Joe Madison, of the anti-human trafficking organization Love People, Not Pixels, was invited by the Manvel City Council to give a presentation during a workshop on Monday.
Human trafficking has become a priority issue for Mayor Debra Davison and City Councilwoman Lorraine Hehn, as both see it as imperative that Manvel take precautions to prevent any establishment facilitating the illicit sex trade to take root in Manvel before the growth. Such establishments, often fronted as massage parlors and other legitimate businesses, have already been seen in nearby Pearland.
Love People, Not Pixels focuses on reducing demand for and access to exploited victims of sex trafficking. Madison’s presentation on Monday focused specifically on reducing buyer access by creating commonsense municipal regulations for businesses to prevent clandestine brothels from opening in Manvel.
Madison said that “there are approximately 500 brothels in the city of Houston,” and contrary to common expectation, it can be difficult for law enforcement to shut them down. That’s why he founded Love People, Not Pixels, to facilitate and encourage policies in cities across Brazoria County to proactively prevent such establishments from setting up shop in the first place.
“Our goal is to identify the places that we can contribute in stopping human trafficking before it begins,” Madison said.
When Madison discovered that there were brothels operating in his hometown of Pearland, he decided to be part of the solution and developed his system of proactive prevention.
“So what that looked like was bringing together citizens, police, community leaders, really, from law enforcement to local government and doing that in a way where we could put a blueprint together, identify these shops and what they physically look like and how they operate and then just work that into our city code to ensure that if any others want to open, they’re going to be stopped at the door,” Madison said.
Madison said illegal brothel activity has steadily increased in the southern part of the Houston Metropolitan Area over the past seven years.
“The fact of the matter is it’s moving south. It’s going from Houston out to the suburbs because we see the growth in the communities, and when we see that sort of growth, that sort of demand also follows it,” Madison said.
Madison pointed out that although there are no brothels in Manvel, residents of the city have been directly affected, citing a 2017 article from The Facts describing how police uncovered the case of a teenaged girl from Manvel High School being involved in a federal sex trafficking case.
Madison said a way to combat the establishment of brothels within a municipality is the passage of “Conditional use permit” ordinances.
Conditional use permits require that certain types of businesses often used as fronts for brothels, such as massage parlors, meet certain requirements before opening their doors, Madison explained.
“These standards are specifically identified because these are the physical characteristics of brothels. When we say brothels, and I say spas, that’s synonymous with these massage places. So they’re used interchangeably; that’s really what we’re pointing out here,” Madison said.
Conditional use permits prohibit businesses from having characteristics such as blacked out windows, buzzer-controlled doors and/or cash only policies.
“If it’s a massage business and they have these characteristics, those are tell-tale signs,” Madison said.
Madison said the tactic has been successful in Pearland while not prohibiting legitimate massage parlors from conducting business.
“We want legitimate massage businesses to be able to open, bring revenue to the local Manvel area, local Pearland area. We want to encourage that, and I can tell you, when we brought this before city council, we had two of the legitimate massage owners in our town say, ‘Yeah, absolutely, I would never have any of this in my legitimate business, so please, put it in there,’ because what they’re getting are phone calls from other businesses — these people that patronize these other businesses, asking for happy endings, asking for certain services that are sexual,” Madison said.
Madison commended the Manvel City Council on taking a proactive approach to the issue before the city’s commercial growth becomes explosive, rather than the reactive approach that was necessary in Pearland.
“The cautionary tale here is, if we talk about it early on, like y’all are, then we can really look at what —what all-inclusive restrictions we can put on these illegitimate businesses to protect the legitimate businesses and continue to have business development in your town,” Madison said.