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Unless you’re deliberately seeking it out, the Golden Spa on Prospect Street in Georgetown is easy to miss. It’s white and looks like one of the hundreds of group houses that college students rent near the university. Only this house’s shades are never drawn open to let in the sunlight, and black sticker letters pasted on the front door direct visitors through an iron gate to a more discreet side entrance set way back from the street.
My knock on the side door brings forth a short, elderly Asian woman. She’s been working in the kitchen and dries her hands on the apron she wears. Without saying a word, she ushers me into the parlor’s front hall, where three shapely young women materialize through doorways and from around corners. Their clothes are variations on one theme: brightly colored tops showing off a lot of stomach and jean shorts cut way above the knee.
One of the women tells me to take off my shoes. I place them on a shelf crammed with other shoes, mostly black and brown loafers and wing-tips. The women chatter noisily in a foreign tongue. One of them puts her arm around my ass and leads me upstairs, to a collection of small rooms compartmentalized into even smaller rectangles. Each area is just large enough for a mattress, an economy-size bottle of baby oil, and two people.
We waste little time on small talk, and the woman asks me how long I’ll be staying. I opt for the half-hour stay, which comes to $40 on the Golden Spa price list. After I dish out the cash, the woman explains that nothing sexual will happen. I nod, smile, and start to take off my clothes.
Now totally naked, I settle onto the mattress. She tells me to lie on my stomach, then begins to work on my temples, rubbing them slowly. It feels nice, but frankly doesn’t do much for me. I’m still tensemost likely because I’m wondering how I’m going to explain this extralong lunch I’m taking to my boss.
The rubbing moves along my neck, down to my arms, my back, my legs. Then she straddles my feet, and her hands move up my legs and disappear beneath the towel spread across my groin. She tells me to flip onto my back. I do, and the process is repeatedthis time beginning with the legs before moving up to the head. Once she finishes the rubdown, she sits down next to me on the mattress and smiles. Very slowly, she reaches down…and picks up one my socks from the floor.
As she puts the socks on my feet, I ask the woman, “Is…is that all?”
“Oh, you want massage here?” the woman asks, placing her hand between my legs.
Set in a neighborhood of historic buildings and upscale restaurants, Golden Spa has been pleasing Georgetown students and businessmendiscreetlyfor the last five years. That it has managed to do so with only a minimum of fuss is something of an enigma.
Georgetown’s legions of community activists have never encountered a community nuisance they couldn’t squelch. In 1993, for instance, a citizens coalition stopped almighty Georgetown University from building a power plant on campus. Just last year, local activists fought off a Papa John’s pizza-delivery outlet on Reservoir Road, claiming that the establishment would clog their streets with delivery trucks.
You’d think a massage parlor with a handjob special would provoke at least the same backlash as a pizza joint.
But it would be tough to mount a NIMBY crusade against Golden Spa, which makes every effort to comply with Georgetown’s code of neighborly graces.
“Oh, the whole neighborhood knows about it,” says a florist who works two doors down from the massage parlor. “They buy flowers from me, hairpieces, but besides that, we mind our business, they mind theirs.”
Like the florist, most of Golden’s neighbors know they’re living right next to a massage parlor. Some even suspect that the rubbing and kneading going on there might not be rated PG13, but few seem overly concerned about it.
The manager of Booeymonger’s, a sandwich shop across from Golden Spa, says the masseuses are frequent, polite, and orderly customersunlike many of the homeless men and drunk students who are forever stumbling in. And the PR suits working around the corner from the spa shrug off any mention of the place, saying they’ve never had any problems with it.
Irene Schaffner, a watercolor artist who has just wrapped up a three-month show two doors down from the parlor, can’t stop gushing about the girls. “No, they’re not the bad news; the [Georgetown] students are bad news. They urinate all over the place. [The masseuses] are clean; they sweep up the sidewalk,” she says.
According to a Georgetown graduate, however, the Golden girls spend as much time getting their hands dirty as they do brooming the stoop cleanand not necessarily with spent, over-the-hill businessmen.
“The class of ’94, they seemed to know about it; they’d been there,” says the graduate. “The story was, you would go in there, pay your 20 bucks for half an hour, 40 bucks for an hourmaybe it was 40-60and if you tipped well enough, they would satisfy you sexually. Massage you, put you on the table, use the lotion, either shower you or bathe you, whatever. The regulars is where you got into the, uh, sexual stuff. I never actually heard of anyone actually getting laid there, but I can imagine it happens.” However, judging from the parade of older men who creep in and out of Golden Spa’s side door these days, the parlor’s popularity with the student body is on the wane.
Although Golden Spa hasn’t stirred the sort of community opposition that greeted the power plant and Papa John’s, it has turned a few heads in the Citizens Association of Georgetown (CAG). According to CAG executive director Rachelle Reid, the group discussed strategies for closing down the parlor with Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers a couple of years ago. Former Illinois Sen. Charles Percy helped lead the CAG offensive against the spa by storming into one of the massage rooms on a fact-finding mission. “I found a scantily clad man and a woman, and it just seemed strange,” says Percy. “It just didn’t seem to be a good thing for our neighborhood.”
Percy and CAG appealed to MPD for a crackdown on Golden Spa but found that it is protected by a conspiracy of vaguely overlapping statutes on the D.C. books. A 1932 law prohibits cross-sex massages in the District, which means that the Golden’s ladies-in-waiting are breaking the law even if they service their male patrons with nothing more than a foot rub. However, a woman may legally massage a man if she is a “licensed massage therapist”someone who has completed 500 hours of training in massage therapy and passed a certification exam under the terms of the Qualified Massage Therapist Amendment Act of 1994.
Scores of massage parlors like Golden Spa operate out of tenebrous lofts and town houses throughout the District, so investigating which masseuses are licensed and which are licentious is not exactly job No. 1 for a police force with more pressing priorities. “The city simply doesn’t have the money to make sure all these ‘massage therapists’ have the required amount of hours to get their licenses,” says Sgt. Regina Funk, head of the 2nd District vice squad.
But even if the control board authorized a few million bucks for massage-parlor enforcement, Funk and her cohorts would have trouble closing the spas. Parlors like Golden Spa often have a certificate of occupancy for acupressure, which allows the shop to offer a service almost identical to massage. If one of the parlor’s masseuses violates the terms of the acupressure license, authorities may only bust the masseuse and cannot close down the entire business.
It’s no shock, then, that Golden Spa doesn’t restrict its illegal activities to women rubbing men’s backs and necks, but has instead allegedly become Georgetown’s friendly neighborhood brothelwhere 40 bucks’ll get you an amateurish back rub and a handjob.
Which, according to Lt. Russell Kneiser, support commander of the 2nd District, is pretty much standard for these “quasi-legitimate houses of prostitution.” He says, “What they’re going to do is try to give you a massage, and then try to give you a handjob the first time. Then, once you’ve gone a couple of times and done that, you come back, and they’ll move up to the next step.”
The customer screening, Kneiser says, weeds out the cops, because parlor managers know that an officer of the law “can’t allow that kind of touching.”
The police are bound by law to stop all hanky-panky well before they’ve gathered enough evidence to slap the masseuses with prostitution chargesa source of dismay for Funk. “We’ve only been able to get cross-sex massage cases out of these places, not prostitution,” Funk says. “Our hands are tied because my officers aren’t allowed to go that far.”
And since giving a cross-sex massage in the District is a lowly misdemeanor, Funk has had to come up with other ways to close down the joints. “We even used the building inspector once as a last resort,” she says. “We took him in to see if there were any code violations we could use to shut them down.”
Before taking action, however, MPD must determine which parlors limit themselves to massages and which are hard-core dens of sin. “We’ve come to know some of these people pretty well. I think some of them are actually up and up, 100-percent legitimate. They’ll fire an employee if they think that they’re trying to get something on the side, a little side work,” Kneiser says. “Other ones are set up mainly to get that side work.”
But judging from the clientele that pops in and out of the Golden, it’s not too difficult to figure out what sort of work is going on inside. A fat, bald man wearing jeans and a leather jacket cautiously rounds the corner to the Golden’s side entrance, continually throwing nervous glances over his shoulder. He emerges 30 minutes later, unwrapping a mint he picked up from a bowl the spa’s matron keeps by the door. He pops it into his mouth and, smiling, begins to whistle. CP