Crime & Courts

Massage therapists say they'd support licensing

A week after arresting 10 people implicated in a prostitution network operating out of local massage parlors, Wichita police are investigating still more locations possibly engaged in illegal conduct.

If those investigations result in more criminal charges, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said, police officials will launch discussions with city officials about a licensing requirement for massage therapists in Wichita.

"We have seen an increase in complaints around the city," Stolz said.

Local massage professionals say they would welcome a licensing requirement. Kansas is one of only seven states nationally that does not require massage therapists to be licensed.

"When there is not regulation, these types of businesses will pop up specifically because they know they don't have to worry about ensuring that their employees need any formal training," said Sheri Block, lead faculty for the massage therapy program at Butler Community College.

Massage therapists should have at least 500 hours of training from accredited schools, according to officials in the field.

"By regulating our industry, it will protect the public," Block said. "It's going to move us away from a sexual connotation."

On Sept. 8, Wichita police arrested seven women on suspicion of prostitution and two men and one woman on suspicion of promoting prostitution at eight spas or massage parlors around the city.

The arrests were the culmination of a three-month investigation prompted by a citizen's complaint.

The national chain Massage Envy opened its first Wichita location a month ago in Newmarket Square — just across the street from one of the massage parlors implicated in the prostitution network.

"It really gives massage therapy a bad name," Amy Gilliland, the owner of Massage Envy's Wichita location, said of the parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution.

Massage Envy conducts background checks on all of its massage therapy applicants and has a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate activity with clients, Gilliland said.

"Massage therapy is very beneficial for people's health," she said. "Anything other than a professional therapeutic relationship is not tolerated."

Michele Wheeler, owner of Beau Monde, which has been open for more than 20 years, said she would welcome licensing for both massage businesses and the therapists working in them.

"I think it brings consistency to the industry," Wheeler said.

Men who went to the businesses implicated in the arrests last week knew what they were getting when they went in the door, Stolz said.

Gilliland and others said there are questions people can ask to make sure a business offering massage therapy is legitimate.

Ask about draping protocols, Gilliland said. Professional standards typically dictate that a client should be covered except for the body part being treated.

Look for reputable chains or spas that have been open for at least a few years, they said. The eight businesses implicated in the prostitution network had sprung up in strip malls around the city within the past six months or so, police and others said.

The massage parlor arrests may well benefit local massage therapists in the long run, said Block, the Butler Community College instructor.

"As disgusted as I am by the situation, I'm glad it's gotten to this point," she said. "It may give the local politicians an opportunity to recognize that this is a bigger problem than what they understand."

Discussions earlier this decade about licensing massage therapists in Wichita never really gained momentum, Stolz said.

Block hopes to push the Legislature to pass a licensing requirement, but she's willing to start at the municipal level.

Two of the seven states without licensing have passed legislation that has yet to take effect, she said.

"We need to come into this century and recognize this is a healthy profession," she said.

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