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Must-Tan Ranch

[whitespace] Elite Spa
Full Exposure: Elite Spa, among other local businesses, has been visited by police officers who allege that salon workers are selling more than just a healthy tan.

Christopher Gardner

The Internet is leading promiscuous Web surfers and police to tanning salons and massage parlors throughout Silicon Valley.

By Steve Enders

THE PARKING LOT is dark and empty. The only light around the Elite Tanning Spa comes from a liquor store two doors down. Beside a neon palm tree advertising tans, the view behind the glass door is blocked by posters of geishas.

A loud electronic bell sounds when I walk through the door. No one is in the spa's front room, which is lit with dim blue lights and red fluorescent bulbs that mix with the outside neon. A meager array of tanning products sits behind the unstaffed counter,

and I think of taking a seat on one of the lobby's plush couches.

A beautiful Asian woman finally pokes her head out from the hallway into the front room, raising her eyebrows.

I ask about the rates. There's a sign, but many of the letters and numbers are missing.

"This your first time here?" she asks in broken English.

"Yes. Can I ask you some questions?"

"No," she says.

"What can I get here?" I ask.

She replies, "No massage," though I hadn't asked. The options are a hot towel wrap, shower, tan or a sauna.

"Anything else?"

She shakes her head.

"Are you sure I can't get anything else?"

She's suspicious now, and begins to back away.

I tell her I'll be back with some cash because that's all she'll take, but I know I've struck out, despite following the rules of the road. Those rules are spelled out on two Internet sites: Paranoia.com's World Sex Guide, and Smutland.com.

These sites give what is alleged to be detailed information on where to go in Silicon Valley for lingerie modeling parties, escort services, sex at "tanning" and "massage" salons, and even street hookers. The sites also claim to give the lowdown on the lingo and the protocol to getting sex at places like Elite or Venus Eyes in Sunnyvale, or Rosabella's in Cupertino.

"Ask before the session, after you've taken off your clothes," the text reads. "You're supposed to tell her what you want and what you're willing to pay. Use their terminology."

Clients seeking "straight sex," according to the site, should ask for something like a "full-service" massage while lying naked under a towel. Full sex will cost about $150. For less than that, the site says, clients can get anything from oral sex to a hand job to a massage from a naked woman.

Lt. Dennis Wong of the Sunnyvale Public Safety Department has seen these sites, and his officers have been to some of the places they list. In sting operations over the past year, three women working at Elite have been arrested for soliciting undercover officers for sex. Two women from another Sunnyvale salon, Venus Eyes, were arrested during the same time period.

Police staged another sting at Springs Hot Tub and Sauna, also in Sunnyvale, which was forced to close after being cited for municipal code violations.

There were five similar arrests in Cupertino during 1997, and 15 in Mountain View. Police in San Jose say they have arrested prostitutes in tanning salons and massage parlors, but they don't keep records that separate those arrests from street-prostitute busts.

It's Women Who Pay

THE MASSEUSES who work at Elite and Venus Eyes say they are surprised about the Internet listings, and insist they don't sell sex at their salons.

The salon workers interviewed won't give their names, and answer "I don't know" to questions regarding the owners of the businesses. All of the women working in the salons seem to be Asian and don't seem to always understand the questions I ask.

The World Sex Guide makes the bold claim that all Asian salons in Silicon Valley sell sex, "or else they go out of business fast."

The owner of Rosabella's in Cupertino and Venus Eyes in Sunnyvale is John McAtee. Rosabella's, which gets rave reviews on the Internet for its sex services, was raided on Oct. 23. Cupertino sheriffs arrested Thuy Thu Giang, 49, for allegedly soliciting an undercover officer for sex. The case is still being reviewed by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office.

McAtee did not return phone calls, and women who work at both establishments deny knowing anything else about him or Giang. Hoa Huynh, the owner of Elite, also did not return phone calls, and his employees also deny knowing him. They say they don't know who the owner is.

Wong says his squad is watching Elite and Venus Eyes and that, indeed, it "watches all of these places." Sunnyvale police know who Huynh and McAtee are, he says.

"It seems like every time we make an arrest, there's an ownership change in these places," he says.

He says the investigations are complaint-driven and "usually occur after someone goes into a salon to get a tan or something and gets offered sex."

"You can't even get a tan in these places," says Sunnyvale City Attorney Jeff Hare. "Look at what they charge!" Prices start at $40 for half an hour at the salons listed on the Web. Image Suntan in Sunnyvale, for comparison, charges $25 for six tanning sessions.

According to Wong, all of the police's efforts are focused on the masseuses themselves. This seems to be true throughout the area. While there have been six arrests for prostitution at spas and salons, no suspected customers have been arrested.

"We don't go after the johns because we'd have to catch them in the act," Wong says. "We do go in and ask [the men] what they're there for. Nobody admits it, but we make it known to them that we know what's going on, and that they shouldn't be coming back."

Wong says he cannot comment on how the police sting the businesses because it may impede current investigations. But he says that many times, the women make the first move.

"Sometimes we're very surprised with what happens."

On the Streets

THE OWNERS OF the salons are rarely charged in these cases, Hare says. "The owners have money," he says. "The women's addresses are written in pencil. The owner hires an attorney, gets a plea bargain, and the girl skips town."

He says the usual plea bargain includes a fine, testing for disease, a two-year suspension and a possible 30-day jail sentence. The owners don't go down, says Sunnyvale Lt. Dave Davis, because it's up to the judge to decide whether the owner knew about what went on behind closed doors.

Most of the time, Hare says, the owners claim their business is legitimate.

"They come in and say they took care of the problem by firing the girl and that it won't happen again.

"For practical reasons it's impossible [to bust johns]," Hare says. "If we could catch them we'd bust them, but the police would have to be witness to the entire process."

Hare says that lease agreements protect tenants. If the owner says he's taken care of the problem and that there's nothing illegal going on, then the owner of the building can't evict the tenant.

Police methods aren't without critics.

Carol Leigh, of the San Francisco-based prostitutes' rights organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), says arresting women in massage parlors and tanning salons worsens the street prostitution problem.

"The women are going to find a place to do it," she says. "It's these procedures of going indoors that are pushing the girls onto the streets." The streets are where real problems exist for prostitutes, she says, because they become more vulnerable there compared with the relative safety of being indoors.

Sunnyvale Public Safety Capt. Steve Pigott says that in Sunnyvale, street prostitution is not a problem.

Lt. Wong says that it does exist, but during winter months, cases of street prostitution drop. He also says that although it's there, street prostitution in Sunnyvale is not a big problem.

All of this recent action in Sunnyvale has prompted police to file a legislative review proposal with the City Council.

The report says that the city's massage ordinance needs updating to make a distinction between the many legitimate massage parlors and other "relaxation" and tanning salons in Sunnyvale.

The council says it will review the matter during the coming year. The law, as it's written now, specifically states that to protect patrons, "No massage technician or massage technician trainee shall ... expose his or her genitals, buttocks or private parts, or in the case of a female, her breast below a point immediately above the areola."

It also forbids masseuses to "make physical contact with the genitals or private parts of any other person," and mandates that people getting a massage cannot expose the same body parts listed for the technicians.

But the law applies only to licensed massage establishments, not "relaxation" spas or tanning salons like Elite and Venus Eyes that don't need a license to operate.

A scan of local newspapers' advertisements for adult entertainment shows that many bookstores and clubs, as well as spas, are located in Sunnyvale.

Sunnyvale city spokesman Dave Vossbrink says he's not sure whether the city has more adult entertainment outlets than other cities.

"The ones that are here have been here forever. They're artifacts that never went away."

Capt. Pigott insists that the police are not trying to run the tanning salons and massage parlors out of town.

"We're just trying to stop illegal activity," he says.

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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