The risky business of regulating massage establishments
Despite being an industry known for the promotion of good health and relaxation, the rapid proliferation of massage businesses in various cities of Ventura County seems to be bringing anything but that.
While there are numerous legitimate, legally-operated and beneficial establishments throughout the area, local officials and law enforcement are supporting the expiration of a specific state regulation that was supposed to professionalize the massage industry. In 2008, legislators passed a law that would allow therapists to be certified by completing minimum professional training through the newly created nonprofit California Massage Therapy Council. According to the law, if all therapists employed by a massage business are certified, cities have no jurisdiction to place any more restrictive conditions on that business than they do on any other business. Though it would seem that creating such standards would be a good thing and create a challenge that certain perhaps illegitimate businesses and/or people would want to avoid, instead the number of establishments has proliferated. For instance, in Thousand Oaks, in 2008, there were 16 establishments; today, there are 47. In Simi Valley, for the same time periods, the numbers jumped from 18 to 48. In Ventura, for the fiscal year of 2006 to 2007 versus today, they increased from 28 to 59.
Opponents of the regulation say that it took away cities’ ability to control the proliferation of massage businesses through land-use restrictions. It also blocked cities’ ability to raise fees to regulate the industry, and ensure that businesses were legit, i.e., not performing sexual services. Now, there are so many businesses, law enforcement can’t keep up. Supporters of the law say the state shouldn’t abandon its role in regulating the industry and that cities take too long to issue permits.
When it comes to relaxation and massage, we are all for it. Even so, we dare to say that we don’t take so much issue with the idea of prostitution, noting fully that it is illegal in California, but should a person willingly get into that business — perhaps a move to Nevada would be the appropriate thing to do. But what really concerns us is the lack of attention and resources devoted to investigating human sex trafficking in the massage business. When we hear stories of women who speak little to no English, who refuse to talk to authorities when violent crimes happen, when we hear stories of women being dropped off at massage businesses and operations being conducted late at night, we vigorously raise a red flag.
In speaking with officials from various local police departments and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, we find that perspectives and concerns vary. All law enforcement agencies agree that there are suspicions of human trafficking but, for instance, Simi Valley police haven’t found any direct links to human trafficking — though organized crime appears to be behind the rapid increase in establishments — while in Oxnard, police have found evidence of trafficking in certain massage related establishments. In attempting to police the industry, however, prosecuting prostitutes is difficult, especially when suspects circumvent the law, saying such things as, they couldn’t help themselves and their attraction to their clients. So the time and energy trying to crack down on prostitution can be an exercise in futility. But our real grievance with the industry is the organized crime element, especially in the case of human trafficking.
We feel that until state legislators can figure out the appropriate regulations to crack down on prostitution and, even more so, human trafficking, they should allow the state regulation to expire and bring it down to the local level. Further, investigating any kind of human trafficking, be it in the massage business or any other industry, should be a priority. While penalties are stiff on the federal level, it appears there are not enough resources dedicated to investigating what’s behind this rapid and seemingly organized expansion of massage businesses. There is no real excuse for avoiding cracking down on slavery.