Kansas should join the 46 states that regulate massage therapy, both to protect consumers and to make the state inhospitable for the sham businesses that actually engage in prostitution and human trafficking. But because lawmakers show no sign of acting on a responsibility that spans health, public safety and human rights, Wichita would be wise to set its own rules for this service industry.
The proposed ordinance on Tuesday’s City Council agenda will strike some as overreach – 29 pages “pertaining to the licensing of massage therapy businesses within the city of Wichita and regulating the conduct of participants therein” in sometimes graphic detail.
It would establish qualifications and procedures, with proposed biennial licensing fees of $200 each for businesses and $75 each for massage therapists. There are standards for new and existing therapists to become locally licensed involving exams passed and hours trained, and prohibitions based on criminal convictions.
The ordinance was written with input from not only a range of city staff but also massage providers, whose views are important in striking the right regulatory balance going forward.
As it is, the absence of licensing standards in Wichita functions like a “welcome” sign for illegitimate massage parlors. Topeka, Wyandotte County, Junction City, Salina, Lawrence, Garden City and three Johnson County communities have license/permit requirements for massage businesses or therapists, according to city of Wichita documents. So do neighbors Valley Center and Park City.
Wichita police addressed complaints of massage parlors offering sex for hire by doubling investigations and arrests since 2014, according to city documents. As they did, officers learned that the women involved often were victims of human trafficking and “the operators and owners of these businesses admitted to setting up shop in Kansas because there was no state law regulating massage businesses.”
Last year Wichita police conducted 24 investigations and arrested 22 people on suspicion of human trafficking at massage businesses. One sting led to the recent conviction of a Wichita man on federal charges including attempting to entice a person to cross state lines to engage in prostitution. Wichita is home to the Wichita State University Center for Combating Human Trafficking – and a recent spike in reported sex trafficking cases (from 29 in 2014 to 65 last year, according to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office).
A local ordinance would give law enforcement more targeted tools for fighting such crime, while eliminating the unregulated environment that encourages such businesses to set up in Wichita.