Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty)

Last year, dozens of men had their penises touched at massage parlors on the Treasure Coast of Florida. One of them was the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft. Another was a police officer, identified as Detective Brock. The former was charged with two misdemeanors and became a punchline. The latter was hailed as a hero.

As part of a sting operation on September 14, 2018, seeking victims of human trafficking at East Spa in Vero Beach, Brock laid on his stomach on a massage table in his boxers while a woman “crawled up on the table, straddling his head with her crotch.” She then asked him to flip onto his back, and she “briefly ran her hand over his genital area.” She raised herself on top of him and straddled “his thighs,” then lifted up her dress to show him her “panties” and “whispered, ‘You want?’” She offered to have sex with him for $160.

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Four days later, Brock came back to the massage parlor and stripped down to his underwear, and again a woman “ran her hand briefly over his penis.” When she asked “If there was anything else you would like?” and he asked her to clarify, she got suspicious. “You trouble, you trouble, you police?” He managed to convince her otherwise, they negotiated prices, and Brock said he didn’t have enough money. Then he “pointed at her crotch…and said, ‘I want that, so I’ll just wait till next week.’” The woman then straddled him, lifted up her skirt to show him her “pink thong” and “buttocks,” and mentioned again that she thought he might have been a police officer. She ended her massage with a kiss on Brock’s cheek.

While the details of Kraft’s encounters at Orchids of Asia Day Spa, 60 miles down the road from East Spa, have not been released, he was caught as part of a similar sting in Jupiter. Kraft’s massage parlor escapades were splayed across websites next to headlines trumpeting that the massage parlor he visited had been busted as part of a sex trafficking ring. But among sex-worker advocates another narrative was proffered: The sting wasn’t in fact about human trafficking at all, it was targeting consensual sex workers.

The debate centers on the argument that rates of human trafficking are wildly exaggerated, and that anti-sex-trafficking stings are in fact moralistic anti-sex-work stings. Such operations often end with police finding few or no victims and arresting consensual sex workers instead. Although sex trafficking does exist, it is not nearly as common or as large a problem as law enforcement and the media make it out to be. So which version of the events in Florida is the true story? It’s pretty tough to tell.

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I started with two questions whose answers were surprisingly hard to find: How many people have been charged with human trafficking in the recent Florida stings that caught Kraft? And how many victims of human trafficking do police claim to have found?

The answer to the first question, stunningly, is zero. Not a single person has been charged with human trafficking in connection with multiple sex-trafficking stings in towns and cities on the east coast of Florida, including Jupiter, Vero Beach, and Sebastian. A press release from the Vero Beach Police said Lanyun Ma, the owner of East Spa—where Detective Brock had his penis touched—has been charged with human trafficking. But neither the affidavit nor warrant show any charges under Florida’s human-trafficking statute. Instead, she is charged with prostitution, deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, unlawful transportation for the purposes of prostitution, and racketeering. A spokesman for the state attorney’s office declined to comment on whether trafficking charges are still a possibility, as did Ma’s attorney.

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In the trafficking sting in Martin County, meanwhile, there were no individuals charged with human trafficking, only with prostitution. The owner of Orchids of Asia, Hua Zhang, was charged with deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, soliciting another to commit prostitution, renting space to be used for prostitution, and maintaining a house of prostitution. The vast majority of the arrests in both counties were of men soliciting prostitutes. On CNN, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said police are trying to figure out why women would “go and allow themselves to be trafficked.”

As for the second question, two to six “possible victims” of human trafficking have been identified, according to the Martin County Sherriff’s Office press conference. The Vero Beach police department said one victim has been confirmed in Indian River County. While Jupiter police concluded women working at Orchids of Asia had been trafficked based on the presence of beds and dressers, their affidavit did not include a number of suspected victims.

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While it has only been a few days since the arrests were announced and further charges are possible, the stings were months in the making, so law enforcement agencies simply may not have enough evidence for trafficking charges. Sex-worker-rights advocates say it is very common for police to overstate their findings in trafficking stings. “Our legislators and law enforcement have been led to believe that sex trafficking is huge in Florida, but studies have shown that because sex trafficking and sex work is being conflated all the time,” said Alex Andrews, a sex worker in the Orlando area and an advocate with the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Finding reliable data on sex trafficking is difficult, but according to the FBI’s most recent data there were 65 human trafficking incidents reported in Florida in 2017. Fifty-one resulted in “clearances” (which generally means arrests and charges) and zero people were charged with trafficking minors. Florida ranked fourth in number of incidents of human trafficking behind Texas (193), Minnesota (173), and Arizona (92). For comparison, there were 7,940 incidents of rape and 1,057 murders (and non-negligent homicides) in Florida in 2017, according to Norma Jean Almodovar, a sex worker advocate, former sex worker, and former LAPD officer who ran the numbers.

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Orchids of Asia is one of about 9,000 massage parlors nationwide that offer sexual services ranging from hand jobs to intercourse. Police departments are well aware that many massage parlors are fronts for prostitution, but they often are allowed to operate in plain view, with the occasional bust of a parlor to make it seem like the police are combating prostitution. In Jupiter, about 20 percent of the massages police captured on video were non-sexual, while most of the sex police videotaped at Orchids involved manual stimulation of penises, although there was some fellatio—including, allegedly, on Kraft—and one instance of a man performing cunnilingus on a masseuse. (In the 18 reviews of Orchids of Asia on RubMaps, the Yelp for massage-parlor clients, half of reviewers complain that sexual services weren’t offered or that masseuses at the parlor refused to give them hand jobs when they requested them.)

In addition to Robert Kraft, about 100 people were charged with soliciting prostitution across the two raids. Arresting johns is part of a fairly new “End The Demand” strategy. But not everybody agrees that this is the best way to combat sex trafficking. “When you arrest clients you’re making verifying safe clients and vetting clients very difficult,” Andrews said. “We don’t want our clients arrested. Leave Robert Kraft alone.”

Six possible trafficking victims is six too many, but fundamental questions remain about the strategy in this case. Dozens of people worked at the spas that were part of the sting. Why weren’t the other women considered victims?

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Bradley Myles, the CEO of anti-trafficking organization Polaris, said one possible reason there weren’t more victims is that “If someone has been a very harrowing experience for years, they don’t pop out of that experience and immediately say what they’ve been through. They’ve been brainwashed in a sense [and may have] ‘repressed memories.’” (It’s worth noting that the concept of repressed memories has been dismissed as a myth by most psychologists.)

Myles also said the women, many of whom reportedly do not speak English, may be afraid to talk to the police about what happened. But assuming that many more of the women were victims, it raises a question asked on Reddit’s r/sexworkers thread: “why would they take months to free a bona fide victim? If someone has actually being held against their will, you don’t investigate it over a period of months while filming them having sex with others. You get them out.”

Myles said he wishes the officers could have gotten the women out earlier, but “law enforcement had to make the judgment call” of whether to pull the women out of the massage parlors. They were probably waiting to “have a certain threshold [of evidence] to prove racketeering and catch a volume of buyers so when they do they big sting [the evidence would hold],” he said.

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It’s impossible to know whether or not the women in south Florida were victimized or consenting without asking them directly, and so far, police haven’t shown the results of those conversations. Andrews said jumping to conclusions without concrete evidence helps feed misleading narratives about the scale of trafficking. “These people could have been coming over knowing they were going to massage parlors, but we don’t know. There is no evidence to suggest either way.”


Hallie Lieberman is a sex historian and journalist. She’s the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. She’s currently researching her next book on the history of male sex workers.