When a Massage Parlor Is Really a Brothel

Massage parlors have long posed a regulatory conundrum: Many are locally owned small businesses staffed by well-trained professionals who provide high-priced services. On the other hand, some are fronts for brothels. That makes writing rules for massage therapists a challenge: How do you limit prostitution without thwarting legitimate businesses?

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new bill that acknowledges that the state’s last attempt to regulate the massage industry struck the wrong balance.

The earlier law, passed in 2008, created a statewide authority in charge of massage therapists’ training and certification. Critics say that centralizing power moved massage parlors outside the authority of local governments, which are more likely to know when a business is illegitimate. They also say that using the licensing process to crack down on brothels punished sex workers while letting their bosses skate free.

California’s new law gives schools, law enforcement, and anti–human trafficking organizations a greater say in the licensing process. It also makes it easier for local governments to come down on the owners of massage parlors operating on the wrong side of the law. “This will help keep our residents safe and protect the people who work in the massage therapy industry,” Tony Ferrara, the mayor of Arroyo Grande, Calif., said in a press release.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Maybe. There’s no consensus on the best way to regulate the massage business. Opponents (PDF) of a Minnesota law introduced this year say occupational licensing is powerless to stop prostitutes from posing as massage therapists. They point to Florida, which has licensed massage therapists for decades but is still grappling with prostitution in massage parlors. Georgia might offer another example: After the state started regulating massage therapists, unlicensed businesses set up inside a linguistic loophole, offering “bodywork” instead of “massages.”

Lawmakers would do well to get their hands around the issue now. The Department of Labor expects the number of massage therapists in the U.S. to increase by 23 percent from 2012 to 2022, twice as fast as the labor force overall. As the industry grows, it may create more opportunity for sex shops to hide among real massage parlors. And attempts to crack down could lead to more laws that make life harder for legitimate businesses.

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