MAY 5, 2011

Student Activist Fights to End Sex Trafficking in Massage Parlors
By Dana Liebelson,, May 5, 2011

Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Photo Credit: antjeverenaAn ordinance that would strengthen regulations on massage parlors in Pittsburgh will be voted on within the next couple weeks. If this bill passes, it has the potential to seriously curb sex trafficking in Pittsburgh and provide a model to the rest of the country. spoke with Jessica Dickinson Goodman, a student activist at Carnegie Mellon University who is doing research on anti-trafficking issues and helping rally support for this proposal.

Liebelson: How did you get involved with anti-human trafficking advocacy?

Dickinson Goodman: I worked on human trafficking during two summers in Washington, D.C. with the World Organization for Human Rights USA. There, I spent weeks reading the legal documents about their clients, some of whom were survivors of sex trafficking, and writing layperson-accessible stories about their lives for the website. Additionally, as a fellow with the Polaris Project last summer, I had the privilege of supporting their incredible staff and running my own high-impact projects.

Liebelson: Why did you decide to advocate for stronger regulation of massage parlors in Pittsburgh?

Dickinson Goodman: Today, there are 5000+ brothels posing as massage parlors nationwide. For the women who are trafficked in them, they are prisons. These massage parlors often use the same price structures, recruiting practices and control-mechanisms. Because traffickers don't report the names and social security numbers of the women they harm, it is impossible to know how many of the women in massage parlors which sell sex are being trafficked. But even one slave is too many in 2011.

This ordinance essentially prevents sex trafficking in massage parlors. Using permits and licenses, it would distinguish between the legitimate small businesses of massage therapists and brothels at a high risk of human trafficking. It would do this by banning things that characterize brothels (barred windows, late-night hours, drunken johns) but would never be found in the business of a legitimate massage therapist.

Liebelson: Can you tell me about your research project?

Dickinson Goodman: A friend who interned with Free the Slaves, Ismail Smith-Wade-El, and I got together this semester to figure out how many massage parlors sold sex in Pittsburgh. We both knew this issue mattered and had the time and skills to do something about it. We used popular johns boards and other websites for men who buy sex, and made a Google Map with pins for every massage parlor we found, linking to our evidence. Our conclusion was that there were a minimum of 15 brothels posing as massage parlors within the Pittsburgh city limits, and 7 more outside the limits, which were frequented by Pittsburgh-area men. But how could we end sex trafficking in Pittsburgh?

Last summer at Polaris Project, a group of law students were working on a model law to end sex trafficking in brothels posing as massage parlors. With their advice, I felt comfortable approaching Councilman Doug Shields at a local political event and telling him about the massage parlors which appeared to sell sex in his district.

After that, with the support of Jaime, Associate Executive Director for the Project to End Human Trafficking, Ismail and I have been meeting with the councilman, speaking to the press and corralling student and community support for the ordinance. Students and community members have written more than 500 letters to city council in support of this ordinance. More than a dozen student organizations on three Pittsburgh-area college campuses have gotten involved. It has been an inspiring whirlwind.

How can readers help support this proposal (besides signing the petition)?

Dickinson Goodman: If you live outside of the Pittsburgh area, by trying to get the model-ordinance passed in your district. One of our biggest challenges has been to show that this ordinance can help end sex trafficking, but because Pittsburgh is the first city in the United States to consider passing a comprehensive approach to ending sex trafficking, we don't have enough positive role models. Though the ordinance is based on the best practices of dozens of cities and counties from New Brunswick, NJ to Clarke County NV, it has never been passed in its entirety.

Photo Credit: antjeverena