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 nonprofit 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, decrying being subjected to "archaic prostitution laws." Most massage providers aren't looking to be on par with physicians, but they also don't want to be on par with prostitutes.

Currently, 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.