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Ten weeks before San Francisco shocked the nation by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the city quietly took another step in America’s cultural revolution by liberalizing its massage permit laws to the point where some critics call it de facto legalization of prostitution.
Addressing the issue of sex workers in the massage industry, outgoing Mayor Willie Brown, with the nearly unanimous support of the Board of Supervisors, signed a new law Dec. 5 that redefines it as a public health issue rather than a matter of law enforcement.
The law went into effect July 1.
By removing a requirement that applicants submit to fingerprinting and provide photo IDs, the measure opens the door to include most anyone in the massage industry, including convicted pedophiles and rapists, asserts Brian Goodwin, a massage therapist in San Rafael, Calif., near San Francisco.
Goodwin, largely through his website, has been a relatively lone voice sounding the alarm about legislation that has received scant attention in the press.
“Basically, San Francisco’s new massage law is the only massage law in the world written specifically for the benefit of criminals, to help criminals to commit crimes, especially those crimes related to sex-slave trafficking, prostitution, rape, pedophilia, etc.,” Goodwin says.
After its passage, the leading public lobbyist behind an effort to decriminalize prostitution in the massage industry, David Palmer, hailed San Francisco’s “humane and compassionate” approach to the issue.
“San Francisco has not chosen to take a standard route to separate or distinguish adult entertainment from therapeutic massage,” Palmer, president of the San Francisco Coalition of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, said in the July issue of the trade newsletter Massage Today.
“San Francisco is a trendsetter,” he added.
Palmer’s website acknowledges the ordinance comes at the end of a long process that began with the Board of Supervisors establishing a Task Force on Prostitution in March 1994.
The task force’s final report, in 1996, admitted San Francisco “may not unilaterally legalize or decriminalize prostitution.”
Nevertheless, the panel urged the board to “remove authority for the licensing of massage parlors, masseuses and masseurs and escort services from the Vice Crime Division’s jurisdiction and place it with agencies already qualified to grant other standard business licenses.”
At the time, the task force received wide media coverage and was roundly condemned in local newspaper editorials. Also, the first attempt to act on the recommendations, under the leadership of Supervisor Tom Ammiano in 1999, received attention.
But passage of the recommendation Nov. 18, led by Supervisor Chris Daly, received barely a mention — one paragraph in the San Francisco Examiner in November, buried in a listing of recent board decisions, with no reference to the 1996 Task Force on Prostitution that inspired the changes.
The item in the Nov. 21 Examiner reads:
In other actions: The board adopted a measure sponsored by Supervisor Chris Daly that transfers the licensing and regulating of massage parlors and massage practitioners from the Police Department to the Department of Public Health, in effect, saying that massage is more a health concern than a criminal one. [Supervisor Tony] Hall cast the lone vote in opposition.
Daly did not return a request for comment by press time, but in January, he told the Examiner the regulatory change would in no way affect the police department’s jurisdiction in enforcing illegal activities such as human trafficking and prostitution, said to be an increasing problem.
But Goodwin sees the city easing up on enforcement, noting on June 24, San Francisco District Attorney Harris dropped all criminal charges in a prostitution sting operation, declaring, “Prostitution and regulatory violations at the clubs raise complex issues involving worker safety, exploitation of women, equity and fair notice.”
San Francisco Police Department Capt. Tim Hettrich summarized the city’s response: “Basically, what the district attorney is saying to the pimps, the panderers and traffickers of women is, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing because we’re not going to do anything about it.'”
Opening the door
How does San Francisco’s new massage law open the door to prostitution?
Under the old law, Police Code 27, applicants for a massage permit were required to undergo an identification process that included photographing and fingerprinting. That has been removed from the code, along with a section that prevented anyone convicted of prostitution from getting a permit.
The latter omission was one of the main objections voiced by Hall.
The new law also does away with restrictions against sexually suggestive advertising and loosens restrictions on trainees. Previously, the trainee could work only for the massage school in which he was enrolled, and the trainee permit could not be renewed beyond three months. The new law also has a trainee permit, but its only requirement is the payment of fees and registration as a student, and it can be renewed indefinitely.
For a full permit, the director of the Department of Public Health must administer a “culturally sensitive test to all applicants, in the applicant’s own language, to confirm basic proficiency in massage before issuing a permit.”
Goodwin says the term “culturally sensitive” casts a wide net in San Francisco, pointing out that some massage schools are explicitly prostitution oriented, such as the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality’s program in “Sexological Bodywork.”
The most drastic change, he says, is how violations are treated.
Under the old law, violators were misdemeanor criminals, threatened with revokation of the massage permit and up to six months in jail and a fine.
Under the new law’s Section 1928, however, violations no longer are crimes but simply treated like parking tickets, with “administrative fines.” The law may be violated as often as desired, as long as the fines are paid.
“The ramifications of this law have yet to be seen,” says Goodwin, who believes the previous law’s inclusion of identification requirements served as a deterrent to sex traffickers who enslave women and children as prostitutes.
The old ID requirements also served to deter the San Francisco Bay Area’s 8,000 registered sex offenders from becoming massage therapists, he says.
But now, Goodwin contends, anyone can quickly acquire a “trainee” massage permit by paying the fees and lying about identity.
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