Woman's legs in fishnets and heels

This website lets men rate their prostitutes

For many people, the traditional picture of a prostitute would be a woman at a roadside, touting for business and climbing into a car or truck. But in actual fact, this is just one of the many faces of the sex industry, and across the US, sexual services are bought and sold under a variety seemingly legitimate guises. One of the most common fronts is that of a massage parlour and it is estimated that there are well over 9,000 brothels operating in the US under this facade right now. But with so many about, how to know which one to visit?

Allow us introduce you to Rubmaps.com, a website that lets Johns - or "massage parlour hobbyists" as they call themselves - rate their experiences. And when I say experiences, I don’t mean whether the aromatherapy scent was on point or the lighting was just right. No, this website, which works under the strapline “Where Fantasy Meets Reality”, encourages men to help out other men looking for sex, by feeding back on their own encounters, rating everything from the cleanliness to the "satisfaction" levels.

A screenshot of a maprubs listings page Credit: MapRubs.com

Listing "massage parlours" all over the US, Rubmaps.com is searchable by state or city; the bigger the state the more parlours it tends to have, with California coming out on top with 6,599 venues. For those willing to travel or just looking to narrow down on the specifics, you can also search by price range, sexual services - including whether condoms must be worn - as well as masseuse ethnicity and even choose between a “Flat Ass”, a “J-Lo” or a “Kim Kardashian”.

But even once you’ve decided you’re after, say, a woman with a Kim-K butt in Colorado, there’s still a considerable number of venues to choose from. Enter, the reviewers. Many reviews offer comments on the age and appearance of the masseuse, and an assessment of their general disposition. WGBH Radio quoted one punter as saying of his “masseuse” at the now-closed Framingham spa: “Jennifer embodied everything that I wanted, yet couldn't get out my wife.” Others called her a sweetheart, with one man describing how he dropped his wife and kids off at a nearby park before heading across “to get some relief.”

A screenshot of a maprubs review page Credit: MapRubs.com

And it gets even more graphic. Typing specific sexual acts into the search bar will bring up a list of parlours where they have been mentioned in the reviews. Many reviews detail in explicit terms the kind of sex they could buy at the establishments, using codes for the ins-and-outs of each sexual service, so to speak. Some go on to describe how far you can push your luck with the workers; others take this to extremes, detailing the kind of abuse that they had inflicted. Needless to say, they are too graphic to be reproduced here.

Although it’s not the only one of its kind, Rubmaps.com does appear to be the most popular, receiving over one and a half million visits in January 2018 alone. Users pay a subscription of $14.95 per month, or $100 for a 12 month contract, to view all of the details, and some punters seem to think it worth the money: “you'll get a good bit of information without having to search much” said one Reddit user. Another helpfully summarised it as “like Yelp for HJs” - I’m sure you can figure out that one. Some Redditors are even generous enough to look up parlours for each other, summarising the reviews.

A screenshot of a maprubs signup page Credit: MapRubs.com

Ironically though, while it may be designed to give a helping hand to those looking for sex, it’s also giving one to the law enforcement officials looking to shut such establishments down. Donna Gavin, head of the human trafficking unit for the Boston Police Department, told PRI that police use the review boards to their benefit when conducting investigations, particularly when they get tips about specific addresses.

Although the site is careful to officially distance itself from human trafficking - providing the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and stating on an entry page that there is a “zero tolerance” policy on underage prostitution and sex trafficking - prosecutors do not agree. “These are reviews on victims of human trafficking,’’ Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey emphatically told PRI. According to anti-trafficking organisation Polaris, these businesses, which are often linked to organised crime networks, generate $2.5 billion every year.

However, it’s not as simple as the police or FBI just rocking up and shutting them down. With such a vast number operating in each state, there simply aren’t the resources to run operations against all of them or prosecute those in charge. And with a large proportion of the women involved being victims of trafficking, many do not speak English and are reluctant to testify in court. After being questioned, many flee to other states.

A screenshot of a maprubs entry page Credit: MapRubs.com

Realistically, your opinion on this website is likely to depend on whether you're a customer or not, and those determined to spend their money on sexual services will likely to see it as a little different to reading an Amazon review or a TripAdvisor rating. But for the rest of us, it's hard to see it as anything but exploitative. After all, we're not talking about a new pair of headphones or a newly-opened pizza joint, but about thousands upon thousands of women, many stuck in a country where they don't speak the language, being forced and coerced into selling their bodies - and then being judged for their shape, size and lack of enthusiasm afterwards.