A Story About Massages Without a Happy Ending


In a new Washington City Paper story, Rend Smith describes the challenges that legitimate D.C. masseuses face in dealing with customers who erroneously expect a happy ending. While businesses can try to communicate they they are not that kind of massage parlor through careful marketing and interior design, Smith notes, the ultimate source of the confusion is laws that criminalize the exchange of hand jobs and other sexual services for money:

Another step that could help, of course, is letting prostitutes work without the threat of arrest, so they wouldn't have to pose as masseuses. Just ask Cyndee Clay, the executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, an organization whose "mission is to assist female, male, and transgender individuals engaging in sex work in Washington." Clay says she knows quite a few sex workers providing illegal massage but that "the majority of the individuals we deal with are not coming from trafficking situations," contradicting stereotypes. One is even a licensed massage therapist who's doing "sensual massage" to keep up with her mortgage, she says. "If people could be more explicit about the services they seek or provide the confusion wouldn't exist."

A step that decidedly does not help: "the D.C. Department of Health's stringent licensing process." Although city records show that only 17 businesses have paid the legally required $800 licensing fee, Smith writes, "a Google search…turns up more than 100 massage businesses in D.C.," which "means many of Washington's top spas and hotels are technically providing illegal massage." A spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs explains that "we only target problematic places," although all the unlicensed businesses could in theory be shut down.

Joanna Robinson, a "former fundraiser for libertarian causes" who owns Lunar Massage, which offers "non-creepy massage" at two locations in D.C., bristles at the notion that the licensing fee serves a legitimate purpose. "It's creating a legal hurdle for people who want to have a legitimate business," she tells Smith, "and it's doing nothing to curb prostitution."

Last month I noted that the "trafficking situations" to which Cyndee Clay alludes, like the confusion between masseuses and prostitutes, are fostered by the government's insistence that money changes everything when it comes to sex.