Massage businesses selling something extra can be hard to catch, expert says

The many layers to massage industry make it hard to police

Massage industry consultant Lavon Watkins - a retired police officer and licensed massage practitioner - brings a diverse perspective in helping rid the industry of illegitimate massage businesses.
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Massage industry consultant Lavon Watkins - a retired police officer and licensed massage practitioner - brings a diverse perspective in helping rid the industry of illegitimate massage businesses.

Illegitimate massage businesses have benefited from the internet age, and regulating — or even identifying them — can be tricky, according to a retired police detective who now consults on the massage industry.

Lavon Watson worked for 20 years in Pullman and Redmond law enforcement before moving to Tumwater. He’s a licensed massage practitioner and advises massage businesses and anti-human trafficking groups on how to keep therapists safe and how to root out problem businesses.

He says the experience of Tacoma and Lakewood — where police recently busted nine massage businesses that were allegedly offering sex acts — is typical. None of the nine people arrested in the September busts was licensed to do massage.

“That’s what happened in Spokane, that’s what happened in Yakima when they shut places down, that’s what has happened in community after community,” Watson said. “When law enforcement goes in, 95-plus percent of the time, there’s no one there with a license.”

Still, even some longstanding businesses with licensed practitioners in their midst will offer sexual services, according to Watson, who said he has investigated suspicious massage businesses around the state.

Just because a business appears to be upscale or doesn’t operate late into the night doesn’t mean they’re not offering services that are illegal, Watson told a group of massage therapists during a daylong ethics training earlier this month. He said he knows from personal experience, having been recently offered sex by a licensed massage therapist during an appointment in Kitsap County.

In his years of research, Watson said he’s found that areas with military bases nearby tend to have a higher number of massage businesses offering sex to their clients.

And more clients may be asking for sex.

“We’re hearing more stories about massage therapists having clients come in that end up being kind of aggressive with them in wanting certain services,” said Marybeth Berney, a licensed massage practitioner since 1985 and president of the Washington State Massage Therapy Association, a trade advocacy group.

Asian-owned legitimate massage businesses are often targeted by so-called “hobbyists” seeking out sexual services, Watson said. Such profiling can result in uncomfortable and potentially scary situations for licensed therapists, many of whom have been propositioned at one time or another.

Social media gives hobbyists a safe, anonymous place to spread the news when they find a place where they can get something extra. There’s a dark underside to that world: Sex trafficking and illegal massage can go hand-in-hand, and part of the concern is that employees who are offering sex acts might not be doing it voluntarily. It’s also difficult to prove, Watson said, and women working in those places are often arrested on prostitution charges during busts.

“People who don’t think there’s a problem or don’t think it’s our problem are part of the problem,” Watson told the group of massage therapists who gathered for his ethics course.

In one of the Tacoma massage raids, a Chinese national told police she earned $10 a day working in one of the massage businesses, was allowed to keep half the money from her sexual acts and lived in an apartment above one of the businesses. Those are some of the signs of human trafficking, according to the Polaris Project, a national nonprofit that works to combat it.

In the wake of the arrests here, the Tacoma City Council passed an ordinance barring massage businesses from operating between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Councilman Marty Campbell said neighbors had complained about massage shops that were open round-the-clock, with men coming and going in the middle of the night.

That ordinance also adopts language from state law making it a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor when a person is found to be massaging without a state license. A massage practitioner seeking a city business license has to show proof of his or her state license.

Berney said developing legislation that specifically targets illegitimate massage businesses is difficult. Many are operating during fairly normal business hours: The businesses that were busted in Tacoma and Lakewood in September listed hours of between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. A review-based website for people seeking sexual massage that requires a paid subscription lists a few places in Tacoma that, according to reviewers, will offer sex along with massage during afternoon and early evening visits.

“That’s the thing, does the law really capture the people that you want to capture? And I would say that the restriction of hours doesn’t really capture very many people,” Berney said. “I don’t even know if adding a business license (requirement) would necessarily capture anybody — these people are pumping plenty of money into their business … so they might be more able to buy that license than the legitimate massage therapist that’s making less money because they are not getting paid for the happy ending and all the other things.”

Campbell said he knows limiting the hours for massage businesses won’t end human trafficking or stop all illegitimate massage, but it will protect neighbors. And it’s a start.

“This was never meant to be a fix-all solution, but it was addressing the impacts that neighbors were experiencing around the clock,” he said. “Rescuing the girls and shutting down the operation is a big step in and of itself.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud