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Billings City Council chambers

There is no question that Billings is the Montana city most impacted by sex trafficking and prostitution. We agree that something needs to be done. But the proposed massage and spa establishment licensing ordinance is not the solution.

The ordinance’s goal is to impact human trafficking and prostitution. However, establishment licensing will largely have little or no impact other than to force legally practicing massage therapists to pay another expense. The ordinance won’t prevent brothel owners from rebranding their businesses to exempt themselves from establishment licensing.

The Business League for Massage Therapy & Bodywork is a Montana advocacy group for massage therapists and those providing a variety of therapies collectively known as bodywork. Our members have co-authored the state statutes and many of the rules governing the massage therapy profession, chaired the state regulatory board, and represented Montana at national regulatory meetings where the issue of human trafficking was discussed.

At these meetings, we’ve heard that even with regulation, human trafficking and prostitution under the guise of massage therapy continues. Raids are still necessary. The purveyors of these crimes find ingenious ways around the regulations. Obviously, establishment licensing is not effective. Even so, the standard, knee-jerk response from some within our profession has been to enact establishment licensing.

We contend that a different response is needed. And we are not alone in that viewpoint: The December 2018 revision of the policy manual for the American Massage Therapy Association, our profession’s largest membership organization, agrees that any legislation be ”free from any requirements to obtain an establishment license not required of other state licensed health care practitioners."

Our view is that these bad actors are running brothels and engaging in criminal activity. They are not legally practicing massage therapists. Put it this way: If a gang of thieves dresses like plumbers to commit robberies in Billings, do you develop an ordinance to regulate plumbers more closely or do you insist on a law enforcement response? The same is true here. A law enforcement response is necessary.

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We recognize that law enforcement may not have all the tools they need to be effective in shutting these places down, so we have proposed a substitute ordinance to city officials that gives law enforcement some of the tools needed to specifically target businesses suspected of sex trafficking and prostitution. These tools minimally impact legally practicing massage and bodywork therapists, give law enforcement the ability to inspect and cite these illicit businesses for a variety of infractions, and provide a pathway to legally shut them down and create a barrier to re-opening.

More bureaucracy is not what is needed here. A beefed-up law enforcement response is. While we want to do our part to combat purveyors of sex trafficking and prostitution who use massage therapy as a cover, establishment licensing is not the solution. Please let your council members know that you agree.

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This guest opinion was written by the Business League for Massage Therapy & Bodywork Board of Directors, including Susan Carlson, of Billings; Deborah Kimmet, of Missoula and Patricia Brusati, of Butte.