Thanks to an oafish 2008 state law that’s since been replaced, California cities are awash in massage establishments.
A now-defunct provision of the Massage Therapy Law prohibited localities from imposing zoning regulations on massage businesses. Six years later, in 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation restoring local control of massage parlors. But the damage had been done, reinforcing the horror of the phrase, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Fresno went from 30 to 220 massage storefronts. (My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the total square footage in Fresno alone would fill more than two Home Depots with wall-to-wall massage stations.)
Modesto went from 33 establishments in 2007 to 81 today, according to city spokeswoman Amy Vickery. Compared to Fresno’s 633 percent total growth, Modesto’s 145 percent increase has been downright restrained.
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To the south, Huntington Beach went from eight massage storefronts in 2009 to 74 during the same period. The city of San Gabriel, population 41,000, had just one massage establishment in 2003. By 2013, there were 53 – of which 27 were on the same street. A few miles away, Pasadena saw its nine massage storefronts in 2003 blossom to 103 by 2013. The city of Torrance went from five to 60.
The one thing local government does well is to coordinate and regulate land use. The state’s foray into what had formerly been the exclusive domain of local government was as bizarre as it was destructive.
“Overwhelmingly, based on our investigations in Huntington Beach, Orange County and Southern California, the women involved in most of these massage parlors are trafficked in,” Police Chief Kenneth Small told the Orange County Register a few years back.
The acceptable narrative is one in which naïve young women are lured to the United States with the promise of modeling. Once here, they’re held captive and forced into prostitution. But a look at the ages of those charged by police in various cities for soliciting sex to undercover officers at massage houses doesn’t square up with this picture.
Most women accused of soliciting sex at massage parlors are old enough to be moms, or even grandmas. Many are in their 30s and 40s, with no small number in their 50s and a few even in their 60s. These aren’t the owners, but the workers.
A random sampling of arrests in the state in 2017:
▪ In Fresno, on July 6, detectives with the Fresno County Sheriff's Vice Unit arrested 65-year-old Lana Phrommarath for soliciting prostitution.
▪ In Bakersfield, a detective uncovered evidence that 45-year-old was offering sexual services to clients.
▪ In Fallbrook, in San Diego County, a sting yielded an arrest of a 61-year-old and 48-year-old on suspicion of prostitution.
▪ In Milpitas, two masseuses, both in their 30s, were cited for prostitution.
▪ In Turlock, a 36-year-old massage parlor worker was arrested on suspicion of prostitution.
▪ In Visalia, a massage parlor was shut down after a 53-year-old was cited for prostitution.
The sex-trafficking story is a model of misinformation, wrote Nick Davies in the Guardian in 2009. From the outset, the word “trafficking” has been a problem as the definition varies.
Research by Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University, based on interviews with 100 migrant sex workers, found that contrary to public perception, most had chosen prostitution as a source of “dignified living conditions and to increase their opportunities for a better future while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin.”
While the “dignified living conditions” and “better future” observations seem more than a little optimistic, a combination of technology and brick-and-mortar storefronts – with their blacked-out windows, neon signs and extended hours – have largely forced scantily clad ladies of the evening hawking their wares on city streets out of the business. Specialty websites and smartphone apps allow information to flow efficiently between customer and provider, making it easier – and safer – to reach a meeting of the minds online.
Slack demand for ermine-trimmed cloaks, diamond-encrusted walking sticks and custom Coupe de Villes foreshadows the destruction of another “old-economy” mainstay: the American pimp. The last contact on anyone’s cultural radar was probably Snoop Dogg’s homage to ’70s-era pimp-turned-informant “Huggy Bear” in the “Starsky & Hutch” movie send-up in 2004.
Still in good supply, though, are furtive characters looking around nervously and then darting into one of the state’s now plentiful massage emporiums seeking, perhaps, a spa treatment.
Jeremy Bagott, a former journalist, writes about California finance and land-use issues; he wrote this for The Modesto Bee.