Vermont is supposed to be clean and beautiful and trade largely in ice-cream and foliage tourism. Could it possibly also dabble in sexual slavery? This story isn't completely clear on this question:
The regulars at the Park Place Tavern weren't surprised when police raided what is being described as an Asian brothel in a small house across their shared driveway.
But they were surprised when news reports linked the now-closed Tokyo Spa and two other health clubs in the area to what police say is an international prostitution ring that smuggled Asian women into the United States and made them sex slaves.
"We joked about it here all the time," said Sandy Maloney, who lives in an apartment complex out back.
Maloney said she watched as older men driving expensive out-of-state sport utility vehicles visited the Tokyo Spa at all hours.
The important distinction between something that can be joked about 'all the time' and something that is cause for concern seems to be whether the women engaging in sexwork were doing it voluntarily or not. I think that the definition of 'voluntary' can be very tricky in this particular case, especially if one is allowed to look at the women's whole lives before deciding on the answer, and always remembering that an illegal occupation lacks all the usual worker protections.
But in any case there's doubt that these sexworkers had volunteered:
During the raids earlier this month, authorities arrested eight women - five Korean and three Chinese - on federal immigration charges. All except two have been released, said Essex police Lt. Gary L. Taylor. No state criminal charges have been filed.
Taylor refused to discuss the ongoing investigation but knew of no other organized prostitution in Vermont's history.
"It's the first time I am aware of," Taylor said.
In court documents, police say the women who worked at the spas never left. Even groceries were brought to the house.
One Korean woman told investigators she had been smuggled into the United States and had only recently arrived at the Tokyo Spa.
Court documents filed by police to get search warrants for the three businesses outline what authorities say could be a link to international organized crime and sexual slavery. Similar operations, according to the papers, are being investigated by federal authorities in New York City, New Jersey and Maine.
"The way these massage parlors or spas or health clubs work, they are really fronts for prostitution," said Linda M. Hughes of the University of Rhode Island.
Hughes, who has studied international sex trafficking for 15 years, said many of the women have been smuggled into the United States and are being held "by some sort of forced fraud or coercion."
Typically, sex rings offer to bring women into the United States for a fee. Once in the United States, the women are forced to repay the cost of their passage by working as prostitutes.
The women will give most of the money they make to the brothel owner. They are charged for rent and expenses. They can be fined for rule infractions, Hughes said.
"There are all sorts of things they do to prevent these women from getting out," Hughes said. "That may mean these women have been enslaved for 20 years."
The women are then rotated between the brothels as part of a network that has, in some cases, operated nationwide.
There appears to be a thriving market in sexual slavery, if the word 'market' could be used for an activity in which some actors are not allowed to decide if they participate or not. So though we shouldn't really be calling sexual slavery an industry, it does seem to function like one. And there are men (and women?) willing to drive their out-of-state SUVs to Vermont to have sex with women who are perhaps not allowed to leave the premises even to buy groceries. Who is the real criminal here, I wonder?
There are things that people do which are nothing but a travesty of love, a hideous imitation of intimacy, something that reeks of death and evil. Maybe even in Vermont.