Experts say that human trafficking is everywhere, hidden in plain sight, if you don’t see it, you’re not looking. The American public has no idea how true these statements really are. I earned a PhD in criminology and have conducted extensive research on human trafficking for the past 10 years. Yet, despite a decade’s worth of experience, I still have difficulty recognizing human trafficking when I see it.
Recently, I learned that my nail salon may be a front for a brothel.
I’ve patronized the same nail salon for nearly four years, even taking my daughters there for manicures and pedicures. You would think I would have known what was going on, considering that I’ve trained law enforcement, victims’ service providers and college students on human trafficking identification, but I didn’t. Perhaps I took the salon’s legitimacy for granted.
This salon is in a quintessential bedroom community, surrounding a man-made lake and golf course and not far from the District. It’s not where you would expect a brothel to operate. The salon is sandwiched between a coffee shop and a cafe. The lack of identification on my part wasn’t because I was being inattentive; every time I visited this location, I noticed that the clients were nearly 100 percent female, of all ages, races and ethnicities. There was no reason for me to suspect anything illicit. Until there was.
Recently, while I was relaxing in a spa-pedicure seat, a young, good-looking military man walked in and asked for a massage. My ears perked up, as I hadn’t known the salon offered massages. Also, I was curious as to how this young man chose this nail salon for his needs, especially when there was a well-known massage business in the same shopping center.
Because I knew that some nail salons provide a cover for illicit commercial sex and human-trafficking enterprises, I looked my salon up at the Internet’s No. 1 erotic massage review site, where, the site’s operators claim, “fantasy meets reality.”
Lo and behold, there were reviews by 17 “johns,” some dating back more than two years, claiming to have received illicit services at my nail salon; the most recent review was from June. One person wrote a particularly graphic description of the erotic services he had received.
I couldn’t believe how naive I had been. Prince William County Police are investigating the salon for commercial sex and trafficking.
With more than 100 erotic massage parlors in Virginia, there is no reason any community should think it is immune to the human trafficking scourge. Incredibly, many of these businesses have been investigated, raided and prosecuted, and yet they remain open. Proprietors receive short terms of incarceration, if any, and typically open a new parlor under a different name, sometimes in the same location. These illicit industries will continue infecting the United States unless law enforcement becomes more effective.
Human trafficking really is everywhere. Despite increases in awareness campaigns, traffickers continue to hide in plain sight, fooling even those of us who remain vigilant to exploitation. Even experts in the field, law enforcement officials and victims’ service providers fail to recognize human trafficking on a regular basis.
Better understanding the clandestine nature of this crime is imperative to reducing its incidence. In this day and age, we can’t take for granted that all businesses are free from commercial sexual exploitation.
The writer is a member of the Greater Prince William County Human Trafficking Task Force. She is writing a book about human trafficking.
Read more about this issue: