Massage therapists hope for a happy ending

The California Massage Therapy Council, a statewide body that licenses massage practitioners, may expire at the end of this year unless extended by the California Legislature. Some anti-prostitution crusaders say reverting to local control will make it easier to shut down covert brothels, but the practitioners fear a return to the bad old days, when stigmas and stereotypes overcomplicated their lives.

On one side of the debate are the massage therapists, who say that the council protects them from unfair discrimination, replaces a patchwork of local ordinances, and provides a greater level of respectability to their profession. However, an array of city officials, police departments, and powerful groups such as the League of California Cities argue that the CAMTC makes it easier for illicit massage parlors to get away with prostitution and human trafficking.

“I receive complaints from neighbors all the time about certain establishments,” said Sup. Katy Tang about her supervisorial district in San Francisco’s Sunset District. “We can inspect, but we have no ability to enforce any of our regulations. If there are any penalties, we can’t enforce them.”

Tang’s frustration stems from Senate Bill 731, legislation that was signed into law in 2008. That bill created the CAMTC, a nonprofit organization that has the authority to certify massage practitioners and therapists in California. Prior to the creation of this body, each city and county enacted its own certification procedures, leading to a messy patchwork of rules all over the state.

Before the CAMTC, “there were 550 different kinds of regulations from city to city,” said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the organization. “Within a radius of one mile, you can have a situation where different cities have their own standards. One city may require no training, and another right next door may require 1,000 hours.”

A massage provider working in California pre-2009 not only had to be savvy with the medley of laws, but also needed to purchase expensive licenses for each city he or she planned to practice in. The CAMTC creates a universal—though voluntary—system, where licensed practitioners can travel and work freely around the state.

The contentious part of the law comes from the protection that it offers to licensed practitioners. Any establishment that employs all CAMTC-certified massage providers is exempt from city ordinances that target massage businesses. Law enforcement agencies claim that these restrictions impede their ability to crack down on illegal parlors, but the massage therapists say that they are necessary to fight off discriminatory laws.

Some of these unfair regulations targeted entire establishments, such as zoning rules that forced all massage businesses into run-down or dangerous parts of town, with the assumption that they were brothels. Massage providers argued that this was neither fair nor safe for, say, a 75-year-old woman seeking out massage for arthritis, or a soon-to-be mom trying to obtain a pre-natal massage.

Other laws targeted the therapists themselves. Stacey DeGooyer, a certified massage therapist in the Bay Area, remembers times when practicing massage meant mandatory STD testing and reminders from police to not wear undergarments as exterior clothing.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is for my profession?'” DeGooyer said, decrying being subjected to “archaic prostitution laws.” Most massage providers aren’t looking to be on par with physicians, but they also don’t want to be on par with prostitutes.

Currently, San Francisco has its own certification program that is regulated by the Department of Public Health. To practice massage in the city, the provider must have a license from either the city or the CAMTC. However, only those who have the state CAMTC license can legally call themselves a “licensed massage” therapist or practitioner.

Tang has been one of the most outspoken critics of the CAMTC in San Francisco, urging the Legislature to let the body sunset at the end of the year.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m against [the CAMTC], but there are structural flaws in how it was designed,” Tang said. “It was created for good reasons, since there were so many jurisdictions and they wanted to standardize it and create a cohesive process. But there are jurisdictions like San Francisco where we have our own robust process.”

The number of massage establishments have surged since the adoption of the CAMTC, which critics use as evidence for a growing number of illicit parlors. But Netanel said his group’s worked to prevent prostitutes from getting licensed in the first place. Out of over 63,000 applicants, Netanel said, the group has never certified a single person who has been convicted of illicit activities. It also utilizes an online complaint form to report questionable behavior, and respond to all complaints within 24 hours.

“Even with those who criticize [the CAMTC], we share the same goals,” Netanel said. “We want a safe, healthy, and reliable certification process, so consumers can trust their therapists. Even more, we want to put an end to illegal massage parlors so they are no longer categorized with honest providers.” (Brian McMahon)

HOT MAIL

Last week’s Bay Guardian featured a cover story on homelessness in San Francisco (“San Francisco’s untouchables”), including communications between local residents and the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, which we obtained in a public records request. So we thought we’d share a few message from the more than 100 we received.

“I don’t know where to begin,” one resident wrote. “I feel between mad, disgusted, and frustrated. This homeless encampment keeps growing. … The city has put up wire fencing only to be cut through by the homeless. … It is within 100 yards of my $1.2M condo.”

Another said: “Something is deeply wrong with San Francisco policy. Cultivating the Bohemian San Francisco style is nice but … it is as if we were in a deteriorated undeveloped country. We live in downtown San Francisco, not in the favelas, which is what it feels like.”

Still another complainant wrote: “Bags distributors are installed in the parks in order to help dog lovers clean up after their dogs, which is completely normal, but nothing is done for all the human beings who stroll, do drugs, eat, sleep, urinate, defecate and so on, on the sidewalks.”

Sometimes these complaints result in HOT visits to homeless encampments. But the emails suggest that while the HOT does approach homeless folks to try and persuade them to access services or go to a shelter, the service workers don’t always have full services to direct them to if the homeless individuals agree to do so.

Psychiatric social worker Jason Albertson, who is part of the HOT, explained this dilemma in an email sent in mid-January. His email noted that the HOT had encountered some homeless people in the vicinity of Harriet Alley and Manolo Draves Park, in response to a neighbor’s urging.

They’re “primarily in transit, meaning that they camp in different places each night and are not regulars,” he explained. “So far, nobody has wanted to enter into shelter or discuss other access to treatment or services.” But even if they had, he said, there wouldn’t be too many options for moving forward with recovery.

“At this time, our case management support is limited with identified clients waiting,” he wrote. “So capacity for full service is limited.” (Rebecca Bowe)

WHITHER GOOGLE BUSES

As the Board of Supervisors prepared for an April 1 hearing to consider an environmental appeal of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s program for regulating Google buses and other private shuttles to the Silicon Valley, which charges them one dollar per stop, both sides marshaled their troops.

The pro-business Bay Area Council released a poll of San Franciscans claiming that most of us love tech, we’re totally cool with the Google buses, and we care more about job creation than the cost of living. The group wrote: “Despite what it may look like from recent media coverage, a majority of voters have a positive opinion of the shuttle buses and support allowing buses to use Muni stops.”

SF.citi, an alliance of San Francisco tech companies, touted the poll as it sent out an email blast that reads like a call to arms: “Divisive shuttle opponents are now suing the City to challenge this pilot program before it has the chance to get off the ground. We need YOU to tell the Board of Supervisors in person that you want them reject this lawsuit and let the pilot program go forward.”

Progressive activists countered in a similar tone: “Please join us to support the appeal and to tell the city to hold Big Tech accountable for the actual impact they have on our communities and neighborhoods.”

The hearing was scheduled after Guardian press time, so check www.sfbg.com/politics to find out what happened. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)