Crack down on massage parlors suspected of prostitution

Alouette Massage on University Avenue, one of three Berkeley massage parlors under scrutiny by the City of Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The City Council will consider revoking the use permits of two Berkeley massage parlors that are suspected of operating as prostitution houses, and a third has relinquished its permit after the Zoning Adjustments Board recommended in late April that the Council scrutinize the establishments’ operations.

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue voluntarily relinquished its permit and was given 120 days to leave its premises after signing a consent form. Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette, both on University Avenue, have vacated their properties.

The Council will take up the matter before late July, according to City of Berkeley spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

The three establishments are subjects of dozens of explicit reviews on myRedBook and Rubmaps, online guides to prostitution services and strip clubs in the Bay Area. The reviewers detail a variety of sex acts that occurred between male patrons and female employees at the massage parlors, and rate the employees based on their physical characteristics.

Reading the reviews was “shocking and saddening for some of us not immersed in that world,” said Sophie Hahn, member of the Zoning Adjustments Board and candidate for City Council in District 5.

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue has voluntarily relinquished its permit and needs to vacate its premises. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At a public hearing on April 26, the attorneys representing the owners of the three massage parlors called the reviews “hearsay.”

“There is no direct evidence,” said Richard Hall, representing Berkeley Alouette. “There have been no citations, no arrests. My clients are not prostitutes.”

“It is disturbing that the city only relies on unfounded, malicious online reviews,” said Henry Hu, representing Acupressure Health Center. The reviews are all posted under pseudonyms, and Hu said the writers could have ulterior motives, such as personal grudges, or may be business competitors.

City representatives at the public hearing said that the sheer quantity of reviews over the span of several years makes that argument flimsy. Posts on the websites are reviewed for accuracy, and reviewers on Rubmaps must pay a membership fee before posting, said Code Enforcement Officer Gregory Daniels.

Additionally, both Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette advertise on the websites. Berkeley Alouette’s myRedBook advertisement reads, “We want to get our hands on RB gentlemen. Please mention Redbook so we will know to give you the special services you deserve.”

“We’re not a court of law, but the evidence was very persuasive,” Hahn said. “The lawyers were hammering on the fact that there was no proof for prostitution, but there were enough other small things anyway.”

When Code Enforcement officers investigated the businesses earlier this year, they discovered employees who had not been listed on the Establishment Permits working at each of the three parlors, in violation of city code. None of the massage parlors produced massage therapy certificates for the unlisted employees, though state law and city code require that certificates be publicly displayed in the establishment.

Joseph Morehead, the attorney representing Crystal Massage, said the revocation of the permits would put the women who are listed on the establishment permits, all of whom do have massage therapy certificates, out of work.

“They are licensed masseuses. They will lose their jobs without any kind of due process,” he said.

An attorney representing Acupressure Health Center said city is relying on "unfounded, malicious online reviews". Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hahn said the Zoning Adjustments Board was aware of these consequences.

“What we can do is very, very limited,” she said. “We understood that it meant workers would be displaced, and there was concern that they’d have access to health services and employment. Shutting down an establishment is good for getting them out of Berkeley, but that isn’t necessarily going to protect or provide opportunities for the women involved.”

Hahn said she doubts the employees made independent decisions to prostitute themselves.

“There are owners and managers, and it’s impossible that these people don’t know the full range of services being provided and presumably making some profit for them. It didn’t appear that these were independent operators,” she said. “It’s not our place to get into free will or choice, but everyone on [the Zoning Adjustments Board] was concerned for their well-being.”

A May 29 amendment to the chapter of the Municipal Code concerning massage establishment permits will make it a challenge for the parlors to reapply for permits if theirs are revoked. The amendment includes a new provision allowing the Department of Finance to deny an application for a permit if an establishment’s previous permit was revoked or voluntarily relinquished.

The owner of Crystal Massage declined to comment on the board’s recommendations, and representatives from the other two parlors were unreachable.

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  • bgal4

    Not sure that is accurate, city council votes to sustain the revocation of the use permit. no use permit no business at that location.

  • Bruce Love


    So sorry there’s no more for you, Bruce Love.

    What exactly are you trying to say?

  • Guest

    maybe this shut down will inspire a locavore prostitution movement in brentwood

  • TL Clark

    Thank you, Berkeleyside, for your story on the recent shut-down of several massage parlors in Berkeley.
    That massage parlors and prostitution are virtually synonymous is known by just about everyone who wasn’t born yesterday.  One can write about “sex between consenting adults,” or posit that “prostitution is a complicated subject,” as some of those posting comments have done. But in truth there is nothing complicated about sexual trafficking and sexual slavery—whose victims are among the notoriously abused people on the planet. Do such things happen in the wonderful city of Berkeley? The answer, most unfortunately, is yes. Do people care enough to do anything about it? For the most part, the answer is no.

    I write this from the perspective of a male psychotherapist who has had an office in downtown Berkeley since the 1970’s, where I and six or seven other therapists have offices on the same floor. Seven years ago, the owner of the property, a prominent Berkeley businessman, leased a space at the rear of the building to a massage parlor, whose operators signed a four year lease. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing. Anything for a buck.

    When we tenants discovered what was going on, I called the Berkeley Police, which did a sting operation and a bust. What they found was a full-service brothel: all of the little cubicles with jars of condoms, the walls and floors spattered with semen. The operators, including the Madam, are Korean; all of the young women working there were Koreans who spoke no English at all and had nothing in the way of proper identification. The police found $10,000 in cash and bank receipts for a bank in Hawaii. Anticipating a language problem, the BPD brought with them an officer from the UC Police who spoke fluent Korean.

    I mention “Korean” not from any bias, but only because the Korean mafia is heavily involved in the sex slavery business and controls a significant part of prostitution on the West coast–the East Bay, San Francisco, San Jose, and then heavily in the L.A. area. In other words, a number of brothels are part of organized crime. The pattern is always the same: the operators find young women in Korea who have incurred heavy credit card debt; they promise them lucrative jobs in the United States and give them a plane ticket. They arrive only to discover there is no job; they have no skills and often speak no English, so it is easy to capture them into the so-called massage business. Large numbers of them live in a single apartment under horrendous conditions; they are kept in absolute poverty and have no way to escape from an incredibly degrading life. (If you think I am making this up, you can Google the amazing series of articles on the sex slave trade by SF Chronicle reporter Meredith May, which were published in 2006. There are many other sources of information about the sexual trafficking, which is a worldwide problem that extends right into the precious domain of the city of Berkeley.)

    After the BPD busted the massage parlor in my building, they wrote up a 15 page police report which dealt with all of the sordid details–and, most prominently, the victimization of these young Korean women. The District Attorney at that time (2006) declined to prosecute the brothel operators, saying that he had no time to deal with what he called “victimless crime.” (I would argue that the young Korean women in this brothel were victims in the worst possible sense of that term.)

    It took five years to get rid of the brothel from these premises. I contacted by phone and/or by mail the Mayor’s office, the City Planner’s office, the City Attorney’s office, U.S. Immigration, the FBI, the IRS, the subsequent D.A. who replaced the one who had declined to prosecute, the owner of the building, the property management company which collects the rents, the BPD—that’s just a partial list. I was completely ignored–i.e., not responded to by everyone, by every agency, except the Berkeley Police Department. The overall message was unmistakably clear: no one gives a damn about these young women, their life of exploitation, the bleakness of their existence.

    For most government agencies and for the people who run them, sexual trafficking is a yawner not deserving serious attention, much less action. I’m glad to see that Berkeley is finally doing something about this problem. Code violations are now seen as the most effective way of shutting down these places; in fact, it was the Berkeley Code Enforcement people who managed to close down the brothel in my building almost a year ago. The space was empty for six or eight months and then a couple of months ago–to the total astonishment of myself and my fellow tenants–the owner of the building tried to rent the space to yet another brothel owner. We brought this matter to the attention of the business license department and the application was rejected.

    Personally, I think all of the pathetic Johns who are so in need of a handjob or a BJ should drive on over to Nevada, where prostitution is legal and the women regularly tested for STDs. The conditions under which the sex workers earn a living in Nevada are likely better than they are here. Of course there is no way of knowing which of the massage parlors are involved in sex trafficking, but this world-wide scourge extends to our fine city, without question.  And of course as soon as one of these places is shut down, they will find another location immediately. It is, after all, a very profitable business–although not for the actual sex workers.

    I would like to see the property owners held legally accountable, but of course they get off without so much as a slap on the wrist.

    The sheer amount of time and energy it took to get rid of the brothel in the building where I have worked for so many years was not merely exhausting and frustrating; it was truly distressing to realize how few people have any concerns about sex trafficking and the sordid exploitation of so many young women.

  • Guest II

    So, Concerned Citizen, why aren’t you getting f***ed for money?  Why aren’t you taking it up the a** for money?  Why aren’t you getting your face j**z*d on for money, if it’s no different from any other job?

  • Bigmike

    No commentson how the defense attorneys last name is Morehead?! C’mon folks, that’s gold!!

  • Babycal

    The economy is in shambles and taxpayers money is being spent on this mess.I haven’t heard of any crime associated with these massage parlors.No wonder our city going broke and colleges being closed. 

  • Matthew Weber

     Don’t you mean “locawhore”?

  • Guest

    The main similarity between prostitution and Goldman Sachs is that you can get screwed by both, but the difference is in magnitude.  I’m not aware of prostitution bring down a society (maybe somewhere in ancient times where there was a bad case of the clap???) On the other hand, boys like Goldman etc. create bogus products like derivatives’ and sell them to public pension plans like teacher’s unions, etc. and almost cause a collapse in the financial system and the United States economy.  We’re all paying for that one to the tune of trillions of dollars and our kids and grand kids will be working off that debt for decades. Why, Jamie Diamond was in the news recently having to face the media about huge losses on recent transactions. How many of those boys have you seen go to jail?  And the citizens of Berkeley cry about prostitution.  I’ve driven down Shattuck ave. and University hundreds of times and have seen the massage parlors and have never seen a commotion in front of those establishments.  According to the article, many of the massage therapist were certified which doesn’t sound like the type of effort that sex traffickers would go through. I would also bet that those businesses and workers paid their taxes otherwise the IRS would have shut them down thus doing the city a big favor. Sex trafficking does exist, but in this case, it looks like many of the innocent are being lumped in with the guilty. Yes folks, witch hunts still take place,…. especially in the two faced home of uber-liberal Berkeley.  Berkeley liberalism is hypocrisy at its best. The Berkeley City Council can force the teaching of homosexuality and transsexuals’ in public schools in spite of parental objections.  Public displays of affection by gays, transsexuals and heterosexuals are ok, but god forbid consenting adults having any kind of sexual activity behind closed doors if money is exchanged. Wake up folks,  America is going down the drain, not because of prostitution, but because of the greed of the likes of wall street and the ineptitude of those we vote in power. At least with a massage parlor you get the chance of having a happy ending. 

  • EBGuy

    The final vote on revoking the two use permits for Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette is tomorrow evening at the July 24 City Council meeting.

  • ConnDamecton

    you are ridiculous. comparing someone who flips burgers for a living is tantamount to comparing an exterminator and a hit man as they both kill things for a living lol

  • God

    If selling is legal and sex is legal, why isn’t selling sex legal?

  • Billy

    I think they ought to have an all male male massage parlor (i know in some states they do)
    I know a lot of males would rather have a male to rub him down & give him a massage rather than a female a lot of guys don’t like undressing in front of females (unless it is a lady Dr.
    I personally would rather have a male give me Massage & rub down that a female.
    I went to a health club at the Y M C A where they only had guys in there giving massages & rub downs

    You are welcome to write me & this statement.

  • Billy

    I do get my face shot off on occasionaly as well as down the throat too but not for money though.

  • Billy

    I Agree with gimpylee

  • Billy

    So what if 2 consenting adults (18 & over ) want to have sex with the guy who is giving them a massage or rubdown especially if it is 2 males.


    We definitely need to get back at gross sweaty men. Now if dry attractive men wish to hang around, it might be different.

  • EastBayIsPigLatinForBeast

    The use of foreign labor to do the unpleasant business of (and for) Americans doesn’t stop with hand jobs: your burger flippers are likely to be from El Otro Lado. The use of H1B visa workers (who might be working off heinous debts!) to program your fabulous website doesn’t seem to bother people much.

    Might not this “sex slavery” argument be: 1) a thinly disguised argument against a moral objection to prostitution disguised as the more politically correct human rights position? 2) A thinly disguised argument against foreign workers (no mention of Americans working in rub down joints working off their 20% interest rate credit cards and six figure student loans as sex slaves, but why is it different if they aren’t from another country?).

  • StrengthThroughJoy

    Clearly it is to make fun of Berkeley-ites and revel in shadenfreud over their stupidity.

  • Billy

    Billy here age 24 blond hair blue eyes student muscular build smooth body solid build 5ft 11 in tall 175 pounds & toned.
    I sure wish they had more massage Parlors where i live at right now (run by all males)
    I LOVE getting rub down & massages by a guy .

    I am originally from Chattanooga ,Tennessee & there we have several of them run by males ( Males give the rub downs & massages) I am going to school in Baltimore Md.


    My E-mail address is :

  • Joe Ung

    I read about all these places on

  • Guest65

    Alouette and Crystal have been there for quite some time. Both are fronts for happy ending massages. Not sure about sex but they do offer handjobs. I went to both places back in the late 90’s. At Crystal massage some Chinese woman massaged my back for about 30 seconds and tried hustling me for more money for a happy ending. The same with Alouette except the woman seemed to be high and nodding off in the middle of the massage.