By Jaime Nevins, licensed massage therapist
Locally, Cedar Rapids, Coralville and now Iowa City are considering policy to make all licensed massage therapists (LMT) register or be licensed within their city. Some include large fees, the disclosure of business information, limiting business hours and other unnecessary hoops. They claim to “address the problem of human trafficking and prostitution.”
The fears and concerns I hear from my massage therapy peers could be mitigated with the decriminalization of sex work. Raiding and closing all of the sex work establishments will likely increase the requests for sex that LMTs already must occasionally field (no, it’s not funny). Moreover, such raids will definitely increase sex workers’ vulnerability while driving traffickers further underground.
Prostitution (a.k.a. sex work) is not the same as sex trafficking. Sex work is consenting adults, sex trafficking is rape. Linking the two increases the risk for people involved in both. To claim that enough similarities between “massage parlors” (sex work establishments) and the massage therapy profession exist that policy is necessary to tell the difference is dangerous for massage therapists.
While the policy claims to help victims of sex trafficking, when asked, Iowa City officials had not consulted any of the local rape crisis advocacy organizations (RVAP, Monsoon, Nissa, Transformative Healing). A sex trafficking victim may not seek help from police because they would be perceived as a sex worker and face arrest. Fear of discrimination or deportation are additional deterrents. Working with the organizations that have the most direct contact with victims seems a critical part of advocacy.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit with a stated objective to end human trafficking, is the main source cited by officials. However, the organization has been criticized multiple times for using false data, including that related to “massage parlors.” Exxon is listed as one of Polaris’s biggest funders, but Exxon has been tangled in lawsuits for human trafficking for over a decade.
Organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Health Organization, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and UNAIDS all made statements condemning the conflation of sex trafficking and sex work. Instead, they call for the decriminalization of consensual sex work, a movement supported by officials in cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Rhode Island decriminalized sex work between 2003-2009. Statistics from that period show a 40 percent drop in “female gonorrhea rates statewide.” Reported rape offenses dropped by 30 percent. Yes, you read that right.
In an environment where sex work is decriminalized, workers can state their services without fear of arrest. This fear leads them to hide under the “massage” label. Working indoors, they’re far less likely to become victims of violence or become trafficked themselves. Additionally, they may be more willing to provide information to law enforcement about suspected trafficking rings.
For the benefit of LMTs, consensual sex workers and victims of trafficking, I hope that this ordinance will get scrapped and that the city will reevaluate its arrest and prosecution policies for sex workers.