Unlicensed Massage Is Latest Attempt To Move Legal Prostitution

In the game of baseball, there are many different ways to score a run. Sometimes, a team scores a run very quickly when one of its players hits a home run. At other times, a team may score as a result of some combination of base hits, walks, stolen bases, and sacrifice bunts. Scoring a run this way takes longer than hitting a home run.

Achieving a public policy goal is something like scoring a run. Sometimes, it is possible to “swing for the fences” and make a major policy change in one fell swoop. The pro-life Texas Heartbeat Law is an example of this approach. Most of the time, however, advocates for a cause will reach their goal by taking a series of small steps. One example of this strategy is the pro-life movement’s decades-long effort to decrease the number of abortions by passing parental consent laws, informed consent laws, public funding bans, gestational limits, waiting periods, and other measures. Unfortunately, the left also uses an incremental approach to public policy; examples include the legalization of same-sex “marriage” (across the nation, states passed nondiscrimination laws, domestic partnership laws, and civil union laws before passing same-sex “marriage” laws) and recreational marijuana (New York legalized medical marijuana in 2014 before reaching the ultimate goal of recreational marijuana legalization in 2021). 

Over the past several years, a movement to legalize prostitution has begun taking shape in New York. That movement is using a step-by-step approach. In February 2021, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation repealing a law that banned loitering for purposes of prostitution. Last fall, several far-left members of the New York State Assembly introduced Bill A.8281-Gonzalez-Rojas. This legislation, which is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), would remove criminal and civil penalties for engaging in the unlicensed practice of massage therapy. What, you may ask, does this bill have to do with prostitution? Everything. Often, unlicensed massage parlors are merely thinly veiled houses of prostitution.

In March 2019, a New York Times report on illicit massage parlors stated that “a traditionally Asian form of therapeutic relaxation with deep roots in big-city Chinatowns has spun off a different kind of massage parlor that has little to do with traditional remedies. It has exploded into a $3 billion-a-year sex industry that relies on pervasive secrecy, close-knit ownership rings and tens of thousands of mostly foreign women ensnared in a form of modern indentured servitude.” The Times added that there were an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors throughout the United States, that many of the workers in those parlors had been ensnared and coerced into prostitution because of debts, homelessness, and immigration-related concerns, and that the Flushing neighborhood in Queens, New York was the focal point of the unlicensed massage industry nationwide. The Times also noted that some workers “must sleep on the same massage tables where they service customers and cook on hot plates in cramped kitchens or on back steps.”

In response to this sordid and nightmarish state of affairs, the sponsors of Bill A.8281-Gonzalez-Rojas propose to decriminalize unlicensed massage therapy. In fact, they openly advocate for the full legalization of prostitution; the bill memorandum asserts that “sex work, in all its forms, must be decriminalized if New York State is invested in the intersectional work of racial, social, and economic justice.”

This proposal is wrong-headed. Instead of legalizing unlicensed massage in a misguided attempt to make life easier for unlicensed massage workers, the state of New York should focus on eradicating this unwholesome and exploitative industry altogether. Women who are being forced into prostitution—regardless of whether or not they are employed at illicit massage parlors—must be treated as trafficking victims and offered assistance in escaping their plight. Women who voluntarily engage in prostitution at illicit massage parlors are responsible for their actions and should continue to be held accountable under the law, and the men who patronize such establishments should also be held accountable. Most importantly, the people who operate and fund illicit massage parlors must be brought to justice, and the criminal networks they have created must be taken apart.