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Council tightens the rules for massage therapy to combat sale of sex

SHARE Council tightens the rules for massage therapy to combat sale of sex
SHARE Council tightens the rules for massage therapy to combat sale of sex

Massage therapists bristle at the term “massage parlor.” They believe it denigrates their profession and leaves the erroneous impression that sex is routinely sold at spas that specialize in wellness and therapeutic help.

On Wednesday, the City Council moved to rid the industry of the bad actors who are giving the business a bad name.

Aldermen approved an ordinance making it tougher and more costly for sex to be sold at spas and massage therapy establishments in a city that sponsoring Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) calls a “national hub for human trafficking.”

The ordinance 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.

Ellen Letton owns the Tribe and The Healing Room.

At a committee hearing last week, Letton welcomed O’Shea’s crackdown but urged aldermen to go further — by prohibiting locking doors.

“It’s just an indicator that trafficking organizations use,” she said.

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.”

Letton also had urged aldermen to limit operating hours, but that was dismissed because it “would have been unconstitutional,” she said.

Laura Ng, executive director of anti-trafficking group 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.

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.

Aldermen on Wednesday also paid tribute to outgoing Budget Director Alex Holt and confirmed her successor, Samantha Fields, as well as newly-appointed Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner. They also re-appointed Inspector General Joe Ferguson and Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), whose son resigned from his job at the Department of Streets and Sanitation after one of Ferguson’s investigations, praised the inspector general.

“I’m glad you’ve moved away from the ‘gotcha’ to the help,” she told the inspector general.

Also Wednesday:

  • The Council 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 authorized ​Southwest Side Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) ​to ​​become ​the first — and probably not the last — alderman to declare his ward off-limits to Airbnb and other home-sharing services.
  • The​ ​Council​ ​also approved an ordinance declaring four of the 13th Ward’s 48 precincts as no-home sharing zones after Quinn jumped through the required regulatory hoops. The alderman lives in one of those four precincts.​ Quinn has said he intends to do the same in the remaining 44 precincts of his ward.​
  • Aldermen Ed Burke and Sophia King introduced an ordinance that would require pharmaceutical manufacturers whose drugs are sold in Chicago to disclose price hikes 90 days in advance.
  • Also introduced was an ordinance to protest North Korea’s treatment of student Otto Warmbier, who died after he was released by that totalitarian regime. The ordinance requires the city to sever relations with any airlines or financial institutions that have indirect ties to that country.
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