across major cities in the United States. Through websites like RubMaps, USASexGuide, and countless others, these johns compare experiences—prices, services offered, favorite girls, ages, attractiveness. Breast sizes. “Tightness.” The forums read like Yelp reviews. The forum for massage parlor reports in Providence on alone has over 10,000 posts, dating back to early February 2006, not including the thousands that have been deleted by site administrators for violating forum guidelines—which prevent site-goers from posting anyone’s true identity or personal phone number or posts that are too sexually explicit. Some posts, of course, slip through the cracks.

These euphemistically-named massage parlors are often fronts for human trafficking, housing girls brought to the United States from Korea, China, or Thailand. There are dozens scattered across Providence, hundreds in New England, and thousands mapped across the entire United States in a twisted web of sex trafficking. Some have survived local police raids or federal investigations. Often both. Many are connected to international organized crime rings, as discovered by the U.S. Department of Justice in a 2006 federal investigation. These are manifestations of the oldest form of slavery, sexual slavery, operating on intricate circuits nearly impossible to break, with horrors that extend far beyond a boarded-up second floor in Fox Point.


Rhode Island’s story

For over a decade, Rhode Island has been quietly infamous for its booming sex industry. An article published in the Providence Journal in April 2002 calls Providence “the most densely concentrated red-light district in New England” that “attracts thousands of out-of-town spenders.”

One reviewer, calling himself “Ri Designer,” posted in May 2006, “I went to DT [Downtown Spa] to remember the days I spent with my Brothers in Arms, on leave in various countries.” “Lao Ma” reported in February 2009 that he stopped in an AMP for sex during a layover at T.F. Green Airport, coming all the way from China. Dozens more have posted that Providence brothels are superior to their local AMPs, the ones they typically frequent.

“Aldrich317” wrote in March 2014 that “I have come to truly appreciate how lucky those of us are in reasonable commuting distance to Providence. There is nothing like the sensuousness of the [experience] the AMPs provide.” He added, “The girls also tend to be more intimate, dress more provocatively and give their best effort for the full hour, and less expensively.”

Rapid growth in the massage parlor brothel industry from the 1990s to today seems to have been caused partly by this recognition, but mostly by the decriminalization of indoor prostitution in 1980. Lawmakers adopted a law targeting those who sold sex in public but ignored paid sex in private—and so Rhode Island’s outdoor sex industry at that point, which was concentrated in a handful of prominent strip clubs and some street prostitution, dissipated, while the indoor sex industry quietly flourished. But the decriminalization of prostitution didn’t mean that it was legalized, either: legalized prostitution would have necessitated regulation, whereas decriminalization only peeled back laws meant to regulate or suppress it. In other words, it wasn’t technically legal, but nothing could be done about it.

In 1998, after almost 20 years of neglectful law enforcement, local media called attention to the existence of Asian spa-brothels after a police raid on Club Osaka, where undercover officers were soliciting sex acts. The Providence Journal discovered that the prostitutes had been “lured from Southeast Asia and paid only the tips given by their patrons.” Detectives arrested the club owner and six alleged prostitutes, seizing almost $15,000 in cash and plastic bags stuffed full of pink condoms.

Sgt. Nicholas Cardarelli, commander of the Special Services Division at the time, used dire and evocative language to describe the scene, saying that it “was like slavery.” The women, who worked 16- to 18-hour days, had been told that their work paid for the cost of bringing them to the United States, in some cases as high as $10,000. Essentially, they were forced into prostitution to pay off travel expenses.

One woman’s arms featured cigarette burns.

And yet the discovery of Club Osaka brought about no legislative change. The law remained stagnant, allowing the Asian massage parlor/brothel industry to expand rapidly. In 1998, local media indicated only two or three AMPs in Providence. By 2009, however, there were at least 32 that advertised publicly, a number that seems more or less consistent with that of today—despite the fact that prostitution, both indoor and outdoor, was finally recriminalized in 2009.

Although the spa-brothels leave an easily traceable paper and digital trail, law enforcement has found that regulating the industry or eradicating it permanently is nearly impossible. Almost every time one parlor gets shut down, it reopens a few months later— under a different name, at a different location, with a different phone number.

Even Downtown Spa has undergone changes to make it harder to retrace. According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice published on August 16, 2006, the spa-brothel had been involved in an Asian sex trafficking ring spanning across the Northeast, from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. Its manager, Kyong Polachek, was arrested, along with 30 other pimps, middlemen, and madams—female managers of brothels. They discovered that not only were the conditions Cardarelli found in Club Osaka nearly universal among the fake spas, the women were often traded back and forth among brothels within the ring. Supposedly, over 70 enslaved sex workers were freed in that investigation. But mere months later Downtown Spa reopened, moving from 1 Custom House St. to its location now—385 South Main Street, second floor.

Polachek was released from federal prison in 2007, barely a year after she was arrested. Today, at 62, she resides in Ohio, but could not be reached for an interview.

Why are these brothels so difficult to bust, even now, after prostitution has been criminalized? Attorney Melanie Shapiro, whose research was critical in re-criminalizing prostitution in 2009, doesn’t have an answer. Shapiro claims that before the loophole was closed, “police weren’t able to do the arrests in the raids, [only] see what was going on in the places.” And often the madams, who legally constitute traffickers, would be present with the prostitutes, so “the girls would be too intimidated to speak.” She added, “It’s necessary to get them away from the brothel, to get them away from the people there so they can feel safe in explaining what happened to them.” Otherwise, police would have no legal right to arrest anyone.

Law enforcement officials could not be reached for comment.


Inside the mind of a john

At the heart of the brothels’ popularity and persistent ability to regenerate is the racial dimension of the business, the sexual commodification of East Asian women. “Yellow fever,” as it is commonly known, refers to the fetishization of Asian women by those of non-Asian descent, particularly white men. Its existence relies heavily on the European colonizers of the 19thand 20th-centuries, who attempted to erase the existing culture of East Asia and inscribe upon the indigenous people a forceful new authority, relishing their power when they found success. When American soldiers occupied combat zones throughout the Pacific Rim for much of the 20th century, dozens of “comfort stations” sprung up around each military camp, with women brought from their homes to work as prostitutes, often against their will. Soldiers often joked about conquering the women alongside the land. Thus emerged the stereotype of Asian women as shy, submissive, docile—a type of china-doll, lotus-blossom beauty whose roots trace back to the soil of white colonialism.

A brief perusal of any online review forums shows that many of the men who frequent the Asian massage parlor-brothels harbor such a racial fixation. Not even counting all the posts that feature some kind of fetish for Asian women—and there are a lot—their usernames provide clear displays of it. On USASexGuide, dozens of men signed up under usernames derived from “yellow fever”: “YellowFever,” “YellowFever #69,” “Yellaman,” “Yellafever,” “Yellerfever.” The list goes on.

One of the most active users on the Massage Parlor Reports forum for Providence, “Yellowfever023,” said in a private message that he prefers Asian prostitutes because “even if they are 35-plus they look much younger.” He added that “their teasing drives me crazy—they look so innocent but they are wild.” He also noted, they are “usually easier to find, especially in Providence.”

Another user, “SteveBerg,” posted in January 2014 about brothels with older Asian women, expressing anger that they fail to meet his expectations. “It seems that everytime I check these places out I either can’t get a lineup or I’m forced into having a session with an older and often broken English speaking batshit crazy chick,” he said. “Not that I mind broken English, but it’s cuter coming from a dollfaced petite girl.”

To buy these women as prostitutes is one way of dehumanizing them, but to distill them down to a racial stereotype—an inanimate object—is to completely erase their humanity.

So how did the fetish for Asian women evolve into what it is now? Vickie Chang speculates in a 2006 article for OC Weekly that the means of entry into the United States for many Asian women has perpetuated the problem.

“It’s arguable that Asiaphilia, ironically, stems from legal attempts to exclude Asian Americans from the United States,” Chang wrote. “The criteria by which many Asian women were permitted to enter the US were not exactly morally sound: prostitutes, picture brides, war brides, mail-order brides.” In short, sexual commodification was a prerequisite for many Asian women to enter the United States. It was, historically, the price they had to pay.

The same August 16, 2006 press release that indicted Downtown Spa in its earlier form states that the trafficking process “typically begins when recruiters identify women in Korea who want to come to the United States, often to make money to support their families.” The recruiters then arrange their transportation to North America, sometimes securing illegal immigration documents in the process. By the time the women arrive, they have typically incurred large financial debts to recruiters in Korea and other members of the organized network, and they are forced into prostitution to pay off these debts.

A few of the johns online appear to have caught onto the women’s backgrounds. One post in July 2006, by “A Regular Guy,” reported of a girl at a spa-brothel in Providence: “She did mention she works everyday and has no time off...sounds like she’s working [off] a debt or simply, not free to set her own schedule.”

Shapiro once spoke to a prostitute at One Spa on Atwells Avenue in Providence—a brothel still in operation—whom she described as a confused-looking woman in her mid-twenties. “She was wearing hardly any clothing, and she was very, very skinny,” she said. “I asked her a few questions and she just kept saying ‘my boss, my boss, where is my boss?’”

That’s what these brothels are ultimately about: dominance. The power play is prominent in the dynamic between both prostitute and pimp and prostitute and customer, not only in terms of sexual domination but also in terms of administering control over the business. “Many of these girls will take kindness for weakness if we don’t remind them who’s in charge and holding the cash,” wrote “Bigben99” online. Boycotts and violence have even been threatened: “Can you imagine the message we can send out to AMP’s if we all got together and avoided their service completely or only supported specific ones?” said “SpermSac” in response to “Bigben99.” “Or have mongers [customers] patrolling locations with bad providers. Breaking legs will send a definite message.”

Some have written reports that display an obvious unwillingness on the prostitute’s end during sexual intercourse, regardless of whether or not these women have freely chosen to work at the spas. Someone calling himself “Raven1950” wrote in a review of One Spa, a spa-brothel off Atwells Avenue in Providence: “She got upset and dismounted. I got pissed because she asked for all the money upfront and I was getting my bang for my bucks, so I force[d] her to lay down, hike her legs over my shoulder, and finished.” Another user, “Little Tony II,” posted about a girl in Downtown Spa, “Several times I tried to reposition her, but she kept backing away. ‘No touch,’ ‘no,’ is all I heard. As I started to get up to leave, she finally grabbed little Tony and sat on him for a quick ride. The only good thing was she was verrrry tight.”

Some johns, too, take pleasure in their sexual dominance over the prostitutes, expressing a sadistic thirst in their display of power and control. In one instance, “Little Tony II” tried to convince another prostitute at Downtown Spa to let him use an object he brought. She could barely speak English, making a gesture that she did not want the object used on her, but he forced it on her anyway during intercourse: “After a while I was ready, and she was making broken English remarks about too big...I flipped her on her back and went at it. NO SHIT!!! She was really small, and I think it actually hurt her. She was tight as hell.”

Downtown Spa in particular is known among the forum-goers for having younger women. Many of the girls there are described as “very tight” and uncomfortable with touch—one man said that his provider “[sounded] like I was ripping her apart.”

So, is prostitution rape? Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on prostitution and trafficking, says that women in prostitution generally describe it as “paid rape.” Perhaps this is an unfair accusation—perhaps, in the Asian-run brothels guilty of sex trafficking, the women taken from their home countries, working in such conditions, forced to sell their bodies, forced into plastic surgery, threatened with violence or murder—could be doing this willingly. Or perhaps not.

Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at URI, wrote a report titled “Race and Prostitution in the United States” that included a survivor’s testimony from a Korean-American woman referred to as “Dal.” Trafficked in Las Vegas, she described her years in the sex industry as harrowing: “The women and I were in constant fear that our lives would soon end...I remember seeing hundreds of dollars being exchanged from one hand to another. Money seduced the people that kept us in silence and our existence empty.” Most of the women were actually young girls ranging in age from 12 to 16, she said, and many were foreign, trafficked from other countries.

“Even though I couldn’t speak the same language [as] these women, we definitely had one thing in common: fear and hope. I remember holding each one of them in my arms,” she said. “I let them cry all over me and I’d feel the same pain.”


What can be done today?

In Shapiro’s time investigating and staking out the brothels, she would often go inside and pretend to be an unassuming customer, asking to book an appointment for a massage. Other times she would pose as someone looking into real-estate. But every time, without fail, whoever was at the front desk—usually the owner or madam—would tell her that she needed to leave immediately. Sometimes she was physically removed.

“One of the madams chased me down the street once,” she said.

The chokehold on the prostitutes at the hands of their pimps, their brothels-owners, their madams—this is the top reason why the women refuse to go to the police, she said. And, in most cases, it’s simply impossible. According to Shapiro, the women are kept on such a tight leash that they are “unable to leave the brothel freely or independently.”

Today, one of the top arguments in favor of legalizing prostitution is that it would benefit the prostitutes. Opponents of the 2009 law argue that legalizing prostitution would be the only way to regulate it, to protect women currently ignored in the face of the law. Shapiro, however, disagrees.

“Legalizing something legitimizes it,” she said. “I don’t support legalizing the exploitation of a person. I don’t support legalizing because I don’t support the rape of women.” She acknowledged there are perhaps people who willingly become prostitutes and find it liberating, but “the vast majority of people have a pimp or have a drug addiction or were abused as a child.”

The average age of entry into prostitution is 13. In a 2002 study based in Chicago by the Center for Impact Research, researchers found that one-third of women had entered prostitution by the age of 15, and of these women, 72 percent ran away from home, onefourth had completed a high school education, and as a whole, they were more likely to have used drugs or alcohol growing up. “This is not something we want to make legitimate and legal,” Shapiro said.

Legalization proponents, however, contend that enforcing rules and regulations would be able to prevent such statistics. As Erin Fuch writes for Business Insider, “We legalize and regulate a ton of commerce that’s morally controversial—like gambling, alcohol, lap-dancing, and pornography. We’re not helping [anyone] by making consenting sex work a crime.” Furthermore, proponents ask, how would arresting the prostitutes benefit them? And perhaps they have a point—after all, it does strike a sour note when the rare police raid does happen, only to put one pimp and 12 prostitutes behind bars. (This is not a hypothetical situation: in 1974, before indoor prostitution was decriminalized, 87 percent of prostitution-related arrests in Providence were on women. In a 2003 study conducted in Boston, 11 women in prostitution were arrested per male customer.)

But Shapiro maintains that while arresting the women sounds bad in theory, it’s the most realistic way to help them.

“A night or two in jail, where [law enforcement] can figure out who they are and what’s going on, compared to a night in a brothel where they’re raped 10, 15 times a night—people just don’t like the idea of arresting someone,” she said. “But it’s necessary to hold people for a period of time to understand their situation.”

Additionally, having spoken to numerous government officials and law enforcement officers, Shapiro believes that the police are essential in helping the women escape their situations. “After arrest, if the women don’t have a place to go, or immigration documents, or anybody here who can help them, police should be directing them to services that are available in this region,” she said. “If they’re not from this country, there are visas that they can apply for so that they can stay if they want to.”

While this process sounds rosy in theory, its translation to real life rarely goes so smoothly—the women might be deported instead, police might not have the necessary resources to conduct investigations, or perhaps law enforcement simply isn’t fulfilling its responsibility to combat human trafficking.

Until something shifts, though, the circumstances look as dismal as ever. Five years have passed since 2009, and very little has changed. Hundreds of victims of sex trafficking across Rhode Island are still getting raped by johns every day. Ads still run in the Adult section of the Providence Phoenix, proclaiming, “The A S I A N GIRL of your DREAMS is here! Don’t make her wait!” And who knows—that advertised girl might be huddled in the corner of a room on Atwells Avenue or Fountain Street or South Main Street, waiting to see her 20th client of the day, wondering what her little brother looks like now, if she’ll ever see her family again.

After all, Downtown Spa is still tucked behind an artisan bakery, disguised by the blandly bourgeois exterior of College Hill—hidden under the radar of the apartment complex across the street and the university just blocks away.


This is the first installment of a series titled Seeing Color, which features articles with racial issues at their forefront.