Protesters: Tampa anti-massage parlor law will punish sex workers

Published December 20 2017
Updated December 21 2017

TAMPA — A small group of activists stood outside City Hall on Wednesday evening and protested a new effort to crack down on massage parlors that offer sexual services.

The first reading of the amended ordinance will be at Thursday’s City Council meeting. But opponents wanted to have their say first.

"I don’t see why we need to add to the criminalization of people in an already socioeconomic disadvantaged situation," said activist Sydney Eastman on Wednesday, "when we know the real problem is with exploitation."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: No easy answers as Tampa tackles illicit massage parlors

Eastman, 27, is member of the Sex Worker Solidarity Network, one of the groups that organized the protest and opposes the city’s effort.

City officials want to rework a three-decade old ordinance regulating bath houses to crack down on any illicit sex acts being performed in massage parlors. The city hopes more stringent regulations will make it difficult for massage parlors to operate outside the law and also curb human trafficking.

But opponents fear tougher enforcement will do more to harm the women who work in these businesses than the businesses themselves.

Eastman said she’ll be at Thursday’s meeting to convince City Council to slow down and think about the women working at the parlors. She said she’s visited the businesses along W Kennedy Boulevard and spoken to the women.

She also belongs to a faction of those opposing the ordinance who favor decriminalizing sex work. They don’t believe performing a sex act for payment should be a crime in the first place. They argue the city will end up jailing women who choose to be sex workers. Instead, Eastman said Tampa should reach out to those women before making a decision.

Hillsborough County Commission candidate Jae Passmore, 27, said she doesn’t think the city’s intent was "malicious." But she said this effort could still potentially harm sex workers.

"We’re all behind stopping sex trafficking right?" she said into the mic, as a group of activists behind her nodded.

"Everyone can get behind (stopping sex trafficking). Oh, awesome idea. But when you get into the meat and potatoes ... how can you go forward in good faith?"

Hillsborough Community Protection Coalition member Pamela Gomez, 27, held a sign that said: "De-colonize Kennedy." She said any enforcement effort that targets Asian-owned and run businesses has racist undertones.

"You see people of color starting small businesses in predominantly white areas and then they try to kick us out," she said. "This is a direct targeting and profiling of those communities without investigation or talking to those workers. This is another way of saying ‘Hey, you don’t belong.’ "

The Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats human trafficking and slavery, said many of the women working in the massage parlors are vulnerable Chinese, Korean and Thai immigrants performing illicit acts against their will.

Tampa has the fourth-highest number of such businesses in Florida after Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, according to Polaris.

Residents who live near the parlors on Kennedy are sick of them and want them gone from their neighborhoods. Joe Manson, who created the ‘Clean Up Kennedy’ protest group, showed up and recorded Wednesday’s demonstration.

He said he wanted to learn more about why people oppose the ordinance before Thursday’s council meeting.

"If they’re against human trafficking," he said, "we’re on the same team."

City Council meets at 9 a.m. on the third floor of City Hall, 315 E. Kennedy Blvd. A public hearing on the ordinance is set to start at 10:30 a.m.

Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.