The words Massage and Massage Therapy have often been used by prostitutes (Illicit Massage Businesses, Illegitimate Massage Businesses or aka Brothels doing business as massage therapists) as a cover for their illegal prostitution businesses. Even today, legitimate massage therapists are thought to be giving ‘happy endings’ despite the progress we have made in the profession in being recognized as healthcare professionals and all the research that shows that massage works.
The continued confusion between a legitimate massage business and a IMB/Brothel doing business as massage, finds legitimate massage businesses/therapists dealing with more and more requests for sex. A recent article (Sexual harassment of massage therapists by their clients Morgan E. Richard , Lucia F. O’Sullivan , and Tom Peppard. Department of Psychology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB Association of New Brunswick Massage Therapists, Fredericton, NB) found:
The survey revealed that 74.8% of massage therapists surveyed experienced sexual harassment by clients, with 26.5% experiencing an incident on more than three occasions. Verbal forms of harassment were more common than were physical forms (55.0% and 6.0%), although 34.0% reported experiencing both verbal and physical forms. Incidents typically (87.9%) occurred during the treatment itself. Most therapists (79.4%) told someone about the incident. Only one therapist reported an incident to the police. A call for further research in this area as well as implications for increasing massage therapists’ safety is discussed.
Further more, the article stated:
“The researchers found a strong negative correlation between years as program director and perceived importance of sexual education inclusion. In fact, only a small number (4%) of massage therapy program directors felt it was important to teach students how to set sexual boundaries with clients and what to do in ambiguous situations, such as when a client lets their draping fall. The context of massage therapy justifies the need for sexual education and training to better prepare practitioners in situations of harassment.”
This tangled web tying Massage therapy to prostitution and human trafficking has haunted the profession for many years.
As long as lawmakers and policy makers view us through the lens of human trafficking and prostitution, our ability to advance our profession will be limited. Deborah Kimmet, Untangling Massage, Prostitution and Human Trafficking Scoping Project.
Untangling Massage from Prostitution and Human Trafficking
Untangling massage from prostitution and human trafficking is a very complex issue. After reading everything I could on the issue (see section below), I have come to the conclusion that we can’t…unless we want to change the terms massage and massage therapy into something else to describe what we do. It is that complicated. Read everything below In the News and see what you think. Sex workers want protection and equality and have taken to using “Massage Worker” to describe what they do. They are claiming the words “Massage Parlor” also, yet I think there are still licensing laws that use that in their definitions/laws. I came across a group called the Massage Outreach Project (Facebook page) that was having a rally in Chinatown in Seattle to hold a rally after the recent Georgia shootings. They were asking for money and support of such massage workers which is all fine and good, yet many of the people at the rally did not realize they were prostitutes and NOT licensed Massage therapists.
Is there any clear answer?
The first answer that usually comes up is to decriminalize sex workers.
The ACLU says: Decriminalization refers to the removal of criminal penalties for the buying and selling of sexual acts, specifically those categorized as prostitution. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization.
Legalization removes criminal penalties for certain incidents of buying and selling of sexual acts, i.e. prostitution, provided the participants comply with relevant regulations.
While it may help with the many issues that sex workers have, but that would not stop them from using our good name of massage. The ACLU is working on that though and have compiled some research on it. They start with an article: It is time to decriminalize sex work. See also: Sex Work is Real Work, and it’s Time to Treat it That Way. None of these articles or the report mention making it so sex workers do not hide behind massage.
Read all these news stories
‘The Monsters Are the Men’: Inside a Thriving Sex Trafficking Trade in Florida. By Patricia Mazzei Feb. 23, 2019 NYT
Behind Illicit Massage Parlors Lie a Vast Crime Network and Modern Indentured Servitude. By Nicholas Kulish, Frances Robles and Patricia Mazzei March 2, 2019 NYT.
March 27, 2021, NYT. 5:56 AM PDT By Morgan E. Richard, doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of New Brunswick. Morgan E. Richard Deshaun Watson’s massage therapy allegations spotlight a misunderstood industry.
The killings targeted an industry with a history of concerns about sex trafficking. By Frances Robles March 18, 2021. NYT
Anti-Trafficking Group Deletes Massage Parlor Fear-Mongering After Shooting The Polaris Project removed pages about massage parlors in the wake of shootings in Atlanta last week that targeted Asian massage parlors and left eight people dead. By Samantha Cole March 22, 2021. Vice.com
How to Protect Massage Workers Policing and criminalization of sex work hurts massage workers, even when they aren’t sex workers. By Elena Shih Dr. Shih is a sociologist who studies human trafficking and sex work, and an outreach organizer with Red Canary Song. March 26, 2021. NYT.
Sex Workers Say ‘Anti-Trafficking Raids’ Are Often a Guise to Target Them. Migrant sex workers who are in the industry by choice say cops and border security conflate sex trafficking with sex work as a way to police migration in Canada.By Anya Zoledziowski. TORONTO, CA August 4, 2020.
Behind the Rescue(PDF) : How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies. Harm Migrant Sex Workers. How Anti-Trafficking Investigations and Policies Harm Migrant Sex Workers details the far-reaching effects of Canadian anti-trafficking investigations and policies on migrant sex workers, their families, and their communities. Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network
Butterfly. Support Asian and Migrant Sex Workers. Research Reports
SESTA/FOSTA, a Law Sex Workers Say Will Literally Kill Them The controversial Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was framed as anti-trafficking, but it’s already harming consensual sex workers. By Samantha Cole
Policing Asian Massage Work. Brown University.
Sex Trafficking Or Sex Work? Crackdown On Flushing Massage Parlors Gets Pushback From Advocates BY CAROLINE LEWIS APRIL 1, 2019
Associated Press news hub on Human trafficking
US Dept of Justice Newsroom on Human trafficking
Not in My “Backyard Abolitionism”: Vigilante Rescue against American Sex Trafficking Elena Shih First Published March 23, 2016 Research Article https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121416628551
Red Canary Song- https://www.redcanarysong.net/about-us We are the only grassroots Chinese massage parlor worker coalition in the U.S. There are over 9000 workplaces like these across the country with no political representation, or access to labor rights or collective organizing. Anti-trafficking NGO’s that claim to speak for migrants in sex trades promote increased policing and immigration control, which harms rather than helps migrant sex workers. We also organize transnationally with Asian sex workers across the diaspora in Toronto, Paris, and Hong Kong.
Where and why do illicit businesses cluster? Comparing sexually oriented massage parlors in Los Angeles County and New York City John J. Chin, Lois M. Takahashi, and Douglas J. Wiebe
The Real Lives of America’s Chinese Masseuses.
COMMENTARY: Texas laws attempting to regulate the illicit massage industry are burdening the wrong people
Untangling Massage, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution By Deborah Kimmet, LMT. Scoping Document, Critical Review of the Polaris Project.
ABMP and AMTA Joint Response to FSMTB Human Trafficking Report 11/16/2017
In its response to a Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) survey on human trafficking in 2016, AMTA stated, “Given that there are no real data to reflect the instances of human trafficking in the profession, the real impact is perception. Human trafficking is an indefensible act and, globally, very prevalent, but it isn’t a massage therapy fight. It’s a distraction from our mission to promote massage therapy as a means for health.”
Addressing both human trafficking in general and prostitution specifically is the province of law enforcement, not massage therapists or regulators of the massage therapy profession. Virtually every jurisdiction has laws on the books that empower police and district attorneys to pursue human trafficking and prostitution. Imperfect enforcement is a product mostly of inadequate resources and priority given to these issues.
So many articles from news sources everywhere and nothing from the massage profession or it’s associations except for that last resource from 2017.
Not in Our Good Name
My goal in looking into this issue was to come up with solutions that would help end the confusion over what is a legitimate massage business and what could we do to get IMB’s to stop using our good name of massage, massage therapy. As I read through the articles and news on the topic, it became clear that this is a much more complex issue than I ever thought. Yes women are being trafficked and hired as indentured servants and it is difficult and nearly impossible to break free of that. There are also many sex workers who are Asian in decent and willingly working in what is often called a massage parlor. The massage parlors are raided in search of traffickers and the sex workers are often wrongfully accused of trafficking. IMB’s owners and workers are obtaining massage licenses by obtaining their massage diploma mills (schools that just give diplomas without the training). It is so complex, my first conclusion was to start calling massage and massage therapy something different and that seemed easier even though the task would take years of education and change.
The term “Massage Workers” has been given a new meaning. Massage workers are sex workers who may or may not be trafficked. Massage Parlor seems to be the all around code word for sex parlor. Sex workers in spas/massage places that are fronts for prostitution. The sex workers also seem to be using the words Masseuse and Massage Parlor more. So let them use Masseuse and Massage Parlor. Are there still states that use the word masseuse in state board licensing laws? Can we change that easily? If you ever see a discussion in a Facebook group on what massage therapists think about or do when someone calls them a masseuse we are already part way there. Many respond that they despise the word and will quickly correct people who say it. Many don’t care either way. What if everyone were given the call to action to start correcting everyone and tell them that the word is a cover for prostitution?
The usual comment from massage therapists is to legalize prostitution…but will that stop them from using our good name? I don’t think so at this point but would love to see some studies done on this in countries and cities that have legalized prostitutions. I would love to see our professional association get on this in a big way which would mean spending hundreds of thousands on research, committees, and work groups to investigate and research every aspect of the problem to come up with concrete solutions. Another common opinion is to stop the massage profession from calling themselves Asian Massage except there are associations of legitimate Asian Massage Therapists. (American Organization of Bodywork Therapies from Asia. https://aobta.org/).
What is working to Untangle Massage from Prostitution and Human Trafficking.
What has worked in some cities may be all that we can do. In Bellevue WA, where they created a public chronic nuisance law which reduced the number of IMB’s significantly. City council Study Packet. 2014 on proposed law. Bellevue Municipal Laws – Chronic Nuisances. They did something similar in Kent WA and went into all the businesses listed on a site called rubmaps.ch and closed down many businesses but there were also unfortunately legal businesses on that list causing some fallout in other area. WA Massage Laws state that the words Massage, Massage Therapist
Criminalizing unlicensed massage currently seems like the best course to take but we need stricter laws and task forces to deal with the many complaints. We need model legislation created to address this across the states and in cities/towns across the US. We need committees and work groups to study the issue from ALL sides which I would guess would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I wonder if that is why are associations are so behind in working on this issue which is in itself causing it to get worse before our eyes.
We also need to continue with Massage therapy awareness projects. Respect Massage is one such project. (Facebook page. Website: www.respectmassage.com but in a way the wording does not make sense to me. Respect what about massage? Another is Look before You Book (Facebook Page) which is out of MA and claim that looking for licensed therapists needs to be done before booking a massage. (http://lookbeforeyoubookamassage.com/). There was also a campaign called REAL Massage (which stood for Responsible, Ethical, Accountable and Licensed) that was initially started by AMTA-WA that never went anywhere and was taken up and changed a bit by a local massage therapist who taught classes on IMB’s (Illegitimate Massage Businesses) but has since retired. (Here is the old brochure PDF)
None of these quite make the impression they need to make, but they are a start. I would love to see something produced by one or both of our main massage therapy associations. They both do a massage awareness day or week but let therapists do whatever they want. A big powerful slogan could help and have it be one that is seen all over the US at one time.
AMTA and ABMP…where arrreee Youuuu? NCBTMB why do you not allow classes on Human Trafficking to be approved CE Classes? See their statement on it. (PDF)
Call to Action
Clarification: By writing about and working to change and untangle the massage profession from IMB’s in no way takes away from the horrendous crimes against Asian People. Working to separate Massage from IMB’s is just one more step in shutting down these places that are involved in human trafficking, indentured servitude and prostitution.
ABMP’s statement :How We Work for YouBy Laura Embleton [ABMP Government Relations]
What is ABMP’s stance on human trafficking legislation? While ABMP acknowledges that human trafficking intersects on the fringes of massage therapy, we believe licensed massage therapists alone should not shoulder the financial burden of countering these illicit businesses. Massage therapists and massage therapy regulators should not be responsible for solving the issue of human trafficking or illegal sex businesses.
Massage therapists and massage boards should work with local law enforcement, educating them about what massage therapy is and what it is not. We believe the best way to stop the illicit businesses is to revise criminal codes with jailable misdemeanors and substantial fines for owners and managers who hire nonlicensed individuals to perform “massage.”
What does ABMP think are some effective ways to counteract the issues of illicit businesses operating under the guise of massage therapy? ABMP believes in going after the owners and managers of these establishments with substantial fines—over $5,000 per infraction—if they have people who are not licensed massage therapists providing massage in the location.
In the human trafficking context, these workers are victims. They should not be charged with prostitution, unless it can be proven that they are engaged in the activity willingly. District attorneys must be willing to prosecute these cases, and police must build the cases.
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