Part Three of Three!
By now I hope that many of you have followed the first two parts of this article. If not, please scroll two posts past, read part one, then scroll up, read part two, and then this one.
San Francisco Chronicle, Meredith May
::caution:: adult content
Navigating past the junkies and hustlers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, You Mi Kim found the metal security door she was looking for, and pressed the buzzer. Inside Sun Spa massage parlor, the manager saw You Mi on the surveillance camera and threw some sea salt over the threshold — a Korean practice to ward off bad luck.
It was July 2003. It had been five months since You Mi was lured from her home in South Korea by international sex traffickers, who had tricked the debt-ridden college student with promises of a high-paying hostess job in America. After forcing her into sex work to pay them nearly $20,000, the traffickers had finally let her go. But freedom was elusive. Traffickers had taken all her earnings, yet she still faced a $40,000 shopping debt back home — the reason she left for an American job that promised big pay. Now, no fewer than six creditors were circling her family in South Korea. Any kind of job she could get as an illegal immigrant — cleaning homes or washing dishes in a restaurant — wouldn’t pay her debts in time. She wanted to protect her family from the shame of bankruptcy. She wanted her life back. You Mi felt she had no choice.
On her first day of freedom, she took an unlicensed Korean taxi from Los Angeles to another illicit massage parlor in San Francisco. The door of the Sun Spa opened. The manager, a Korean woman in her 50s, led You Mi inside and quickly handed her off to the masseuse with the most seniority. For the next four months, You Mi would become a person she never imagined. She and five other sex workers would share a dingy apartment on O’Farrell Street across from the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre. She’d spend her waking hours at Sun Spa, having sex with more than a dozen men a day, six days a week, and scurrying into secret hideaways during police raids. She would find the rumors about San Francisco to be true: It was a booming stop on the international sex-trafficking route. There was lots of money to be made. Customers plentiful, tips great.
But first, she would have to surrender her last shred of dignity.
The first stop on the Sun Spa tour was the five rooms on the bottom floor, used for the regulars. They were tiny, less than 50 square feet and bare except for a cot with one white sheet, a shower and a small painted nightstand in one corner. A mirror covered most of the wall near the bed. A fluorescent ceiling light cast a pallid green glow over the room. Upstairs, You Mi saw four rooms decorated to look like legitimate Chinese acupressure and massage rooms. They were cleaner, with massage tables instead of beds. The condoms were hidden. “This is where we bring the new customers,” You Mi’s guide explained. Next was the kitchen. The woman showed You Mi an empty water cooler bottle where she was to dispose of the used condoms. Off the kitchen there was a changing room with lockers. You Mi put on a long, sleeveless Korean dress that sex traffickers had made her wear in Los Angeles. “That’s not sexy enough,” her new co-worker said, instructing her to put on a bikini top and a sarong slit all the way to the waistband. The last stop on the tour was the bell, in a back room off the kitchen, used to summon the women when customers arrived. Within earshot, You Mi saw a half-dozen Korean women lounging, watching TV and eating. Suddenly, a loud ring cut through the noise of the TV. The women dropped their chopsticks and hustled out to the lobby, arranging themselves on an L-shaped sofa so the customer could make his choice. You Mi followed the pack.
She sat on the sofa, feeling like a dog that had responded to its master’s whistle.
What You Mi knew of San Francisco was limited to the two blocks between Sun Spa and the cramped studio apartment she shared with her co-workers. It was in the heart of the Tenderloin, the end of the line for San Francisco’s most desperate: the addicted looking for a street-corner fix, the homeless looking for a cheap motel, the men looking to buy sex. It’s here where the bulk of San Francisco’s 90 illicit massage parlors are concentrated, identifiable by double metal security doors, surveillance cameras and windows that are blocked out with aluminum foil, plastic garbage bags or paint. To You Mi, the area seemed grittier and scarier than the open-air sex markets in her South Korean hometown of Busan.
You Mi worked until 1 a.m. each morning, and after eating a last meal at Sun Spa, walked back to the studio apartment, ignoring the “Hey, babys” and drug offers that came out of the dark. Inside the apartment, she’d find space on one of the floor mattresses and crash until about 10 a.m., with just a few minutes to spare until she was due back at the massage parlor. On her one day off a week, she slept. At first, You Mi was not making much money. Her constant frown made it obvious she didn’t like the work. None of the men chose her from the couch on her first few days of work. The money she earned in tips was also getting eaten away by little fees and costs structured into You Mi’s working arrangement. Her share of the rent on her apartment was $300 per week. You Mi would also have to pay $50 a day for food, a $40 weekly tip to the cook, plus a $70 weekly tip to the Sun Spa manager. Sun Spa gave her a cell phone so her bosses and customers could reach her, and You Mi was responsible for the bill. She even had to pay for her wardrobe. Each week, an elderly South Korean woman came by Sun Spa with imported sex-worker clothes in the back of her trunk — the kind worn by prostitutes in South Korea. The woman charged $100 per bikini top or bottom. You Mi spent $300 for an off-white wraparound skirt no bigger than an unfolded napkin, and a yellow and blue cheerleader-style skirt with matching halter top. The top had a logo, the word PORN spelled backward. She had no idea what the English word meant. Given all the incidental costs, sometimes You Mi walked home with as little as $100.
As the new girl, You Mi got most of the new customers. This was bad for two reasons: Newcomers sometimes didn’t understand they had to tip at least $100 for sex. It also was risky, because an unfamiliar visitor could be an undercover cop. After several weeks on the job, You Mi heard an unfamiliar buzzer inside Sun Spa. It was the signal that police had made their way inside the massage parlor. You Mi followed the women running to the kitchen with boxes of condoms in their arms. They made their way to a secret door near the refrigerator and slipped into a dank basement of the adjoining apartment building, filled with bags of rotting garbage and broken furniture. They ran barefoot in their lingerie, dodging puddles and broken glass, and ducked into a musty alcove with a rusted boiler and a water heater. You Mi squeezed in with the pack behind a huge metal fan, and trembled in the sticky heat. She knew what kind of trouble could come from getting arrested for prostitution. When it happened to her in Los Angeles, she wound up in a jail cell and had to be rescued by her trafficker. She remembered telling her story inside the police station to a Korean-speaking officer, who made no effort to help her. You Mi listened to the police officers searching Sun Spa, as she crouched in the ventilation room. Her feet were bleeding. Finally, the manager came to the hiding spot. “It’s safe. Come back and get to work,” she said.
You Mi finally summoned the courage to call to her mother for the first time since she’d landed in California. Her mother was furious. By now she had figured out that You Mi was in the United States. You Mi suspected her sister couldn’t keep the secret. “I’m so sorry about all the trouble I put you through,” You Mi said. Her mother had been able to pay the Samsung credit card with a $10,000 bank loan. But You Mi still owed about $30,000 to the moneylenders, and now her mother was frightened the family might lose the house. “I’ve failed as a parent,” she cried into the phone. “Come home.” “Mama, don’t worry, the U.S. is a rich country, and I can pay the debts working here,” You Mi said. There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally, her mother asked You Mi what kind of work she was doing. You Mi paused. “I have two jobs. I work in a restaurant in the day and a bar at night. I’m only getting five or six hours of sleep, but I’m making good money,” she said. You Mi’s mother didn’t know very much about the United States, yet You Mi wasn’t sure her mother had been fooled. Her mother didn’t ask any more questions. You Mi didn’t offer any more details.
After You Mi said goodbye, she thought about her situation and got angry. She made up her mind to work as hard and fast as possible, even during her period, just so she could get out. After hearing her mother’s voice, You Mi became an actress. She smiled at every customer from the couch, hoping to be chosen. She learned a little more English: “How is your wife, how old is your son, what did you do today?” to feign interest so the man would become a regular. Gone was the sullen young woman who kept her eyes down and spoke only when spoken to. She told jokes. She flirted. She turned her brain off. You Mi asked for massage technique tips from the other women and learned how to give such good rubdowns that most of the customer’s allotted 45 minutes would slip by before he would realize it and demand sexual attention. For the first time, she had repeat clients. They were divorcees, single men unlucky in love, married men having trouble with their wives, and men who simply preferred to pay for sex. They paid $50 to get past the front desk, and then tips ranging from $100 to $300, depending on whether they wanted to be stimulated manually, orally or through intercourse. Their requests sometimes struck her as perverted. Every once in a while, they were violent. Once, You Mi was saved only by her screams, when the manager interrupted a customer trying to choke her to death. The attacker was refunded his $50 and sent on his way, and You Mi was ordered to get back to work. You Mi was thankful to the johns who were kind. Her most devoted visitor was an unmarried inventor in his 40s, an immigrant from India. He came every weekday night — so often the manager gave him every fifth night on the house. You Mi pretended to enjoy the iced coffee he always brought in a thermos. She acted enthusiastic about his promises to patent a portable shower for surfers, and to use the riches to make her his pampered Presidio Heights wife.
Soon You Mi was making money faster than she ever had in Los Angeles. The tips were much greater in San Francisco. In a month, she sent $10,000 home. You Mi charmed each man into thinking he was her favorite. Many considered themselves her boyfriend. They all wanted her cell-phone number. “Hey, You Mi, come check your score,” said one of her massage parlor co-workers, beckoning her over to a computer screen. They were in the co-worker’s apartment one evening in September. Like many of the women You Mi worked with, the friend was “independent,” meaning she had paid off her trafficking debt and contracted out her sexual service, keeping most of the money for herself so she could afford things, like her own apartment and computer.
You Mi looked over her friend’s shoulder and saw a Bay Area Web site — myredbook.com — dedicated to reviewing and ranking sex workers on a 1-to-10 scale. At Sun Spa, You Mi eventually learned that the Internet was a major player in San Francisco’s sexual underground. The Bay Area’s tech culture was good for the sex-trafficking industry, providing a fast, anonymous way for first-time customers to comparison shop before venturing out into a sex parlor. Sex workers relied on the Internet, too, to generate customers and develop a following. A good review could bring in more money; a bad one could put a girl out of business. You Mi couldn’t believe it when she heard that some girls had sunk so low that they were even giving men free sex in exchange for good reviews. But to survive, You Mi had to learn the sexual code used on the Web site. Male bloggers, calling themselves “hobbyists,” with handles such as “inthenameofsnatch,” rated female “providers.” One score for her body and one for her sexual technique. Each woman was described by her ethnicity, age, eye and hair color, height, build, tattoos and piercings. Even a woman’s breasts (“34B, perky, implants”) and “kitty” (shaved, trimmed or natural) were critiqued. Used by sex customers and monitored by law enforcement since 1997, the site has more than 50,000 reviews of Northern California escorts and masseuses. The chat rooms are full of sexual braggadocio among men, and conversations about how to keep their “hobby” a secret from their wives. Some typical postings: “Adequate if you’re horny.” “With a little seasoning she’ll be an all-star.” “She took one for the team in five different positions.” A few clicks could pull up a list of 90 San Francisco massage parlors and descriptions of the kind of sex that can be had inside each. Maps are provided. Most of the city’s illicit massage parlors are clustered in the Tenderloin and Chinatown, with a scattering in the Richmond District, Union Square, the Marina, the South of Market area and North Beach. Thirty-seven of the sex parlors described on myredbook.com are licensed as massage establishments through the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
You Mi clicked on her brothel name, “Nana,” and saw she had been ranked a 7 out of 10. She had only a few postings, describing her as cute, friendly and having a nice smile. As embarrassing as it was to have her body analyzed in a chat room, her overriding emotion was relief. A good review meant she could get out of the sex trade faster. Her body ached and her faith in humanity was gone. She was only 23, but she felt like an old woman.
The backroom bell rang. The Sun Spa women hustled to line up on the couch for a customer who had just walked in from the October night. Moments before, the women had been laughing about who had the ugliest regular customer. You Mi was still suppressing a giggle when she sat on the couch. The 28-year-old man, who had weaved in from a nearby bar where he was drinking away a bad breakup, thought her smile looked more genuine than the others. He pointed at You Mi. In private, the man’s eyes softened. He was the first customer You Mi ever had who didn’t grab at her. His touch was gentle, respectful. When he asked for her phone number, she gave it. He called, and asked whether he could take her to an Italian dinner in North Beach. Although it was against house rules to date a customer, North Beach was far away and You Mi picked a night she was the only woman off the schedule to minimize the risk of getting caught.
At the restaurant, she pecked at the mussels on her spaghetti. She had never had Italian food, and thought he had said Thai food when he invited her out. But their conversation made up for what was lacking in the meal. Using an electronic Korean-English dictionary and the rudimentary phrases she had learned in Korean schools, she was able to talk with him about their families, their lives and what brought them to San Francisco. You Mi wasn’t ready to tell him everything, but she knew she would someday. Another night they went to sing karaoke at Do Re Mi in Japantown. This time, You Mi skipped the makeup and the sexy clothes. He looked at her in her sweatshirt and baggy jeans, and thought she was simply beautiful. He asked her that night to leave Sun Spa. In November, four months after her first day at Sun Spa, You Mi had enough money to pay off the credit card debt. She gave $30,000 — plus a $1,200 fee — to a Sun Spa manager who drove to Los Angeles every two weeks with bags of cash. Once in Koreatown, the Sun Spa manager gave the money to an underground Korean money changer, who called his people in South Korea and told them to deliver the cash to You Mi’s mother. All the women working at Sun Spa sent money home this way. Within the sex-trafficking ring, the rule of thumb was to trust no one, but there were a few unbreakable codes of conduct. Trusting a stranger to send tens of thousands to your family in South Korea without stealing it was one of them.
The day You Mi left Sun Spa, she had just her passport, some money and some clothes. The other women in the brothel assumed she was getting married — the main reason most women left sex work. The manager gave her $1,000 on her way out the door. While it could have been interpreted as a fleeting moment of kindness, You Mi knew better. Most girls don’t make it on the outside and come back, to work as a masseuse or as a recruiter in their hometowns for the trafficking ring. It’s a smart business strategy to leave on good terms. You Mi directed the taxi to drop her off at the home of the one person who had shown her some kindness during her ordeal — the boyfriend she had secretly been meeting for dates outside Sun Spa. For the first time, she got to see what California looked like on the outside. He took her to the Golden Gate Bridge and Baker Beach, and bought her first pair of hiking shoes after she broke a heel on one of their nature walks. You Mi couldn’t believe she had been living amid such a breathtaking landscape for months, yet had never seen it. She had forgotten that beauty even existed.
In South Korea, You Mi’s mother went to court with the money, to settle with all the collection agencies. Then she called her daughter. “It’s over,” she said. You Mi wanted to believe her mother, but her heart wasn’t in it. She now knew the cold truth —
that her life would never be simple again.
Inside a Korean restaurant in San Francisco, You Mi ran between the kitchen and the tables with little white bowls of appetizers. Korean dinner always starts with numerous small plates: kimchi, fish cake, daikon radish, black beans, anchovies, sesame-soaked cucumber and acorn jelly. It’s sweaty apron work for minimum wage. With the Korean custom of not tipping, she was lucky to take home $30 a night from the customers.
But she was free.
It was June 2006. It had been a little over two years since she stepped out of Sun Spa for the last time. Not long after You Mi quit sex work, two Korean women escaped from a brothel near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and went to the police. Soon afterward, the people who trafficked You Mi into California fell under federal surveillance, and by summer 2005, they were in handcuffs. The men who arranged You Mi’s trip from Korea, her brokers in Los Angeles, and the madams and taxi drivers who controlled her movements were among those named in Operation Gilded Cage, a federal indictment of 45 Koreans in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although two dozen masseuses agreed to testify in San Francisco, none of the 29 people charged in connection with Korean sex trafficking in the Bay Area has gone to trial. Ten have pleaded guilty to lesser alien-harboring or money-laundering charges, and most of them were sentenced to less than a year in custody and fined less than $5,000. The woman who operated Suk Hee, where You Mi refused to work in North Beach, was ordered to forfeit $1.2 million. The two suspected San Francisco ringleaders — the only two charged with sex trafficking — are still awaiting trial. News of Operation Gilded Cage spread quickly through the Korean community. You Mi learned that some of the women taken from the massage parlors might qualify for a T-1 visa for trafficking victims, allowing them to stay in the country for three years and then apply for a green card. Only those who could prove they were enslaved by “force, fraud or coercion” would receive the special visa.
Congress created the T-1 visa in 2000 as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, along with 20-year prison terms for sex traffickers. Prosecutors have used the law to send 109 sex traffickers to prison nationwide — compared with just 20 in the five years before the law. On the victim side of the equation, only 1,000 T-1 visas have been issued, although 5,000 are available each year, in large part because victims must testify against their captors in exchange for the visa. You Mi wants to imprison the people who imprisoned her. She offered to testify for the government, but prosecutors turned her down because she was not part of the Operation Gilded Cage crackdown.
Ivy Lee, an attorney specializing in human trafficking at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco, helped You Mi apply for the T-1 visa. After a five-month investigation, the government concluded that You Mi was a sex-trafficking victim and granted her the visa on July 25. You Mi is ready for her new life in California. She has fallen in love with the landscape and the relaxed attitude about gender roles. It amazes her to see women running companies or running errands in ponytails and sweats. And she has fallen in love. The relationship between You Mi and her boyfriend lasted outside the artificial environment of the massage parlor. (Her boyfriend asked to remain anonymous in this story so they can maintain a private life together.) But she never truly can escape her past. She keeps her head down when serving food at the restaurant, in case someone at the table is a former customer who would recognize her. It’s been hard for her to start over, to make new friends. She doesn’t like to say much because even the most innocent questions about where she came from force her to change the subject.
Sex work has left her with lingering health problems. A gynecologist told her that she is at high risk for cervical cancer. And she knows the Korean criminal syndicate could easily find her. You Mi got a terrible scare earlier this year, when a moneylender in South Korea sent her a threatening e-mail, claiming that she still owed him $7,000 and that she’d better wire it immediately to a certain account. Whoever sent the note discovered her American e-mail address through her home page on Cyworld, the Korean equivalent of myspace.com. You Mi wrote back, telling the sender that she would keep his threatening e-mail with her attorney. She hasn’t heard from him since. She goes out of her way to avoid certain streets in San Francisco where the trafficking networks operate. Today, seven of the 10 alleged San Francisco brothels raided in Operation Gilded Cage are still open for business, including Sun Spa.
Despite increased federal and local attention, sex trafficking still thrives in the Bay Area. Sex traffickers stay one step ahead of law enforcement by becoming more clandestine, taking their operations to suburban homes and apartments. Madams are accepting new customers only with referrals from regulars. “These sex traffickers are totally brazen,” said Chuck DeMore, head of investigations for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Francisco. “We arrest them, they stop for a few weeks and start up again. They have hundreds more waiting to take their place.” During the past two years, suspicious neighbors in Livermore, Concord, San Mateo and Santa Clara have tipped police to underground Asian brothels in their neighborhoods. The explosion of sex trafficking in California led lawmakers this year to make the state one of the few with its own human-trafficking law. So far, no one has been prosecuted under the new California law.
For You Mi, her time as a sex slave has left a permanent bruise on her soul. A year of her life was taken away. Her innocence is gone. Her trust obliterated. Tension is woven into her personality. You Mi misses her family. She misses her life before it went so wrong. The T-1 visa has given her a sense of justice, but she wants men to know what really goes on inside a massage parlor. “Most customers come into a massage parlor thinking nothing is wrong; that it’s a job we choose,” she said. “It doesn’t occur to them that we are slaves.”