Editorial: Regulate them

It’s ridiculous that Lawrence is the largest city in Kansas without an ordinance in place regulating massage businesses. City commissioners should make it a priority to correct the oversight.

Lawrence has approximately 50 massage businesses in its city limits. Most are long-standing businesses with professional reputations. Some are not.

Sadly, Kansas is one of only three states that do not regulate the massage industry, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. And Lawrence is among the largest cities in Kansas without an ordinance regulating and licensing massage-therapy business. The city isn’t actively pursuing a licensing program, even though Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson pushed for one more than a year ago, citing concerns that the lack of regulations was drawing human trafficking to Lawrence.

Earlier this month, Polaris, a nonprofit organization that fights modern slavery, issued a report showing that in the U.S., the human-trafficking industry makes an estimated $2.5 billion annually from forcing women to have sex with massage parlor customers. Massage parlors are the second largest U.S. human-trafficking industry behind escort services, the report stated.

Kristen Tebow, founder and CEO of the Youth Trust Project, a Lawrence nonprofit that does outreach to vulnerable and exploited youth, has worked with two girls younger than 18 who were trafficked in part through Lawrence massage parlors.

“We know that human trafficking does exist within the realm of massage parlors,” Tebow said. “It’s one of the big-time guises of human trafficking. Because there is not an accountability process, it’s much easier for exploitation to take place.”

A draft of an ordinance to regulate Lawrence massage businesses was presented to city commissioners last March. The draft called for licensing and education requirements for those performing massages and also allowed for strong oversight, including limits on the hours of operation, the possibility for immediate-entry inspections and a requirement for massage businesses to keep a daily registry with client names and services provided.

But massage industry workers formed a group — the Lawrence Massage and Bodyworkers Alliance — specifically to oppose the ordinance. The ordinance has languished since, though Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said the issue is “still a priority.”

This really shouldn’t be that hard. It doesn’t take more than a year for the city to work with the Massage and Bodyworkers Alliance to address the group’s concerns while also implementing effective oversight of the massage industry. It seems a rigorous a licensing system would be welcomed by legitimate massage therapists, whose businesses are unfairly impugned by the nefarious operators masking their businesses as massage therapy.

City commissioners recently declared January Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Now that they are aware of the problem, perhaps they should actually do something to combat it by approving an ordinance licensing and regulating massage businesses.