Starting this fall, it will be a crime for massage parlors to stay open all night in Florida, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill headed for his desk. The bill regulating massage parlors is aimed at fighting human trafficking. And it passed both legislative chambers unanimously.
When Scott suspended 81 massage therapists for having fraudulent licenses in September, it was because a Clearwater Police investigation had found telltale signs of a human trafficking operation.
Clearwater Police Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said, “We encountered several women who didn’t speak English, couldn’t read English, couldn’t write English, so that obviously raised a red flag as to how they could obtain their certification.”
Scott traveled to Hillsborough County to publicly sign the 81 suspensions.
He said at the time, “If you want to break the law, if you want to prey on the vulnerable, if you are in any way in the business of human trafficking, you don’t want to do it in Florida.”
Florida is the third-most-likely place in the U.S. to find people enslaved and forced to work, mostly in the sex industry. That’s according to a report from Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. And many times, massage parlors are a front for the illegal sex trade.
But a bill headed for Scott’s desk after unanimously passing the Senate on Tuesday is aimed at curbing the practice by limiting massage parlors’ hours. The bill’s House sponsor, Dave Kerner (D-Palm Springs) told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month, law enforcement officers thought it was a great idea to prohibit massage parlors from operating between midnight and 5 a.m.
He said, “You know, this isn’t going to eradicate sexual trafficking, but it’s going to be a very powerful tool for law enforcement and our prosecutors to get into those establishments and start cleaning them up while maintaining and, quite frankly, raising the professionalism and integrity of the massage therapy profession.”
The bill originally had run up against some pushback from massage therapists, who worried the state would confuse legitimate establishments with the illegal sex trafficking fronts. And, as a compromise with them, the prohibited operating time was shortened by an hour in the version of the bill that eventually passed. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), who chaired the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said, the final bill is something everyone can agree on.
“I also want to thank the practitioners in the massage industry who are legitimate, who are an important part of our economy, who are doing the right things, and who want to make sure that we get people who are using massage establishments as a front for brothels and prostitution rings out of the market, so it is a perfect example of corporate responsibility,” Gaetz said.
The bill also prohibits massage parlors from being a permanent residence. The only exceptions to these laws would be massage operations in hotels, hospitals, airports and a couple of other places where people are already likely to be awake at all hours of the night.
If Scott signs it into law, the measure will be the latest in the state’s ongoing fight against human trafficking. The legislature passed a comprehensive measure last year to strengthen Florida’s criminal penalties for human trafficking. David Wilkins, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said, the state is waking up to the high number of young people being lured into sex work.
“The phenomena that has occurred is a perfect storm for the bad guys,” he said. “The war on drugs has been working. These bad guys are looking for other ways to make money, and children as a commodity, are a reusable resource for them. And then the social networking has created a marketing tool that is magnificent for them.”
Wilkins made those comments earlier this month at a “teens-only town hall” meeting at the Capitol. He says, now that the causes have been identified, “the cavalry is on its way” to help the victims.
“We’re creating safe houses across the state for children that have been involved in this, and they need both protection and treatment to deal with the trauma that they have been forced to go through,” he said. “And I’m convinced that we’re going to stop this horrible crime very soon.”
Scott has a week to sign the massage parlor bill.