Behind darkened doors, barred windows, or surveilled entrances, thousands of massage parlors hiding exploited sex workers are operating across the country. But lately, in some cities, more of the visitors knocking on their doors are inspectors.
In San Francisco, 150 illicit massage businesses have been shut down since 2015 largely thanks to enforcement of a new municipal code. A toughened ordinance led to the shutdown of 38 businesses in Houston within a year.
And nationwide, at least 13 cities have proposed new ordinances since a report in January documented the operation of more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the U.S. — establishments that are commonly used as fronts for sex trafficking of vulnerable women.
Philadelphia could be next to join; on Thursday, Councilman William K. Greenlee introduced a bill to add regulations aimed at making a dent in the number of such businesses here.
In several cities, recently enacted measures have successfully shut down illicit businesses without penalizing the workers, who are often victims of trafficking. The approach is a far cry from the traditional police busts that result in prostitution arrests for the workers but do little to stop the owners from reopening a week later with a new name or new employees.
“We want to make sure that these places aren’t just fronts for human trafficking,” said Greenlee, who plans to talk with stakeholders about the proposal over the summer. “Human trafficking is clearly a problem and it’s happening, at least to some [extent], in our city. … We need to try to address it.”
The bill would create licensing and registration requirements that would put burdens on owners opening illegitimate shops. Violations could shut down businesses and discourage new ones from opening.
“We need to make it harder for these businesses to just pop up and go down and pop up,” said Shea Rhodes, director of the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, whom Greenlee’s office consulted.
Since January, 46 illicit massage businesses have been shut down across the country in part or completely because of code enforcement, according to Polaris, an advocacy group that runs the national human-trafficking hotline and that released the January report.
About 260 illicit massage businesses are in Pennsylvania and 370 in New Jersey. They operate in the city and neighboring counties, the Inquirer and Daily News has reported.
The businesses are most commonly staffed by female immigrants from Asian countries who come here under false promises of visas, good pay, or a new life, according to Polaris. They are then forced into sex work by massage-business owners, who add on debt after debt to keep the women in servitude.
Greenlee’s bill would require every massage establishment to be licensed with the city in addition to the state, display certificates and prices publicly, keep detailed records of services, and not operate outside the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Under the bill, violations found during inspections could result in fines of $200 to $2,000, which can add up daily, and possible license suspension or revocation. It also includes a proposed $500 annual license fee.
Code enforcement can cause businesses to shut down through several paths: The owner’s license is revoked, the number of violations add up and the operation can successfully be closed down as a nuisance, or the violations are used as evidence in a criminal case. Plus, the owner may decide to close up shop when facing fines.
“The owners just say, ‘This isn’t worth it,’ ” said Meghan Carton, strategic initiatives specialist with Polaris. “In Philadelphia, where they haven’t had a civil enforcement tool, this will be a shock to [owners].”
The bill would hold owners accountable for any violations by the business, thus protecting the workers from fines. It also requires workers to be fully clothed.
Greenlee’s draft bill could change after conversations with experts and other stakeholders, his office said. Key provisions in other cities have included a regulation against anyone living or sleeping on business premises, which can prevent workers from being held captive inside, and against internal locks, so that workers cannot be confined in rooms with clients and inspectors can open the door unannounced.
Other ordinances have aimed to keep the businesses from cropping up after being shut down by prohibiting another massage business from opening in the same location or by barring an owner from opening another business. Those provisions aren’t yet in Philadelphia’s bill.
Villanova’s Rhodes said there also needs to be more awareness that paying for sex is a crime.
“Who’s buying sex in Center City on their lunch break?” she asked. “What businesses do they work for? And how are they finding the locations to go and buy sex? Are they using their desk phones and desk computers to search for it?”
As part of its strategic plan against human trafficking, Houston in 2016 strengthened its massage-business ordinance, created a municipal court diversion program to connect potential victims with legal services, and set up a program to find them care and temporary shelter.
And in San Francisco, health department officials have used a mix of citations, penalties, permit suspensions and revocations, local zoning regulations, and discerning review of new permit applications to reduce the number of permitted massage establishments in the city from 350 to 193.
“The employees are generally viewed as the victims, so the fines and penalties are largely directed toward the owners,” said Patrick Fosdahl, an assistant director in the city’s Department of Public Health.
Officials and experts have one other group in mind when crafting these laws: real massage therapists. The bill is crafted to put a minimal burden on aboveboard businesses.
“We’re not trying to hurt the legitimate massage therapists,” Greenlee said. “We have a problem here in Philadelphia and we need to try to address it the best we can.”