"Massage", USA-style

Jean Barker

The curtains were purple, or the light behind them was. MASSAGE it said in big, neon letters. Then in smaller plastic ones, "Facial, Manicure".

I had just moved into my new apartment, 10 days after arriving in the USA. I'd carried fridges, assembled IKEA alone and cleaned the place from top to bottom. My shoulders ached and I'd decided to treat myself to a shoulder massage, because a hug from a close friend was a few thousand miles and two weeks away, and because California baths come without bath plugs.

I checked my cell phone: 9pm. Excited by the wonders of America late at night, I knocked and walked in. The gorgeous Asian woman behind the counter stared at me in silence.

"I would like a facial and a massage," I said. "How much?"

She stared at me even more.

I looked around for a menu or brochure. Nada.


She shook her head: "Facial not here for you."

The purple neon lights hummed like giant uneasy ghosts. I tried again.


“Busy. No tonight."

"Can I make an appointment?”

She looked at me as if to say 'You poor idiot...' After a long pause she finally set me straight: "No woman here. Only man." I realised, because I'm not completely stupid, what the problem was. This was a whorehouse.

Purple curtains

After that, I learned to spot the purple curtains and avoid the places with them, but my shoulder still ached. I kept my eyes open for something different, and eventually found an "Asian Spa". It seemed okay, if a little vague. Asia's a big place. No purple, though. And the Little Buddhist shrine at the entrance reassured me. They also claimed to do nails, although there was no evidence of nail stuff.

I had a really good Chinese massage on my first appointment. I was pleased. I said "see you soon!" as I left. But the therapist seemed slightly disappointed to see me when I returned. She kept leaving to answer the phone, and half way through my hour, replaced herself with a younger woman who basically just rubbed oil on me absentmindedly and kept saying "beautiful lady" over and over again, then kicked me out after 45 minutes without explanation or refund.

I asked to go to the bathroom. On the way there, I stumbled across two rooms with strange flat cream tables with taps on them. I went in to look, thinking they were some sort of Asian urinal. The masseuse who had just finished with me hurried in. "No for you," she said. "Bathroom", she pointed down the corridor.

"What are those?"

"Table shower. Not for you."

Table showers. Also not for me.

I looked up Table Showers online, and almost instantly regretted it. The results delivered mostly message boards, where men advised one another on where you could get one with a HE (happy ending), and which girl to ask for if you went to specific places. It seemed like the girls came and went at a fast rate - probably being shuffled around to avoid them forming connections or contacting law enforcement. Nobody seemed to care why they vanished off the face of the planet. A few discussions revolved around whether or not it was cheating to have "an Asian woman" soap you up and jerk you off. One guy who claimed to be a bigtime Christian figured it was kosher because he wouldn't object if his wife "went and had an Asian woman jerk her off too".

Other people admitted that they knew perfectly well that the "massage" trade was tied up with human trafficking and sex slavery. Almost every message board has one message from an activist pointing out that these places are largely staffed by young illegal immigrants who're tricked into these jobs thinking they're going to work in beauty parlours, so the moral reality is hard to miss.

In response, one guy commented that, sure, it was probably coercive in some way. But, he added, "as soon as you put that behind you, it's a great experience." As soon as you put that behind you? You just put sex slavery behind you and feel okay about that? Apparently a lot of men do, and law enforcement seems unable or unwilling to stop them.

Desperate for a place that was "for me" and unable to even buy my way into a place that wasn't, I shelled out a couple of times for Massage Envy and various other super expensive spas - but only when I found a Groupon. They're very American at these places. The therapists are scared to massage you, and call your ass cheeks "glutes". You have to spend 10 minutes filling out forms to say you won't sue them if you die from the massage. The massage is only 50 minutes. And then to top it off, you're expected to tip $15-25 for a one hour massage. That's double what I earn per hour, just for the tip.

So what's the alternative? I suppose I could do without massage.

But I don't give up easily. On anything. You know how many men tricked me into seductive situations by offering me a back massage? Don't guess. You have no idea how high the number is. So I kept looking. And I'll try anything twice. And eventually I found Jesus. By which I mean: Foot Massage.

"Foot" massage

Like "midnight facials", Foot Massage isn't what it seems. It's much better than it seems. Who wants a one hour foot massage, after all?  Foot massage is really a full body massage. The only reason it's called "foot massage" is that American health laws won't let you call it full body unless you have a licence. It's like you can't call it "jerking a man off to orgasm". You have to say "midnight facials".

Foot massage is conducted - fully clothed except for shoes and socks - in a large, dark room shared with many other clients. Everybody speaks in whispers. It's like a touching church. It begins with your feet soaking in warm water while you lie back in a sort of La-Z-Boy chair or a head rub and neck massage. While muzak turns your brain to delicious mush, a man or woman works out your kinks without a hint of kinkiness. And it's only $20. Affordable, and worth every cent.

Dirty boulevards

Now that I've found my safe space in America, I still feel strange as I drive down North Tustin, or West Santa Monica, or wherever I'm going, on one of those streets where the purple curtains promise that Heaven Spa is "open til midnight!", or when I flip through the back pages of the LA Weekly and see "Beautiful young Asian girls!!!"

I wonder who these "young Asian girls" are, what music they like, how they wound up here. I wonder what they will become; if their sons and daughters will get to be Americans, like they probably dream they will, and learn English, like their slave-masters would rather they didn't, as they dream, as they smile, and thank, and wash away the semen of one lecherous man after another. Or, I wonder, will they be shipped back home, having seen only the back room of some place called "Dream Massage", with purple curtains and the family man's SUV parked out front?

I'm trying to put these thoughts behind me. I really am. It's just impossible.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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