A bill before the New York State assembly proposes to make it easier for landlords to evict unlicensed massage therapy operations or businesses purporting to offer massage therapy but that promote prostitution.
Assembly member Michael Miller (D), representing the 38th district in Queens County, sponsored the bill, A743, and presented it to the assembly in January 2017. It was sent to the judiciary committee for discussion, where it remains today.
The bill is part of a larger nationwide movement by city, county and state governments, which, in recent years, have been pushing for stronger ordinances to regulate illicit massage businesses in an effort to undermine human sex trafficking, said Rochelle Keyhan, director of disruption strategies at the Polaris Project.
In the 2017 “Massage Parlor Trafficking Report,” the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization seeking to combat human trafficking, analyzed more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
The analysis determined that trafficking related to illicit massage businesses —often called massage parlors— was second in prevalence only to trafficking in escort services.
According to the report, Polaris believes there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating in the United States with total revenue around $2.5 billion a year.
“Most laws in this country put an emphasis on regulating the behavior of the therapist,” said Keyhan. “There’s almost no mention of liability of owners and managers of those businesses and no regulation on the way those businesses operate.”
Bills such as A743 help shift the focus and make it possible to shut down loop holes that allow illicit massage businesses to operate with impunity. “What the bill does is create actual enforceable clauses to regulate the trafficking-type behavior,” she said.
Including New York’s bill, four are currently in process across the country and four have become law at the state level. Some bills target an illicit business’ ability to form shell companies and thus hide money and the actual nature of the business.
Others emphasize not allowing after-hours business, require clients to enter the establishment through the front door or disallow black-out tint on windows.
“Basically, right now, there are no consequences (for illicit massage businesses) and now we’re creating consequences and (those) consequences tend to be disincentives,” she said.
Another goal of legislation such as A743 is to shift the national narrative that aligns massage therapy with the sex trade, said Meghan Carton, a strategic initiatives specialist with Polaris who has worked with jurisdictions around the country on massage business legislation.
“Massage is a licensed healing art and that’s what it should be recognized as,” Carton said. “We’re trying to stamp out these practices that allow human suffering to operate under the guise of a legitimate business.”
Licensed massage therapist Karen Harmon, who owns Body Work Unbound in Rochester, New York, sees the bill as a tool in helping to get massage therapy proper recognition as a medical therapy and also as a means to destigmatize it so she and other therapists do not have to deal with inappropriate behavior from clients who are misguided about massage services.
“Being a female massage therapist, I’ve had clients on my table that have asked me questions straight up about prostitution,” she said, or clients who have told her not to drape them when it is state law that they be draped.
Such situations, she said, are “gross” and frustrating. “I went to school for this. I’m a licensed professional. I’m not just rubbing lotion on you,” she said.
While the New York bill may not be as strong as some of the other legislation passed in other locations, Keyhan sees it as an important one to get passed because of the potential impact it will have on trafficking.
Based on Polaris’ 2017 analysis, New York has the second highest concentration of illicit massage businesses in the country, with California being the first, and New York City is the top port of entry for women trafficked to the U.S., on the East Coast.
“For New York to take a stand against this could have ripple effects across the country, not only for the massage therapists who help me not get migraines because my neck and back are killing me,” Keyhen said, “but also really putting a stop to the exploitation happening (under the guise of massage).”