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Parlor Games

We always thought the massage parlor "happy ending," was a myth, the stuff of cheesy B movies and bad romance novels. Turns out we were wrong. Some Valley massage parlors offer just about any type of massage a customer wants -- for a price of course. Find

 by Mani O'Brien
 published on Thursday, March 2, 2006

The waiting room at Massage Elite in Tempe./issues/arts/696045
The waiting room at Massage Elite in Tempe.
<em>Photo illustration</em>/issues/arts/696045
Photo illustration


As Sam Friedman walks into Massage Elite, he doesn't know what to expect. A neon "Asian" sign shines out the window, illuminating the dark plaza. Another small sign reads "Open 9 to midnight, 365 days."

Friedman, a male SPM reporter, admits that he is nervous about being sent to check out an unconfirmed report -- that the massage practice offers not just massages but sexual favors in exchange for money.

Friedman takes a step into the empty waiting room. Curtains drawn across the windows make him hardly visible to the outside world. A small, framed menu hangs on the wall, listing Massage Elite's services. A half-hour massage is $40, three-quarter hour is $50 and one hour is $60. The practice also offers a twenty-minute milk and salt bath for $25.

An attractive middle-aged Asian woman opens a door in the back of the room and warmly welcomes Friedman. She has long hair and is wearing a fitted black dress. He asks her for a half-hour massage.

Five doors stand facing each other in a small hallway in the back of the practice. The masseuse leaves Friedman to undress. Once inside the red-lit room, Friedman looks around for any signs of unusual activity. Inside a closet he notices a robe hanging with a pair of men's silk boxers tucked underneath. The chili-printed boxes read "too hot to handle" in white letters.

Friedman prepares himself mentally for what might come next as he takes off all of his clothing except his boxers and lies belly-down on the table on top of a towel.

When the woman returns, she briskly pulls his boxers off.

"You don't need," she says in a heavy Chinese accent.

"You so young," the woman says, patting Friedman's cheeks. "You so cute, you get haircut."

The woman begins rubbing Friedman's shoulders and back, pressing her body against his head. Moving her hands along his backside, she begins clearly focusing her attention upon his crotch region, rubbing him in an erotic way.

After a few minutes, she asks Friedman to flip over so that he is fully exposed.

"For 10 more dollar, I massage you front," she says.

Friedman agrees, allowing the woman to rub his chest and arms. At one point she grabs his penis, laughing at the fact that he is not turned on.

Friedman later explains the experience was far from arousing.

"Knowing this 40-year-old woman was only doing this because she wanted my money was really sad and a complete turn-off," he says.

As the woman continues massaging his body, he asks what other services he could pay for. She shakes her head and says "too young" in a lowered voice.

"I got the impression that she didn't want to offer me things," Friedman says. "She was almost motherly."

The masseuse charged Friedman $50 for his 20-minute massage, although he had asked for a half-hour.

Cindy Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who works at the parlor, says Friedman's experience is an isolated event. Zhang spoke through translator Ted Yang, a linguistics major originally from Taiwan whose native language is Mandarin, the dialect spoken in China.

Through the translator, Zhang says that she has never heard of therapists providing sexual services at Massage Elite. When asked if it's possible that some employees could be providing sexual favors, she said she didn't know.

"She said that if one of their masseuses did provide sexual services, it's a really big deal to them," says Yang. "She wanted to know when the incident occurred and what woman gave the massage because what happened was against their practice."

Zhang would not provide the phone number to the owners of Massage Elite, explaining that they were traveling and could not be reached.

Zhang adds that Massage Elite customers have to be 21 years old to avoid bone injury, and because college students don't have the income to afford massages.

Furthermore, Zhang says that although customers are topless for an oil massage, Massage Elite provides shorts and towels for them to wear.

"She said if there are customers who don't want to wear the shorts, the masseuse will ask them to wear a towel," says Yang.

Hidden Menus for Happy Endings

Phyllis, a 54-year-old who was involved in the sexual massage industry in Arizona off and on between 1994 and 2003, says that experiences like Friedman's are typical and that there are very few practices in the Valley that don't offer sexual massages.

"The menus are coded," says Phyllis, who asked SPM to only use her first name. "Full-body massage means sexual massage; full service means intercourse, although it's not as common because if they're smart, they don't need to have intercourse."

Phyllis, who has been out of the industry for over two years, was a licensed massage therapist who advanced into trading sexual favors and intercourse for money. Phyllis practiced in her home, as well as in hotels and her clients' homes in Scottsdale and Phoenix.

"I was doing massage therapy and people kept asking me for sex," she says. "One day a client said 'if you would only do a hand job after this great massage, I'd pay you an extra $100,'" she says.

Phyllis, who was a single parent with seven children, says that for two or three years she declined such requests. After a while, she got lazy, she says, and too prideful to ask for financial help when she needed it.

"I started out just doing a hand job, but I just got further and further into the industry," she says. "I started getting addicted to the money and power and to getting lots of money out of people for doing very little."

Little Evidence

Although Phyllis says that massage practices offer "happy endings" -- a phrase coined by many people for manuel sexual stimulation after a massage -- the police say it is an issue that is complicated to deal with.

Sgt. Dan Masters, public information officer for Tempe police, says that sexual solicitation in a private business, such as a massage practice, is nearly a victimless crime.

"It's one of those things where the people involved in operating the business or the customers themselves aren't usually the ones likely to call police," says Masters.

In 2003, Scottsdale officials initiated a crackdown on massage facility operators and therapists due to a rise in complaints from residents, business owners and licensed massage therapists. The crackdown led to tightening regulations and the invasion of many practices in order to prevent prostitutes from practicing under the guise of a legitimate massage practice.

Such a movement has never occurred in Tempe, Masters says. Furthermore, dealing with sex trafficking in massage parlors typically is not an issue for Tempe police.

"It's not that I've never heard of it, but it's not something we really have to address on a daily basis," he says.

However, although such occurrences are not reported as frequently in Tempe in comparison to other cities, public information officer Aki Stant says that such matters are still a priority for police.

"We take complaints seriously and do our best to investigate to the extent outlined by statute and policy," he says. "Activities such as solicitation for sex and prostitution, whether within a locality or otherwise, create an environment that promotes the incidence of other crimes such as assault, sexual assault, robbery, crimes related to substance abuse and the like."

The Dark World of Sexual Massage

It took police interference to take Phyllis out her life of prostitution. An undercover officer arrested her in 2003.

Phyllis had actually stopped having sexual intercourse for money after she was assaulted in 1996, but was still trading other sexual favors for money.

"My prices just went up and up and up," she says. "I knew I could charge anything and get what I wanted."

She says that at one point, she was making more than $1000 in a few hours, charging between $200 and $250 for a hand job, and between $400 and $600 for anything beyond that. However, Phyllis says that the money didn't last because she would spend it all on gifts for her friends and children.

"When you don't feel like you've honored yourself in earning the money, you just throw it away," she says. "When you go further into the industry, you leave your self-respect. It's a very dark world and you think you'll be okay and that you're smart. But you end up with so much self-hate."

United States-born Phyllis lived in Israel for 15 years before returning to the states with bad credit and little education, she says. Phyllis says that it is easy for immigrant women to get into the industry because they lack support emotionally and financially, and because they suffer from culture shock.

"I think that people get into it, especially Asian women, for several reasons," says Phyllis. "One is because sex is thought of differently in Asia. Two, they just can't find ways to make money here. And going into the industry, they don't have to struggle as much with the language or the culture."

Leif Jonsson, an associate professor of anthropology at ASU, agrees that there are many cultural factors that play a part in Asian women, like the employees at Massage Elite, getting involved in prostitution.

"In Thailand, prostitution is not such a marked occupation," says Jonsson, who has spent four years in Thailand and neighboring countries studying social change and national integration in rural areas.

"A lot of times, there is cultural pressure for women to take care of their parents financially, and this pressure is not put on men."

Jonsson says that for the most part, Thai women get involved in the industry voluntarily.

"The 'working girls' who do it usually see it as a temporary thing," he says. "They take the chance of doing it for a couple years, and then they find a husband and never go back."

Phyllis had also planned to solicit sexual favors temporarily, but says that it is extremely difficult for anyone to get out of the sex industry.

"When you get used to making $400 an hour, you don't want to go back," she says. "You think, 'If I just do three tricks, just strip for one day, what's the big deal?'" she says.

Phyllis says she had thousands of clients over the years and that she began to detest men. She enjoyed the power she felt when she had them in a vulnerable position, she says.

"You get these guys naked acting like assholes and idiots and they're very vulnerable," she says. "But you're never safe -- they're strong, they're men. Even though they're naked and you think you have one up on them, you don't always."

After Phyllis was arrested, she went through a social services program for formerly prostituted women called Diversion in Phoenix where she vowed to never turn back to the sex industry and counseled other women to get out of the industry. Today, Phyllis uses her massage skills to work with pregnant women and conducts healing workshops.

Phyllis says she would love to see an end to the industry, but that women must first realize that there is no fast way to pay their way in this world.

"Every single one of us is unique and special and we all have special gifts," she says. "Spreading our legs to a stranger is not living to our potential."

She also says that men must realize the damage that such actions cause in these women's lives, and ask themselves if they would want their own mothers, sisters and daughters in the same position as these women.

"It's really two people using each other for the worst possible reasons with the worst possible results," she says. "You get wounded for life."

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How to pick a parlor: What to look for in a legitimate massage practice.

Ashley Lougheed, a licensed massage therapist and instructor, says there are many ways to determine whether or not a massage practice is a legitimate business.

"First of all, consider the hours," says Lougheed, who practices at Health in Focus in Scottsdale and teaches at the Phoenix Therapeutic Massage College. According to the city code of Tempe, it is illegal for a massage facility to provide services between Midnight and 6 a.m.

Lougheed adds that that most practices other than larger chains don't typically take walk-ins.

She says that the name of the business is also a good indicator of what type of operation it is. "You're usually safe to go to a business with 'therapy,' 'health,' or 'wellness' in its name," she says.

The location of the business is also important. Massage therapy centers near doctors' offices or in professional plazas are usually safe, as opposed to a massage business in a strip mall, she says.

"A tiny place next to a Blockbuster with a neon sign in a window probably isn't the best place to go," Lougheed says.

During your massage, your body should be at least partially covered at all times with a sheet, not a towel, she says. Lougheed teaches her students proper draping techniques, in which they wrap a towel over the parts of their clients' bodies that are not being worked on.

For example, when a massage therapist is working on the back, the sheet should cover the legs -- it is folded at the waist and tucked under the body.

"There should be no drifts of air on the parts of the body not being worked on. You should feel securely draped and comfortable," she says.

As a client, you should never be naked in front of the massage therapist, Lougheed says, who prefers that her clients wear underwear. Furthermore, there shouldn't be any inappropriate touching involved.

"No part of the therapists' body should touch any parts of your body that would be covered by a bathing suit, except her hands and forearms," says Lougheed.

Lougheed says it is also unusual for a massage practice to offer a half-hour massage.

"Therapeutically speaking, it takes at least 15 to 20 minutes to just warm up the muscles, so you wouldn't want to do less than an hour to get any benefits," she says. -- M.O.

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