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Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) (right) listens to testimony on his massage parlor crackdown during Wednesday’s License Committee meeting. Ald Tom Tunney (44th) is at left. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Aldermen crack down on massage parlors offering sex services

SHARE Aldermen crack down on massage parlors offering sex services
SHARE Aldermen crack down on massage parlors offering sex services

Chicago would make it tougher and more costly for sex to be sold at massage parlors, under a crackdown advanced Wednesday that one therapist warned does not go nearly far enough.

“Chicago is well recognized as the national hub for human trafficking. … That’s nothing any of us should be proud of,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), chief sponsor.

Sex trafficking that can end with adults working under duress at massage parlors often starts “when they abduct our children,” said Ald. David Moore (17th).

“You may see them as adults now, but they’re getting kidnapped. When you hear it on the news that somebody pulled up and tried to get a kid — understand what this is for,” Moore added.

“People don’t realize that this is happening even in the neighborhoods and in houses. This issue is huge. It’s a big money-making industry.”

The ordinance advanced by the City Council’s License Committee includes hefty fines and stricter regulations to give police more tools to shut down illicit businesses masquerading as massage parlors.

To protect victims of human trafficking, massage parlor employees arrested for prostitution could avoid prosecution if they can prove the crime was committed “under duress” or was somehow “coerced.”

Massage therapists would have to be at least 18, up from a current age limit of 15. They would also need a valid license. No massage parlor could have a “direct passageway” to a private residence.

Massage parlor owner Ellen Letton urges aldermen Wednesday to limit the operating hours of massage parlors and ban locked doors. Neither of those provisions is included in the crackdown advances Wednesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Massage parlor owner Ellen Letton urges aldermen Wednesday to limit the operating hours of massage parlors and ban locked doors. Neither of those provisions is included in the crackdown advances Wednesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Ellen Letton owns the Tribe and The Healing Room massage parlors. She said she has rejected three “implied solicitations” for sexual services over the last six months alone.

Letton welcomed O’Shea’s crackdown but urged aldermen to go further — by prohibiting locking doors.

“That can be an indicator that someone can be locked in the room or the client can’t get out or the practitioner can’t get out. It’s just an indicator that trafficking organizations use,” she said.

Letton also urged aldermen to limit operating hours, saying she “can’t imagine any legitimate business” offering massages after 10 p.m.

Christy George, assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said outlawing locking doors was deemed “cost-prohibitive” because it would have required all massage parlors to “change out all of their doors.”

Limiting operating hours was dismissed because there was “no legal basis” for it and it “would have been unconstitutional,” she said.

Laura Ng, executive director of Traffick Free, said allowing massage therapy employees to claim their work as an “affirmative defense” will make a “significant dent” in protecting victims of human trafficking.

“Historically, we’ve seen people who are being victimized in these places as prostitutes. With that word comes a whole bunch of stigma. It also comes with this idea that this person might have a choice in their own exploitation,” Ng said.

“Changing that stigma … will allow people to say, ‘If I get caught, I’m not gonna get arrested. I’m gonna go get services first.'”

Ng cited estimates more than 24,500 women and girls are “commercially sexually exploited” in Chicago each year.

“The stings that happened over the last year … show just how prevalent it is in massage parlors,” she said.

In other action:

  • The License Committee gave a break to roughly 300 coin-operated laundries that got hosed when Mayor Rahm Emanuel doubled water and sewer rates to rebuild Chicago’s aging water and sewer system. Instead of hiring two attendants to watch the place between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m., they would need just one.
  • Aldermen also signed off on Emanuel’s appointment of 30-year City Hall veteran Rosa Escareno as commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. Afterward, Escareno begged off when asked what, if anything, she intends to do to save a taxicab industry fighting that cabdrivers claim is fighting a losing battle for survival in the ride-hailing era.
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