The unsavory connection between massage therapy and prostitution goes back many decades, with sex workers using fake massage businesses as a front for illegal activity.
Humans forcing humans into servitude and slavery is a practice dating back to the earliest records of civilization, but the growth of modern human trafficking—the coordinated, large-scale transportation of people who are forced into servitude, including prostitution—over the past two decades means the problem for the massage field has deepened.
In response to this problem, the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) has just released the Human Trafficking Task Force Report, which details the connection between human trafficking and massage therapy and provides ideas for combating the scourge of trafficking.
The FSMTB is the membership organization for U.S. state boards of massage therapy. It provides the massage exam, the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Exam (MBLEx) used by states to license massage therapists.
The FSMTB is also developing a database, The Massage Therapy Licensing Database (MTLD, pronounced matilda), intended to be online in 2017 and populated with massage therapists’ educational, licensing and continuing education data, in an attempt to improve regulators’ ability to make sure therapists are legitimate and meet regulation requirements.
Task Force Development
The report is one result of the creation of a human trafficking task force, which came about after delegates to the FSMTB’s annual meeting in 2015 passed a resolution to create a united front against human trafficking, according to the report.
The task force was charged with three assignments:
- To determine how pervasive human trafficking is within the massage field and analyze the effects such trafficking has on the massage field;
- To pinpoint those aspects under FSMTB’s purview that might lend themselves to fighting trafficking; and
- To determine the measures that FSMTB member boards can take to lessen or end trafficking in the massage field.
According to the report, between 6,500 and 9,000 illicit businesses use massage or another type of bodywork as a front for prostitution in the U.S. Such businesses create a threat for all massage therapists, the report states: “[T]he association of massage therapy with prostitution or ‘happy endings’ subjects therapists to assault, threats, harassment, and more subtle forms of intimidation.”
Traffickers “hide their activities and the exploitation of their victims” in many ways, states the report. “Massage therapy is one of the arenas in which they frequently operate. They may use massage, spa, reflexology, foot massage, bodywork, modeling, or another kind of service as a front.”
Additionally, those businesses oftentimes engage in fraud related to massage therapy licensing and massage education, the report notes.
“Illegal establishments often house individuals who have cheated to obtain a massage therapy credential, if a license is obtained at all,” states the report. “Unlicensed practice is common. In other cases, human trafficking is disguised as ‘free-agent prostitution’ and marketed as massage.”
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons 2014 Report: Country Narratives, human traffickers bring people—including children, adults, women and men—into and through the U.S. for forced labor, including prostitution and domestic servitude. Some people are taken out of the U.S. for such purposes as well.
“Trafficking can occur in both legal and illicit industries or markets, including in brothels, escort services, massage parlors, strip clubs, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, sales crews, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service,” the Trafficking in Persons report noted.
What FSMTB Could Do
The report notes several areas within FSMTB’s purview that could help fight human trafficking, including: increasing awareness of human trafficking; exploring the concept of one national massage-school accrediting authority; and amending its Model Practice Act “to include a representative with a background in human trafficking to the composition of member boards,” the report notes. Additional areas are mentioned in the report.
The FSMTB already initiated, in 2016, a policy to address education fraud: Any person intending to take the MBLEx must be enrolled in, or have graduated from, an education program recognized or approved by the state agency or board that regulates massage in the state where the school is located.
The report also makes recommendations to state boards of massage to assist in combatting human trafficking, including reporting “as much information as possible” to MTLD and using the database to check on massage credential applicants and licensees; as well as ensuring that the state’s list of massage schools is kept current with FSMTB, among other recommendations.
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her recent articles for massagemag.com include “Texas Massage Therapists Reach Out After Hurricane Harvey” and “Is Massage Therapy’s Happiness Factor the Key to Public Awareness?”
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