In January 2018, a man surnamed Guo came across a video of scantily clad women lounging around a massage parlor: The person who sent it to him suggested it was an “exciting” opportunity.
His interest piqued, Guo decided to pay the establishment a visit — but to his disappointment, the service rendered was just a normal massage, not the “special” treatment he had expected.
Guo would later learn that he was one of over a thousand pleasure-seekers to be duped by this particular massage parlor’s lurid advertising.
In April, the Shangcheng District court in the eastern city of Hangzhou ruled against six people affiliated with the massage parlor for misleading customers by suggesting they could receive sexual services. They were sentenced to between six months and 14 years in prison.
According to the district’s public prosecutor, the defendants had defrauded 1,452 customers out of a combined 15.6 million yuan ($2.2 million) over just three months.
The defendants appealed the decision last week, arguing that their case should constitute a violation of civil rather than criminal law, domestic media reported. The second trial will be held at the Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court.
The massage parlor had touted itself as an “elite stress-relief club for men.” To attract customers, staff distributed business cards, photographs, and videos, all involving women in various states of undress. They also used libidinous but ambiguous phrasing to deceive customers into believing that, as long as they put down deposits to become “VIP members,” they would be able to enjoy sexual services in the parlor’s more private parts.
“Our services will cover every inch of your body, from head to toe,” one salesperson said according to the judgment document. “We will provide innovative special services with fun and fashionable elements, such as cosplay, S&M … you can even stay overnight,” said another.
According to the verdict, the defendants were in illegal possession of their customers’ money, having adopted “inattentive, perfunctory attitudes” toward them after pocketing the deposits.
“The spa was not a legal business, as its services were not consistent with the amount of money charged,” the verdict said. “It used eroticism as bait and massage services as a cover to defraud customers. This activity is intentional fraud, and should be subject to criminal law.”
However, according to Pang Jiulin, a blogger on civil law and the director of Beijing Chunlin Law firm, the case should not constitute fraud.
He told Sixth Tone that since the customers were only putting down deposits to become VIP members, they should in theory have been free to withdraw the money at any time — meaning the business was not in “illegal possession” of their money.
“It’s more business strategy than fraud,” Pang said. “At least the massage service was real.”
Though sex work was outlawed in China in 1949, it has proved to be a resilient industry. Seventy years later, many massage parlors, karaoke clubs, mahjong rooms, and hair salons across the country remain illicit hubs for commercial sex.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Laura Doss/Corbis/People Visual)