Kansas regulation of massage industry might help prevent sex crimes, some leaders say
After two Lawrence residents with previous “promoting prostitution” convictions were charged Wednesday with multiple felonies in connection with alleged forced prostitution at a Lawrence massage parlor, some trade and government leaders say a state massage therapy licensure program might help prevent sex crimes in the industry.
Kansas is one of just five states in the nation that do not regulate the massage therapy industry. While most states require masseuses to pass background checks, attend accredited massage schools or obtain certain certification, according to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage therapists in Kansas go completely unchecked.
Such was the case with Chen Li, 50, and Guihong Xiao, 45, who were arrested Tuesday after an investigation into allegations that sex crimes were occurring at their business, Spring Massage, 600 Lawrence Ave. Charging documents allege that two women were forced into sexual services at the Lawrence business and that Xiao also performed sexual services for pay at least once in January.
Li, charged with felony promoting the sale of sexual relations and aggravated human trafficking, and Xiao, charged with felony promotion, misdemeanor selling of sexual relations and two counts of aggravated human trafficking, have been down this road before. In 2013, they were convicted in Bonner Springs of misdemeanor promoting prostitution, but since the massage industry is unregulated in Kansas, Li and Xiao were free to start up another massage business just 25 miles away in Lawrence after their Bonner Springs legal troubles subsided.
AMTA Kansas lobbyist Stuart Little said if Kansas regulated its massage industry, and if a background check were required to own a massage business or perform massage therapy, Li and Xiao may have been prevented from setting up shop again.
“The challenge with no licensing is people actually come here because they know they don’t have a license,” Little said. “(Regulation) serves a preventative purpose. They’re going to have to jump through some hoops.”
Currently, only a handful of Kansas municipalities have their own requirements for massage therapists. Overland Park, for example, has a licensing program in which a massage therapist must pay a registration fee, pass a background check, complete a national certification examination, have at least 500 hours of massage training and be certified in first aid and CPR to obtain a city license to practice, according to it’s city clerk’s office.
Lawrence, however, has no such requirements. The city does not have a licensing program for the massage therapy industry, according to the city clerk’s office, meaning anyone can work as a massage therapist, regardless of whether they’ve received any training.
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said Friday that some form of regulation of the industry could prove helpful in the fight against sex crimes.
“This is an industry that, without regulation, can and has been used for illegal activities, from prostitution to human trafficking,” Branson said. “Although stringent regulations are probably not required, some minimal registration requirements could assist in preventing abuse in this industry and protect the legitimate operator.”
Since 2011, the Kansas AMTA chapter has been lobbying state legislators to create a regulatory standard for the massage therapy industry. In 2015, two bills were introduced — one in the House and one in the Senate — but neither made it past committee.
The identical bills proposed requiring all massage professionals to obtain a license under the Kansas State Board of Nursing. Qualifying masseuses would have to meet certain standards, including successful completion of at least 500 hours of board-approved massage course instruction and passing a nationally recognized competency exam. To keep their licenses, massage therapists would have to participate in continued education, pay a licensing fee and obtain liability insurance.
Lawrence Rep. John Wilson, who serves on the Health and Human Services committee that sponsored the House bill, said while the bill is “dormant until next session,” he is “supportive of the concept.”
“The bill is intended to address the issue we saw the other day in Lawrence,” Wilson said. “We have a rigorous exam for barbers, but we don’t have one for someone who touches all over a naked body?”
Little said opponents of the bill fear more government regulation of private business and believe the free market will sift out the unqualified.
“There is a sense in the Legislature that the free market should take care of itself,” Little said. “There are a number of massage therapists who like not having to pay licensing fees or learn new techniques.”
But Little said each time a story like Li and Xiao’s makes headlines in Kansas, lawmakers come closer to considering implementing regulations.
“Every few months, something like this happens,” Little said. “We’re at the point where the Legislature says something needs to happen, but they don’t know what.”
Former president of the Kansas AMTA chapter Marla Hieger said that while licensing could not eliminate sex crimes from the massage industry entirely, she does think it would help reduce its prevalence in the state.
“It’s going to be harder to get the girls licensed and harder to set up business,” Hieger said. “At least with a license, there is a state board that can look in, take complaints, investigate and take action.”
Kyle Rogers, who oversees the massage therapy program at Pinnacle Career Institute in Lawrence and Kansas City, said that while regulation could not entirely eradicate back-room sex trade from businesses purporting to be massage spas, forcing the businesses to acquire licensing and submit to being overseen by a regulatory board would make illicit activity more easily detectable.
“If you have it regulated, potential board members could drop in on the business,” Rogers said. “There would be more oversight over ill-reputed businesses (masquerading) as massage therapy and getting them shut down.”
Rogers said the lack of licensing should concern customers, too.
“The fact that you can literally just hang a shingle up and call yourself a massage therapist is horrifying to me,” Rogers said. “That’s scary — you could be in a place where somebody who was not trained can work on you.”