Will requiring parlors to make use of licensed therapeutic massage therapists shut down intercourse trafficking fronts?

Alissa Widman Neese The Columbus Dispatch

Massage therapists and advocates for human-trafficking survivors don‘t necessarily agree on the best way to shut down massage parlors in Ohio that are fronts for commercial sex operations.

But they do agree it‘s a rampant problem that needs addressing.

At least two groups say that, later this year, they plan to push for stricter, more consistent regulation of the massage industry as a possible solution. But they have different opinions on whether regulating the masseuses themselves, or the businesses where they work, should be the focus of the proposed changes.

Ohio law says therapists who massage for medicinal purposes must be licensed by the state Medical Board.

But people who massage for other purposes — typically advertised as “relaxation massage” — aren‘t addressed in that legislation and therefore don‘t need to be licensed.

Someone without a license cannot legally advertise themselves as a massage therapist, said Tessie Pollock, state Medical Board spokeswoman.

In addition, relaxation, or “non-therapeutic,” massage can‘t be used to treat any health condition, including pain of any kind, anxiety, muscle aches, headaches, cardiovascular issues, central nervous disorders and more, according to information provided by Pollock.

Permitting unlicensed relaxation massage has created a loophole that helps illicit businesses pose as massage parlors, said Melissa Ryan, legislative committee chairwoman for the Ohio chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association. Some cities in Ohio require all massage to be performed by a licensed person, but most don‘t, she said. 

On Friday, a city law requiring all massage to be performed by a licensed person will go into effect in Westerville.

The move follows a Feb. 2 raid at Crystal Asian Spa, 407 W. Main St., because of suspected illegal activity, and public outrage regarding another planned spa advertising its opening using sexually suggestive photos and phrases online. Officials said the latter business, Orchid Asian Spa, at 535 S. Otterbein Ave., has since been given an eviction notice. The two businesses share a manager.

Ryan said her association plans to lobby for a statewide law similar to Westerville‘s later this year, to keep regulations consistent in every community.

In Ohio, obtaining a massage-therapy license requires a background check, several thousand dollars and 750 hours of education, which critics say could be an obstacle for people who truly perform relaxation massages as currently permitted in Ohio.

There are 11,560 registered massage therapists in the state, Pollock said.

But Ryan, a licensed therapist in Steubenville in eastern Ohio, says the potential hardships associated with obtaining a license shouldn‘t outweigh public safety.

Uniform regulation would protect the safety of customers, who might not realize the person giving their massage isn‘t licensed, and therapists, whose customers might expect sexual favors because of the reputation caused by illicit massage businesses, she said.

It also would give law-enforcement another tool to combat human trafficking because licensed therapists can be inspected by the state, Ryan said.

“They‘re using our profession as a ruse, and that‘s not fair,” Ryan said of illicit business. “It seems like it‘s getting worse instead of better.”

Ohio had the fourth-highest number of human trafficking cases reported to a national hotline among states last year, with 191 cases. That‘s behind California, Texas and Florida, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline‘s website.

Of those 191 cases, 147 were for sex trafficking, with illicit massage and spa businesses coming in as the top venue for where the trafficking occurred.

Polaris, the nonprofit group that operates the hotline, is planning a campaign to advocate for stricter regulations of massage businesses, rather than for the person performing the massage, said Rochelle Keyhan, who spearheaded a national report on the topic released last month.

It found more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating in the United States, with revenues totaling about $2.5 billion a year.

Keyhan suggested that lawmakers could restrict massage businesses from having late operating hours, backdoor entrances and buzzer-controlled doors — all common in illicit parlors. Ideally, the laws would be consistent across cities, counties and states to prevent traffickers from moving to “friendlier” locations, she said.

“They‘re smart, but we need to be smarter,” Keyhan said.

In the Midwest, only 11 percent of cities, 10 percent of counties, and four out of 12 states currently have laws specifically regulating massage businesses, according to the Polaris report.

Columbus has a law banning those convicted of drug or human-trafficking crimes from obtaining licenses to operate massage or bathhouse businesses, among other business licensing requirements. The city also has a law prohibiting sexual during a massage.

Though Ohio doesn‘t regulate massage businesses, it did pass a law in 2014 making it illegal to advertise massages with the suggestion or promise of sexual activity.

Regulating businesses puts the focus on those operating illicit parlors instead of employees who might be coerced into prostitution due to debt, violence, fear, shame or cultural barriers, Keyhan said.

Last week, Westerville and neighboring Blendon Township banned any new massage businesses from opening for 90 days as officials discuss crafting more permanent local laws.

Westerville leaders said they hope their community can be a model for fighting human trafficking and aiding victims locally and beyond.

Columbus Police Sgt. Mark Rapp, head of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, commended the effort. He said illicit massage businesses are often “hidden in plain sight” in suburbs, close to their target customers: middle- to upper-class men with disposable income who continue to supply the demand.

Marlene Carson, 55, a survivor of human trafficking in central Ohio who founded the Switch Anti-Trafficking Network in Westerville, praised elected leaders there for considering survivors in future legislation.

Carson said she was exploited in an illicit massage parlor in a Columbus suburb and strives to increase awareness and education of the issue.

When she was trafficked as a teenager, survivors were shamed and resources were scarce, which is why she wants to help others, she said.

She and Westerville officials are planning to host two forums on the subject in March.

“If we‘re going to abolish any forms of human trafficking, it‘s going to take us all to do it,” Carson said at a Westerville City Council meeting last week. “I believe we have the ingredients, the people, the knowledge and the skill set to do exactly that.”

To report a tip or get help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at .


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