Utah Moves to Clamp Down on "Pimp" Massage Therapists


Life in Utah is about to get more stressful. The Utah House has just passed a bill (HB 114) that would facilitate crackdowns on unlicensed massage parlors.  

Unlike Minnesota, which is trying to deregulate some occupational licenses, Utah wants to expand licensing to include more massage therapists. Currently, a masseuse doesn't need a license as long as a massage doesn't manipulate "soft tissue." This loophole allows practitioners of Reiki, sensual massage, and more spiritual relaxation to bypass Utah's stringent licensing requirements. To be fully licensed, a massage therapist needs at least 600 hours of training and must pay $10,000 for lessons on "human anatomy." 

The bill comes after accusations that unlicensed massage therapists are fronts for prostitution. HB 114's main sponsor, state Rep. Tim Cosgrove, has blasted the "soft tissue loophole," saying "It really has been nothing more than a veil to camouflage the solicitation for prostitution or other illicit activity."

Ergo, HB 114 would re-define "massage therapy" as

providing, offering, or advertising a paid service using the term massage or a derivative of the word massage, regardless of whether the service includes physical contact.

Reiki practitioners and other alternative masseurs would now need to be licensed. In addition, limits on advertising would inhibit these businesses from promoting on Craigslist and backpage.com. 

Not complying with the law would lead to steep legal consequences. In Utah, operating without a license is actually a worse crime than prostitution. The former is Class A misdemeanor and can lead to 1 year in prison and/or a $2,500 fine. Meanwhile, prostitution is a Class B misdemeanor, with 6 months imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine as possible penalties.

As The Salt Lake Tribune notes, since these businesses would be illegal if they didn't have a license, cities and local jurisdictions would have power to shut them down. Indeed, a city official from Murray, Utah, praised the proposed law for exactly that:

Investigating them "puts our officers in professionally delicate situations and personally delicate situations," he said. "We're just really hoping we have to run fewer stings in our community."

Unsurprisingly, there is also a "baptist and bootlegger" dynamic at work here. The head of the Utah chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association supports the bill, since it doesn't go after "professional" masseuses. Cracking down on alleged prostitution in Utah provides the moral cover to eliminate the competition. Of course, if prostitution were legal and occupational licensing were abolished, there would be no need for the crackdowns in the first place.

Katherine Mangu-Ward on Craigslist "erotic services." Reason on prostitution and occupational licensing