TAMPA — City officials want to crack down on massage parlors that offer sexual services by using an anti-bathhouse ordinance passed four decades ago.
Officials and residents hope this new effort will do more to end the illicit practices than undercover police stings and raids. They also hope it will reduce the number of human trafficking victims being forced into prostitution.
City Council member Mike Suarez called it the first step in combating "modern-day slavery."
The problem is so bad along W Kennedy Boulevard that Joe Manson started "Clean Up Kennedy," a group that pickets massage parlors with signs like "Spa or Brothel?"
"Somebody needs to do something about this," Manson said.
Others fear the businesses will find ways around the ordinance while the vulnerable women who work there will be the ones who suffer. They could end up jailed or even deported as the city cracks down.
"It's going to target the very people we are trying to protect," said Julie Solace, co-founder of the recently formed Sex Worker Solidarity Network. "You have a sting, that's easy. You find someone on the street, that's easy.
"How is throwing anyone in jail going to solve the issue?"
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For years, websites such as backpage.com and naughtyreviews.com have offered illicit services at the massage parlors dotting Kennedy. These "John's boards" featured crude reviews of the women working — and performing sex acts — in these businesses.
Officials say it's hard to halt such practices.
Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said officers have conducted undercover operations and responded to complaints.
"If you catch someone soliciting prostitution one time the consequences are not as serious," Hegarty said. "But if you make the case for multiple incidents, it rises to the level of racketeering."
But it's hard to build such cases, he said.
"It's very difficult because people move around, they move out of state, they move to a different massage parlor."
Tampa has the fourth highest number of illicit massage businesses in the state behind Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that works to combat human trafficking and slavery.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Schmid has an idea for how to fight back. He wants the City Council to amend an old bathhouse ordinance and use it against illegal massage parlors. The city can do so by focusing on bathing, he said, which is offered before sex acts are performed.
"We're going to try to regulate that act of performing a bath," Schmid said. "If they're permitted, then we can inspect and make sure they're doing it legally."
The city believes it could then limit the hours these businesses operate, require all employees to obtain city permits and allow regular police operations.
Some, however, are troubled by the city reviving a 1980s-era ordinance they say was a misguided attempt to address the AIDS epidemic. Sydney Eastman, an advocate with the Sex Worker Solidarity Network, called the old ordinance "homophobic" and ineffective.
"It didn't stop homosexuality or AIDS then," she said. "We need to learn from our past mistakes."
Rochelle Keyhan, who leads Polaris' effort to target illicit massage businesses, said there's also a loophole in Tampa's ordinance: If surrounding governments don't adopt the same laws, these businesses could just relocate.
"When there are jurisdictions with strong ordinances, they (look) for loopholes," she said. "They move to St. Pete, or neighboring jurisdictions with weaker ordinances."
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Most performing these illicit acts do so against their will, according to Polaris. Many businesses prey on vulnerable immigrants, the organization said, women who are Chinese, Korean and Thai, often mothers in their 30s who don't speak English.
Some hired brokers overseas to help them get them visas and bring them to the U.S. They don't realized they're trapped until it's too late, said Francheska Loza, director of disruption strategies for Polaris.
"It's not until they're there that they realize it's not what was advertised," Loza said. "They immigrate and they have no safety net. They have so much debt from travel and visa expenses. They might not speak the language. They're being manipulated psychologically. And there's someone here profiting off that."
Those who fear the ordinance will hurt women organized a protest of the proposed ordinance Wednesday evening outside Tampa City Hall. The protest is aimed at Thursday's 9 a.m. council meeting, where the first reading of the ordinance will take place and public comment will be heard.
Solace, an exotic dancer who legally works in Tampa's strip clubs, helped organize the protest. She favors decriminalizing sex work and said the city's new ordinance could make it even harder for the women trapped in these businesses to trust authorities.
"You deal with the clients as much as you can and only call the police if you think you're going to die," she said. "But if you call the police, your life is over."
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Pastor Bill Losasso, president and founder of the Florida Dream Center, a St. Petersburg nonprofit that helps trafficking victims, said the focus of any new regulations or enforcement efforts should be those soliciting prostitution.
"They need to put their picture on billboards on Ulmerton (Road)," he said. "We have to have a deterrent. Regulation is fine, but I don't think it's going to have as much of an impact until you have legislation that is a lot (harsher on) the Johns.
"The establishment will just move down the road. Until you deter the Johns, it will keep going on."
There's evidence that public pressure is working. Earlier this year, massage parlors Lucky Day Spa and Seven Star Massage Spa — both are a 10-minute walk from each other on Kennedy — closed.
Both were under scrutiny from activist groups and were repeatedly visited by police. The city doesn't know why they shut down and the owners could not be reached for comment.
But City Council member Harry Cohen said those closings are a sign that "this public campaign is really effective and having its desired effect."
Contact Divya Kumar at email@example.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.