The Lost Girls

For the thousands of women who have been trafficked into Houston and forced to work as prostitutes in the city’s underground sex trade, escaping from captivity may be the easiest part of the nearly impossible road to recovery.
Left: A bathhouse listed on a Web site of erotic massage parlors in Houston. Right: Women at a spa hide their faces during a February 19 inspection by the Harris County precinct 4 constable’s office.
Photographs by Van Ditthavong

UPDATE: Thanks to the tireless efforts of anti-trafficking expert Dottie Laster and David Walding, an attorney with the Bernardo Kohler Center, the woman called Kiki featured in this story was released, after about a year of incarceration, from the La Salle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, on July 20, and is awaiting receipt of her T-Visa. After a brief stop in Houston for Thai food, she has moved to a safe place with a specially trained staff who assist victims of human trafficking. There, Kiki will get therapy as well as help finding a job and creating a new life for herself. She was beaming and beautiful, and when I asked her how she felt, she said, “Excellent!” (If you are interested in following Kiki’s progress, please contact Dottie Laster at info@lasterglobal.com.) —July 23, 2010

There are things that Kamchana doesn’t remember. This would include the period, six or so years ago, when she arrived in this country from Thailand and was moved from city to city so often she could not keep the names straight, much less spell or pronounce them. In “Boustons,” “Atanda,” “Mayarmei,” and other cities, the places she worked all looked the same inside and out, with the words “spa” or “massage” in the name and the neon Open signs always on. The front windows were usually blacked out, and there was often an ATM in the tiny lobby, which was furnished with cheap, overstuffed sofas where the women sat, their arms and legs crossed, dressed in lingerie or bikinis, waiting for customers. When the men arrived, their pick for the hour would walk them down a darkened hallway to a dim room with a massage table and soft music playing. In other rooms they’d wash them with warm, soapy water on a table. They’d finish with some variation of a “happy ending,” the massage parlor euphemism for intercourse, oral sex, a hand job, or whatever else the customer might ask for. Kamchana was then in her late thirties, but she looked younger, a fleshy woman with a persuasive smile and, even in the worst of times, an irresistible warmth. Her boss christened her “Kiki,” because her Thai name was too hard for Americans to remember.

The customers rarely seemed to grasp that the women were captives. They didn’t see the other rooms: the kitchen in the back with the overflowing ashtrays, the overloaded electrical outlets for the rice cookers and frying pans, the washer-dryers and the security cameras. These so-called spas were as tightly run as maximum-security prisons: Without permission, no one got in—or out. Kamchana (her name and nickname have been changed to protect her identity) shared cramped, windowless bedrooms with women from Korea, China, and Thailand, all her belongings crammed into one small rolling suitcase. Every two weeks she was loaded up and moved to another city, another spa, another room that looked just like the one before it. Like so many of the women on the circuit, she was being held until she paid off the debt of tens of thousands of dollars that she had taken on in exchange for passage to the U.S. They had told her she would be working it off in a restaurant, but the job description had changed once she arrived. “It is like sleeping with your husband, that’s all,” Kamchana’s first boss told her. She mostly worked 12-hour shifts, sold by the hour to men of different colors and creeds, rich and poor, grandfathers, husbands, fathers, sons. Sometimes her shifts lasted 24 hours.

Most people who are aware of the existence of human trafficking think that it happens in faraway places, like war-torn countries in the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe. Few can imagine that slaves are brought into the U.S. to work in restaurants, factories, and sexually oriented businesses ( SOBs to those in the know). In fact, across the country, tens of thousands of people are being held captive today. Depending on whom you ask, Houston is either the leading trafficking site in the U.S. or very near the top, along with Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York City. There are obvious reasons for this dubious accolade: Houston sits at the center of major highways between Los Angeles and Miami and between the U.S. and Latin America. It has a sprawling international airport and a major international port. It is diverse in a way that allows immigrants to disappear into neighborhoods that are barely policed. It’s also a place with an enormous appetite for and tolerance of commercial sex: From the days of the first oil boom, the city has drawn single men who’ve left smaller towns and poorer countries in search of work and then quick and easy companionship.

It is impossible to know exactly how many women are currently sex slaves in Houston. There is, of course, no census of prostitutes, let alone prostitutes who are here illegally and being held against their will. Terry O’Rourke, the first assistant Harris County attorney, estimates that on any given day, the number is about 1,000, but it could be higher. A 2008 Department of Justice report figured that between 14,500 and 17,500 people were being trafficked into the country every year. A 2004 report estimated that one quarter of all trafficking victims in the U.S. end up in Texas. According to Linda Geffin, the chief of special prosecutions with the Harris County attorney’s office, about 70 percent of trafficking victims end up working in the sex trade.

In Houston brothels can be found near the Ship Channel and in the north and southwest Hispanic neighborhoods, where special cantinas advertise “chicas” and have jerry-built, windowless additions out back and tall wooden fences around their perimeters. Up Interstate 45 and in Precinct 4 along FM 1960 to the north, not too far from some of Harris County’s poshest suburbs, are the massage parlors, most of them run by Asians (since February 2009, 127 citations have been issued against unlicensed massage parlors in

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week