Untangling Massage, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution

Neon Massage sign to signify human trafficking or prostitution

Of all the policies and topics I could write about (educational standards, declining school enrollments, research, etc.) why would I pick untangling massage, human trafficking, and prostitution as the first? Surely those other topics are more important; we should focus on those!

Up until about 18 months ago, I would have agreed with the major policy makers and deep thinkers in our profession that we need research to back up what we’ve known all along: Massage is an effective therapy. The research shows the rest of the medical community and the public that we have the chops to work in a variety of clinical settings to provide rehabilitative, palliative, and preventative treatments. Massage has its place in the wellness sector as well. But is lack of research at the root of why legislative policy makers don’t treat the massage therapy profession like other healthcare professions?

I would have agreed that we need better educational standards – for both therapists and teachers. I was – and continue to be – an early backer for the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education’s (AFMTE) educator certification (disclosure: I participated in the beta test and am now an AFMTE certified educator). I believe that better educators turn out better practitioners and because someone is a fantastic practitioner doesn’t make them a good teacher. As far as raising educational standards for students? Many voices have sounded off on that topic, with Sandy Fritz providing an interesting take on the topic.((Fritz, S. (2020, January 8). The massage field’s generations must create a future that works for all. MASSAGE Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.massagemag.com/the-massage-fields-generations-must-create-a-future-that-works-for-all-120455/)) This topic is controversial, but is lack of educational hours at the root of why legislative policy makers don’t treat the massage therapy profession like other healthcare professions?

And we could go on – with the movers and shakers in the massage profession debating all of the reasons why they think school enrollments are decreasing and jobs are going unfilled. I think they’re missing the mark. At the root of the problem is the elephant in the room that few are talking about: Human trafficking and prostitution that has infiltrated our profession.

As long as lawmakers and policy makers view us through the lens of human trafficking and prostitution, our ability to advance our profession will be limited.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve had a front row seat to this attitude:

  • The mayor of the largest city in Montana asked massage therapists “to take one for the team” and submit to establishment licensing to stop human trafficking. Something no other healthcare profession is being asked to do (yes, he really did say that).

  • I watched lawmakers on the state level be completely okay with putting the word sex in the massage therapy scope of practice – something no other healthcare profession is subjected to. Fortunately, the sponsor of the bill was reasonable and amended it out – but only after the bill had passed a full House vote 86-12.((HB 749 Bill Actions (2019). Retrieved from the Montana Legislative Branch website http://laws.leg.mt.gov/legprd/LAW0210W$BSIV.ActionQuery?P_BILL_NO1=749&P_BLTP_BILL_TYP_CD=HB&Z_ACTION=Find&P_SESS=20191. The action occurred on 3/29/19.))

These attitudes arise because over time massage, human trafficking, and prostitution have become entangled. The knee-jerk reaction has been to regulate our profession through establishment licensing as an attempt to regulate it out of our profession.

It’s a solution that does not work. In fact, putting such language into law actually links our profession with illicit and illegal activities, rather than separating us from them.((Topics for future blogs that will cite sources and stats to back up these statements.))

Singling out our profession for regulation, which represents a small part of the entire human trafficking problem (roughly 4.5% to 6%),((See Appendix A, Part 3, Trafficking in BDAMBs Compared to Other Kinds of Trafficking. Appendix A is part of the Untangling Series and is based on 2018 statistics. The Polaris report, Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses (2018, January), appears to use inflated numbers, citing “contacts” not “cases” (cases may consist of multiple contacts).)) makes our profession responsible for addressing the problem, rather than acknowledging us as a healthcare profession that is also a victim of the problem. We don’t see these kinds of regulations being instituted for hotels or in the construction and food service industries, which are just a few of the places where human trafficking occurs.

Yet, this type of regulation is popping up everywhere. We see it showing up in Facebook groups,((A few examples: https://www.facebook.com/groups/611431842200765/permalink/2686124341398161/
The latter link refers to this story: 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/)) but we certainly don’t see any comprehensive articles in the trade journals. A small mention here or there, but otherwise: Zero, zip.

This lack of information leaves therapists to fend for themselves and form their own opinions about how the issue should be addressed. Yes, the two national organizations, ABMP and AMTA have stated very clearly that the massage therapy profession should not be “responsible for ending human trafficking.”((ABMP and AMTA joint response to FSMTB Human Trafficking Report.(2017, November 16). Retrieved from https://www.abmp.com/updates/news/abmp-and-amta-joint-response-fsmtb-human-trafficking-report)) But anti-trafficking groups, like Polaris, have seized the narrative and are educating therapists to buy into the idea that we should submit to regulation to help trafficking victims. After all, we’re a helping profession aren’t we? 

Taking Back the Narrative

The average therapist doesn’t know the damage that such an approach can do to our profession – they just want this criminal activity out of our profession and see establishment licensing as a pathway to get there. It isn’t. All it does is put more financial and regulatory burdens on legally practicing massage therapists.((Kimmet, D. (2020). Part 3: A critical review of the Polaris report, section “The Polaris Report (and Polaris) Harms Legally Practicing Massage Therapists,” 3-23 through 3-27. 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))

It’s time that we untangle human trafficking and prostitution from massage and take a different approach. But first, we have to understand the problem, the implications of the problem, why current solutions aren’t working, and so on. That’s why I’ve developed a series of papers called Untangling Massage, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution (The Untangling Series). Each part deals with a different topic. The link to the entire series also allows you to access all of the Appendices and scoping document that details the projected scope of the project.

The Untangling Series is a living document that will change as more and better information is developed. The series is intended to provide a fully resourced and researched tool to help our industry combat ill-conceived policy. It’s not all done. I’ve begun with the part that I think was the logical place to start: with a critique of the Polaris report, Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses (2018, January).

Polaris is an anti-trafficking group that has tremendous influence with legislators and other law makers and is filling the educational gap in our industry. Their report is effectively an outline of their policy and philosophy approach to brothels disguised as massage businesses (BDAMBs). Reading it I realized that this flawed document, along with Polaris’ misguided approach, would decimate the massage therapy industry (a topic for another blog). This prompted me to develop a response which started with Part 3: A Critical Review of the Polaris Report.

Reframing the Problem

As I researched Part 3 and dealt with the local and statewide issues, I realized that the problem was much bigger than Polaris and extended deeply into the massage therapy industry. Specifically, a lack of education around

  • How language can tie subjects together, how the current language in laws does just that, and how we can change the dialogue;
  • The purpose of administrative laws (licensing) versus criminal statutes;
  • What’s happened in the past and currently – and what works and what doesn’t;
  • What kinds of laws we should support and why they work; and
  • Politics – how legislators think and that the current approach by the national associations could use improvement; and
  • A comprehensive plan that needs to be implemented industry wide to effect change. The current approach, separating ourselves into silos does not work.

The profession needs a well-researched document from which to work and to reference. From there, those working on these issues can develop the user-friendly flyers and talking points to sway those in the profession and lawmakers. That’s how I intend The Untangling Series be used.

Simply saying that something doesn’t work, or we need a different approach, or that Polaris seems misguided, without the facts and research to back that up won’t get us anywhere. So yes, we need something like The Untangling Series even though it may seem a little dry or have lots of footnotes or be too long to read. This will allow us to know what we’re talking about and have the research to back it up.

Your Help is Needed

The project is a big one and I need your help. I’m looking for contributors and co-authors to work on the various sections. Interested? Read through the scoping document to see if you’re still interested, and if so, please let me know in the comments or go to the website below. I know there are a lot of people out there who are working on this issue. It’s time that we work on it together.

I encourage you to read through the documents I’ve linked. Feel free to leave your comments here.

This is not the only political project I’m working on that could use some crowd sourcing. That article I referenced above by Sandy Fritz? She’s got the right idea: I’ve been working on a community website that will provide resources and education for developing our next generation of political leaders. You’re welcome to contribute there too. www.LMTbodypolitic.com

Thanks for Reading!

Deb Kimmet

Photo credit: Justin Cormack / Wikipedia Commons (edited)

Untangling Massage, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution Read More »