Massage therapists hope for a happy ending

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The California Massage Therapy Council, a statewide body that licenses massage practitioners, may expire at the end of this year unless extended by the California Legislature. Some anti-prostitution crusaders say reverting to local control will make it easier to shut down covert brothels, but the practitioners fear a return to the bad old days, when stigmas and stereotypes overcomplicated their lives.

On one side of the debate are the massage therapists, who say that the council protects them from unfair discrimination, replaces a patchwork of local ordinances, and provides a greater level of respectability to their profession. However, an array of city officials, police departments, and powerful groups such as the League of California Cities argue that the CAMTC makes it easier for illicit massage parlors to get away with prostitution and human trafficking.

“I receive complaints from neighbors all the time about certain establishments,” said Sup. Katy Tang about her supervisorial district in San Francisco's Sunset District. “We can inspect, but we have no ability to enforce any of our regulations. If there are any penalties, we can’t enforce them.”

Tang’s frustration stems from Senate Bill 731, legislation that was signed into law in 2008. That bill created the CAMTC, a non-profit organization that has the authority to certify massage practitioners and therapists in California. Prior to the creation of this body, each city and county enacted its own certification procedures, leading to a messy patchwork of rules all over the state.

Before the CAMTC, “there were 550 different kinds of regulations from city to city,” said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the organization. “Within a radius of one mile, you can have a situation where different cities have their own standards. One city may require no training, and another right next door may require 1,000 hours.”

A massage provider working in California pre-2009 not only had to be savvy with the medley of laws, but also needed to purchase expensive licenses for each city he or she planned to practice in. The CAMTC creates a universal—though voluntary—system, where licensed practitioners can travel and work freely around the state.

The contentious part of the law comes from the protection that it offers to licensed practitioners. Any establishment that employs all CAMTC-certified massage providers is exempt from city ordinances that target massage businesses. Law enforcement agencies claim that these restrictions impede their ability to crack down on illegal parlors, but the massage therapists say that they are necessary to fight off discriminatory laws.

Some of these unfair regulations targeted entire establishments, such as zoning rules that forced all massage businesses into run-down or dangerous parts of town, with the assumption that they were brothels. Massage providers argued that this was neither fair nor safe for, say, a 75-year-old woman seeking out massage for arthritis, or a soon-to-be mom trying to obtain a pre-natal massage.

Other laws targeted the therapists themselves. Stacey DeGooyer, a certified massage therapist in the Bay Area, remembers times when practicing massage meant mandatory STD testing and reminders from police to not wear undergarments as exterior clothing.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is for my profession?’” DeGooyer said.

To massage practitioners’ chagrin, they are still lumped into the same category as adult entertainers and subjected to “archaic prostitution laws,” according to DeGooyer, while similar legitimate therapies, such as physical rehabilitation, are overlooked. Most massage providers aren’t looking to be on par with physicians, but they don’t want to be on par with prostitutes, either.

Bodywork in San Francisco

Currently, the city of San Francisco has its own certification program that is regulated by the Department of Public Health. To practice massage in the city, the provider must have a license from either the city or the CAMTC. However, only those who have the state CAMTC license can legally call themselves a “licensed massage” therapist or practitioner.

Tang has been one of the most outspoken critics of the CAMTC in San Francisco, urging the Legislature to let the body sunset at the end of the year.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m against [the CAMTC], but there are structural flaws in how it was designed,” Tang said. “It was created for good reasons, since there were so many jurisdictions and they wanted to standardize it and create a cohesive process.

“But there are jurisdictions like San Francisco where we have our own robust process, but when an establishment uses all CAMTC practitioners, they can bypass all rules. More and more people are starting to become aware of this and are starting to do CAMTC instead, and the city can’t do anything.”

But Netanel disagrees.

“Some cities are claiming that the CAMTC makes it more difficult for law enforcement, but that’s not the reality,” he said. “We even got a thank you letter from the Santa Monica Police saying we made it easier for them, not harder. Cities that cooperate and partner with CAMTC greatly benefit from our tools and protocols to go after bad apples. Other cities have a misinterpretation of the law, and choose to take a different approach.”

Netanel said that even though some cities, such as San Francisco, compete with the CAMTC by providing their own massage licenses, over 150 other California cities have made CAMTC certification mandatory within their jurisdictions. He also points out that many applicants who are denied a license by the CAMTC often turn around and obtain a license within their cities, which generally have lower standards than the state organization.

The number of massage establishments have surged since the adoption of the CAMTC, which critics use as evidence for a growing number of illicit parlors. But Netanel referenced multiple points in the original bill which allows law enforcement to do its job to prevent prostitution. The CAMTC has no real enforcement power to go after illegal establishments itself, but instead works to prevent them from existing in the first place. Out of over 63,000 applicants, Netanel said, they have never certified a single person who has been convicted of illicit activities. They also utilize an online complaint form to report questionable behavior, and respond to all complaints within 24 hours.

The Department of Public Health and the SFPD—the two city entities which police illegal massage business—both ignored multiple requests from the Bay Guardian to find out exactly how and if the CAMTC makes their work more difficult.

The CAMTC is set to be dissolved at the beginning of next year, unless the Legislature decides to extend the original law. A current bill in the California Assembly would extend the CAMTC’s authority until 2019, an additional four years, and massage therapists across the state are pleading for that to happen.

“Even with those who criticize [the CAMTC], we share the same goals,” Netanel said. “We want a safe, healthy, and reliable certification process, so consumers can trust their therapists. Even more, we want to put an end to illegal massage parlors so they are no longer categorized with honest providers.”

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