Inner City Diary
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Massage parlour licensing rubs me the wrong way
June 9, 2002
I’d post the list if it would do any good!

The offer came from an anonymous phone caller. “If I gave you a client list from a local massage parlour, would you find a way to publish it? You know it’s just a front for prostitution.” He reminded me of our internet site publishing the license plates of “johns” picking up prostitutes in our area.

What would you have said? I weighed my options.

If the cars of clients parked outside some local massage parlours are any indication, I figured a client list would offer lots of interesting names.

Then I hesitated. Publishing such a list would undoubtedly embarrass people and could hurt their families and careers. My libertarian buddies would protest, “What about an individual’s right to privacy?”

But what about the rights of others? Does a spouse of a “john” have the right to know about the behavior of her husband – and the attendant health risks to the family?

I remembered an older conversation with “Julie.” She was suffering irreversible consequences of her husbands “private” indiscretions. He played Russian roulette with HIV, and they both lost.

Amanda’s husband informed her of his “right” to exercise his perversions with prostitutes and his “love” with her. The anxiety of regular STD testing for Amanda was driving her crazy. This was no longer just an issue of privacy. This was scary stuff. In the end, tests would tell her too little too late.

But it’s not just the clients and their families that get grief in massage parlours.

I still remember the call I got from a woman working in a massage parlour on Sargent Avenue. She shared numerous examples about horrible working conditions.

One of her many concerns was that their hot tub gets cleaned less than once a week. “The girls are coming home with rashes and God only knows what’s swimming in that water.”

The kicker was when she asked, “Where am I supposed to go – the Better Business Bureau?”

Then a guy called to complain about an unlicensed massage parlour on Arlington Street. The owner had a licensed parlour downtown, but got a little greedy. Women with serious addictions and mental health issues were forced to work long hours, and others were working into the last month of their pregnancy.

Drug dealers are getting the clue that some of these places are great distribution outlets for drugs. From what I hear, they’re aggressively pursuing the opportunities. Now there’s more than one way of getting “hooked” in these joints.

Actually, the more I hear, the more I figure that the City licensing process is a sham.

Here’s the City’s perspective. Owners of massage parlours pay the annual fee of $3,920 for a license, and the applicant can’t have a criminal record. Each individual “massagist” working in the place must have a certificate of good character, several photos and pay $114 annually for the privilege of servicing clients.

The City maintains a semblance of integrity by ignoring what really happens in these places. That way they can profit off the avails of the “business” without considering themselves pimps. Balancing the books becomes more important than clearing the conscience. Links to prostitution are acknowledged in private but denied in public. On paper, things are legit.

In a rush to avoid legislating morality, however, the City by-laws actually wind up legislating negligence. It’s a classic tale of “hear no evil, see no evil.”

In the real world things are different.

Ownership of massage & escort services are usually “fronted” by someone without a criminal record. The real owners of these joints are from as far away as Texas.

“Janie” informed me that it’s the job of the person working the “reception” desk to make up names, addresses and phone numbers of the clients who come in. The license bylaw doesn’t require a presentation of ID, so management often assists bashful customers with maintenance of anonymity.

City licensing for “massagists” is meaningless. Many workers aren’t licensed. There are no mandatory health checks, no employment standards, and definitely no drug testing.

We’re not talking about massage therapy in these places. Janie joked, “If someone came in and actually asked for a massage, we wouldn’t know what to do. We don’t get paid for the massage.”

Massagists get money not from room rentals, but from the “tips of $40 - $80 depending on the extras requested by clients.”

Janie avoided my eyes as she told me that her working day can be almost 12 hours with anywhere from 1 to 9 “clients.” She made it clear that principles and protection have often been sacrificed in the fierce competition for clients.

It’s an increasingly dangerous way to make a living.

The City better stop pretending that a goofy licensing scheme absolves them of responsibility for what happens to the folks involved.

People are getting hurt out there!
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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