Busting the Myth Busters

Some of the reference materials may be a little out of date. This page was developed in 2020-21.

A local anti-human trafficking group (ATG) put out a myths and facts sheet. It’s important to have the unvarnished truth, not selective facts. Our rebuttal is intended to address the misinformation in the fact sheet.

Myth 1: No one is enforcing the laws.

Our response: The ATG doesn’t bust this myth. Instead, they tell you why human trafficking laws are hard to enforce. They are. We agree. But there are other laws that are not being enforced too. These include the wide gamut of prostitution laws which can get at the owners and managers of the business. It can also include enforcing the unlicensed practice of massage therapy.

The main issue here is one of budgeting. Undercover sting operations are expensive and time consuming and enforcing these laws are a low priority when compared to homicides and other crimes. However, that should not be an excuse to push regulation that targets the wrong people. Be smart about how and who you regulate.

This myth is not a myth. The fact is, No one is truly enforcing the laws.

Myth 2: Existing laws are enough.

Background: HB749 is a law that allows code inspectors and law enforcement to check massage businesses for licenses. LMTs supported it because it was a limited response that addressed the key issue: Trafficking operations typically don’t have licensees working there.

Our response: There is just so much to unpack here.

  1. Our response points out the contradictory nature of their argument: If there are licensees at sex parlors (what we call these illicit businesses) and HB749 is about licensees, their argument makes no sense.
  2. Nothing in their argument shows or proves that existing laws aren’t enough. HB749 has never been enforced in Billings, so it’s really unknown as to whether it would be enough. We’ll never know until it’s enforced.
  3. The only law they mention is HB749. There are a lot of other laws out there. Pretending this is the only one is disingenuous.
  4. In some ways they are right: Just having a law isn’t enough. Laws must be enforced: No unenforced law is effective. In the case of this proposal, it will also be unenforced as there’s no money set aside to pay for enforcement. For example, in Ohio, officers thought they’d eradicated the problem in 2005, but without enforcement the problem came back.1 And even in the background materials (Spa Ordinance One Pager) on the Billings City Council website for Jan. 19, it says that HB 147, which outlaws hand jobs, “has not forced IMBs to leave town yet” which sets up an expectation that the law alone would do so. That’s not how it works.
  5. They misunderstand what HB749 was intended to do. Prior to HB749, law enforcement could not enter these businesses without probable cause. HB749 was designed to get law enforcement inside the door. Once there, officers could screen for licenses and if there were obvious, observable signs of trafficking in the business, that would be enough for probable cause to do further investigation. The law is a means to an end, not the end-all.
  6. There are few licensees in these businesses. Our sources say fewer than 8. Basically, the ATG wants to disrupt an industry of at least 200 licensees in Billings (As of April 2019) to target fewer than 8 licensees.
    The 200 licensees only include those living within the city. It does not include those living outside of Billings but working in the city. The source for the information was taken from licensing information provided by the State Board of Massage Therapy.
  7. There are many things that could be done instead of establishment licensing. Here are just a few ideas that target the bad actors and leave legally practicing massage therapists alone.
    • Brandon Walter, FBI agent, alluded to one during the Jan 19, 2021 council work session: Public education (Time stamp 4:26:20). He noted that after news articles on the topic, at least 5 illicit businesses closed down, with 2 more closing after raids.
      Heyrick Research, aka the Network, a prominent anti-trafficking research group, highlighted educational programs directed at landlords as being very successful. So much so that this method is touted as the cheapest and most effective route in closing down these illicit business and in some areas has a 75% success rate 2. Phoebe Tollefson’s article interviewing landlords provided a great start to that project. Educate the landlords, provide them with the means to evict the bad actors, and these businesses will have no place to go.
    • Outlaw dormitories in businesses. Dormitory living is common in sex parlors.
    • Stop sex parlors from mis-categorizing themselves as any business other than what they are: sexually oriented businesses. This will keep them from looking for another place to hide.
  8. We’ve been told by the proponents that the law is not targeted at us, but to the bad actors. In essence, we’ve been told that we don’t need to follow the law and the bad actors will. First off, that’s not how laws work. Secondly, we would be violating our unprofessional conduct laws and rules if we don’t follow the law and that could cost us our license. So the basic premise that it’s not targeted at legally practicing massage therapists isn’t true and these put a burden on us that will cost us clients, our safety, and possibly our business.

Myth #3: IMBs are a small part of the trafficking industry.

Our response: The stat stating that sex parlors are the 2nd most prevalent form of human trafficking is found in a report on trafficking in the industry put out by Polaris.3.

But let’s look at the numbers:

  1. According to the report, in 2017, sex parlors accounted for 2,949 cases of a total of 32,000 cases
    That means 9.2% of the entire trafficking problem is attributed to sex parlors.
    Since more than 9 out of 10 victims are trafficked in other ways, wouldn’t it make more sense to address trafficking in a general sense?
  1. Polaris is also affiliated with the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which provides statistics based on their calls.
    In 2017, there were 721 cases attributed to sex parlors out of a total of 8,773 cases. That works out to 8.2% of the entire trafficking problem (721/8,773).4 This is less than what Polaris said in their report.

It should be noted that it appears that Polaris is sloppy in their reporting: There is a big difference in the number of cases between the two entities – 8,773 vs. 32,000 – even though Polaris relies on the hotline for statistics. However, there were 33,849 contacts at the hotline. Thus, it is likely that Polaris confused cases and contacts. Since there can be multiple contacts per case this could attribute to the difference in the percentages.

  1. In 2018 we get similar results to 2017. Sex parlors accounted for 861 cases out of a total of 10,915 cases
    This is 7.9% of the entire trafficking problem attributed to sex parlors.
  2. In 2019, sex parlors accounted for 1,247 cases out of a total of 11,500 cases
    This is 10.8%

In an earlier search for information, it was difficult to pull out the information and it was confusing. The stats here reflect current searches. Instead of about 6%, the numbers have been updated here.

In short, whether you use statistics from Polaris’ report or statistics from the Human Trafficking Hotline, when comparing cases to cases, at most the problem consists of around 10.8% of the entire human trafficking problem.

Another fact they fudge: 10,000 sex parlors. They’ve upped the number over the past year from 9,000. These numbers are not based on fact. Critics of Polaris and other anti-trafficking groups point out the advantages of inflating numbers, how the numbers aren’t backed up by facts, and that their definition of an Illicit Massage Business (to use their term) is problematic. This is all outlined in a critical review of Polaris’ report on the massage industry.5 We are aware of at least 2 peer-reviewed research studies that reduces Polaris’ number by about a third.6

Myth #4: Victims are willing participants

Our response: We’ve already said that we wouldn’t respond to this one.
It’s bait for a reaction and intended to shame anyone who questions putting forward the ordinance.

Truth be told, we’ve been bullied: You support trafficking if you don’t support this ordinance.
That’s not the case. We support doing something, just not this.

“Destroy a profession” – Really? Yes, really.

  1. Massage therapy is a healthcare profession and we’ve made great strides in that direction and over the years have separated ourselves from the inuendoes and jokes about happy endings. Since the council work session and subsequent reporting, that work has been undone. The jokes and innuendoes have increased in a way that we haven’t seen in years. Sex buyers are calling and showing up on our doorsteps. This ordinance, rather then separating legally practicing therapists from the sex trade, lumps us together with it.
  2. When calls from sex buyers increase and when they show up on our doorsteps, those legally practicing are put in danger. If the public perpetuates the myth that equates massage and sex it emboldens buyers. And the biggest perpetrator of the lie? Those behind the proposal. We’ve talked with them many times over the use of the term illicit massage and yet they persist. It serves their agenda to equate the two. Therapists will leave the profession to protect themselves.
  3. In a few years, when they realize that the ordinance doesn’t work without enforcement, they’ll raise our fees. Two cities at the forefront of enforcement, San Francisco7 and Atlanta,8 charge at least $2000 each year for an establishment license; and in San Francisco, the initial license is over $6000. Few massage therapists can afford this, but the corporate massage businesses and the sex parlors can. With few legal places to work, wages will be depressed, which will drive therapists out of the city.
  4. Clients will leave: Our clients are telling us that they won’t feel safe if we can’t lock the doors while they are naked on a table – at their most vulnerable. Our clients’ safety comes first but we won’t be able to protect them by locking our doors. This, through no fault of our own, leads to loss of trust and clients will leave as a result. The proposed ordinance will affect the livelihoods of more than 200 licensed massage therapists who contribute to the economy of Billings.

Myth #5: IMBs identify as adult entertainment

Our response: Of course they don’t. They are calling themselves massage businesses. As we point out on the handout, the language of the proposed ordinance is what stands out as adult entertainment or as a sexually oriented business (AE/SO), as defined by the Billings city codes. The language of the ordinance has its roots in age-old red-light laws from the early 1900’s. In other cities as massage therapy became a respected, healthcare profession, regulations were moved from the AE/SO codes to business licensing codes. Unfortunately, in many cases the language referring to genitals, sex toys, and other provisions remained. These are the very ordinances that have been used as the basis for the current proposal.

Even though legally practicing massage therapists don’t do these unprofessional acts, the language implies that some of us do and we must stop it. In short, this language conflates massage and sex, and it needs to stop.

About the sentence “Criminal enterprise exploits businesses that lack regulation and law.” Let’s put that fallacy to rest…

  1. Cosmetology is highly regulated and yet nail salons are a prime setting for labor trafficking. Restaurants are also highly regulated, and yet there’s a lot of trafficking there too.
  2. And other businesses are not really regulated at all and there’s no trafficking in those businesses. For example, department stores, office supply retailers, and plumbers.

It’s important to compare apples to apples. Massage therapy is a healthcare profession and should be regulated as such. And we are. Offices of healthcare professionals where clients are seen are specifically exempt from healthcare facility licensing laws and these businesses remain unregulated. The licensees are regulated, but the businesses are not. And yet, they are not exploited by human traffickers.

Why is the massage industry being exploited? Besides the reasons already mentioned, it’s because there is not a cohesive approach that actually gets at the root of the problem: These illicit businesses are pretending to be something that they are not. And lawmaking has not traditionally taken that approach, to the detriment of legally practicing massage therapists everywhere.

Instead, lawmakers are focusing on the business they are pretending to be. These laws victimize legally practicing therapists with burdensome provisions that further entrenches the idea that sex and massage are related. It is time that we break that cycle and develop laws that target the law breakers, not the profession – the legal practice of massage therapy.

Here’s our proposal: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gysh1m32u5qdz78/New%20HT%26P%20Proposal%20ver.2021_01_27.pdf?dl=0

  1. “The Stubborn Cycle of Massage Parlor Trafficking. (2015, May 7). Columbus Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.columbusmonthly.com/content/stories/2015/05/modern-day-slavery.html[]
  2. Singleton, C. (2020, May 3). Criminals and COVID-19: How we stop sex traffickers from exploiting the crisis (opinion). South Florida Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/commentary/fl-op-com-singleton-massage-parlors-covid-19-20200503-jo2jgq4tyneuxn6b3idyo3dfyy-story.html[]
  3. Polaris. (January 2018). Human trafficking in illicit massage businesses. p. 12. Retrieved from https://polarisproject.org/resources/human-trafficking-in-illicit-massage-businesses/[]
  4. Hotline statistics. (n.d.). National Human Trafficking Hotline, Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://humantraffickinghotline.org/states[]
  5. Kimmet, D. (2020, January, 11). Part 3: A critical review of the Polaris report “human trafficking in illicit massage businesses.” Starting on p. 3-11. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/fb82rkor66bi23e/3%20-%20Part%203%20-%20Polaris%20Report%20Critical%20Review%20%20Ver_2020_01_11.pdf?dl=0[]
  6. same document p. 3-12[]
  7. Mark, J. (2019, August 26). Hundreds of massage therapists cited in crackdown, as practitioners fear for future in San Francisco. Mission Local. Retrieved from https://missionlocal.org/2019/08/hundreds-of-massage-therapists-reportedly-cited-in-crackdown-as-practitioners-fear-for-future-in-san-francisco/[]
  8. The Atlanta application for a massage establishment license that verifies the fee involved:
    https://www.atlantapd.org/Home/ShowDocument?id=316 []