BILLINGS — It’s an issue that, at the state level, has been called a “Billings problem"-- illicit sex and human-trafficking businesses disguised as massage therapy businesses.
These highly sophisticated crime rings have finagled a way to hijack a legitimate industry and stay in business. Experts estimate there are about 9,000 of these nationwide, and local authorities tell MTN News at least a dozen are in Billings.
The latest discussion around this issue is how to run these illegal businesses out of Billings without harming legitimate massage therapists
“They want to go after the brothels and the illegal massage businesses, and we understand that, but they're going through our profession to do it,” says Jennifer Roth, a licensed massage therapist in Billings.
She’s practiced for 14 years and has more than 250 clients. She’s studied and worked hard to get this far and says she doesn’t want or appreciate prostitution or sex language tied to her legitimate profession.
In an effort to stop human trafficking and run prostitution businesses out of town, Billings city leaders have been discussing, debating and redrafting a local ordinance for three years, targeting businesses that offer and advertise massage. Billings City Council will consider this ordinance under first reading Monday, April 12.
If the ordinance passes as is, solo practitioners would be exempt, but business owners who offer massage as a primary service would need to fill out their business history, submit financial records, and complete fingerprinting and a background check to get their city business license.
If those business owners cannot fulfill those requirements, then they don't get a business license and can't operate. While the goal is to push out illegitimate businesses, the ordinance uses wording that Roth believes is offensive. For example, phrasing like:
- It shall be unlawful to massage in a “manner intended to arouse”
- Clothing shall not expose the employee’s genitalia.
- Businesses should not use or possess adult-oriented merchandise of a sexual nature, including sex toys.
- Or, businesses should not permit any person to engage in any sexual conduct for compensation.
Roth says the wording is not only wrong, but it’s also unsafe to tie it to massage therapy.
“It's already a part of our state laws we already know not to rub in a sexual manner to wear appropriate clothing during our sessions to not expose your genitalia…That's not what we do,” she said.
Billings massage therapist Eric Hart -- who runs the Lima Hana Massage Education Center -- also questions why a massage therapist business license would include a dress code, a rule on locking the business door, how far he can close his curtains, and why he would have to report his hours of operation to the city.
“I'm not opposed to doing fingerprints," said Hart. “I'm not opposed to doing a background check. But again, why are we singled out? Why are we the only ones that have to do that for the city of Billings?”
Roth and Hart are joined by others who say this license equates to discrimination.
These massage therapists also say they weren’t brought to the table to even discuss the proposed ordinance that’s meant to regulate their industry.
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said Monday the city has been listening to those in the industry, citing the three-year timeframe it’s taken to get through numerous ordinance revisions.
He also says as the Billings crime rate has doubled in the last 10 years, and the city needs to look to alternative ways to crack down on criminals.
“We've learned that from other communities that an ordinance like this can, in fact, shut them down much more efficiently, much more effectively,” said Kukulski.
The proposed ordinance is modeled after an ordinance out of Aurora, Colorado.
Trevor Vaughn, manager of tax and licensing in Aurora, says his city was plagued with at least 20 sex-trafficking businesses disguised as massage businesses, and now there are none involving human trafficking.
“The big thing is it's going to separate what is an illicit business disguised as massage from a legitimate business that's engaged in massage therapy and makes that delineation actually now in law, where they can't really hide behind that anymore," Vaughn said.
Vaughn says bringing in massage therapists was an essential part of the ordinance. He says they needed to learn what legitimate massage therapists do and do not do, to create rules that will only impact the human-trafficking businesses and not the real massage therapists.
Those regulations include hinting at sexual services in online advertising, the ability to use that evidence in court and tie the actual business owner to the activities going on inside the business.
“Now the business owner is responsible for what happens inside of that business," said Vaughn. Both Vaughn and Kukulski say they know and understand this type of ordinance adds extra burden to legitimate businesses, but they say the regulations are streamlined to impact as few as possible.
“Today it's not illegal to have, you know darkened windows, to lock the door, to be open at 2 a.m. We set the rules up to be that the legitimate businesses are already in compliance,” said Kukulski.
Roth and Hart understand why the city is trying to vet out the illicit businesses, but they say criminals are going to lie, and massage therapists are having to carry the burden to try to catch them.
Kukulski says this option is worth trying.
It’s “a different bar than reasonable suspicion. If you don't have your business license, or you're not following the rules, we can take away your business license and you can't legally operate in the city…. if it fails and it doesn't work, then we should take it off the books but if it's effective. Then, I think this is absolutely worth trying,” he said.