Prostitution at Massage Parlors Target of Stringent Council Provision

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Prostitution at local massage parlors may be eliminated by a provision under consideration by the Berkeley City Council.

The new provision, on Tuesday's council meeting agenda, requires massage workers to complete at least 500 hours of "bona fide massage therapy school" and undergo a criminal background check. If a massage parlor's employees do not meet these requirements, the parlor's permit could be revoked, according to the provision.

Currently, Berkeley law requires the closure of a massage parlor after two convictions, which the provision described as "onerous and outdated."

Berkeley massage parlors came under fire by city officials this year when the Golden Gypsy Massage Parlor was charged with illegally offering patrons sexual favors instead of massages. The parlor was shut down last July.

Police closed another local massage parlor, Normandy Massage Studio, under similar charges last March.

Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan said the new provision was made because the existing laws aren't "as forceful as (they) ought to be" in restricting prostitution activity at massage parlors.

But some city officials said the provision's requirements are too stringent.

Five hundred hours at a massage therapy classroom is "an awful lot of time," said Berkeley City Councilmember Polly Armstrong.

"You would have to give a massage a day for a year and a half to reach (that amount)," she said.

Armstrong added enforcing the provision would be a waste of police officers' time.

"I would rather have our police spend time on murders and assaults if they can," she said.

Councilmember Linda Maio, however, said in replacing the two-conviction requirement, the provision would increase police efficiency in discovering and closing massage parlors promoting illegal activities.

"Police hands are tied with the two-conviction requirement," Maio said. "We need to be sure we have the right mechanism in place to enable us to move quickly."

She said there is a need for the provision, as massage parlors soliciting prostitution attract crime and are "sleazy."

A masseuse at Crystal Massage, who wished to remain anonymous, said all workers at the establishment already had the 500 hours of training in massage required to become certified massage therapists.

"We're legal," she said.

According to the provision, anyone who is a registered sex offender engaged in pimping or prostitution and anyone who has previously owned brothels would have their permit revoked.

Cowan said the criminal background check would provide additional help in stopping prostitution at massage parlors.

"If the background check shows this person operated massage parlors and has been prosecuted for prostitution, you have to wonder," he said.

Councilmember Betty Olds said the new provision would have no adverse affects for Berkeley massage parlors that do not practice any illegal activities.

"We have some very good massage parlors in Berkeley that are already operating," Olds said. "I don't want anything happening to jeopardize them."

Maio added she is ultimately in favor of legalizing prostitution, but the change would need to be made at the state level.

"(Prostitution) is very dangerous for women in this profession," Maio said. "Legalization is one way to make it safe."


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