Update on Massage Ordinances

My blog posting on June 12th: Massage Ordinances and Sex Trafficking, was a call to action to the Network Against Human Trafficking allies to approach local city councils to adopt massage business ordinances in order to fight sex trafficking.

We have already heard from allies in Ames, the Quad Cities, Sioux City, Des Moines, and Fort Dodge. Advocates in each of these communities have taken the first steps to adopt local ordinances. If you are not listed, but have taken action, please let me know at gbelitsos55@gmail.com.

Below is the section of the code that the legislature struck down and which now gives local cities the right to regulate massage businesses.

This is followed by “talking points” developed by the city of Johnston Iowa which is the only city that currently has an ordinance in place.


No city, township, or county governmental body, agency, or department shall enact or enforce restrictions or requirements regarding massage therapists which are not equally enacted or enforced regarding all licensed health care practitioners, including but not limited to zoning, building code, health, and sanitation

Due to the difficult nature of investigating sex crimes such as prostitution and human trafficking, municipalities need the ability to develop proactive regulations to better screen and investigate massage therapy businesses prior to a new venture being opened.

Summary of complications with reactive investigations once a business has opened:

  • The businesses are difficult to infiltrate by law enforcement; investigations are labor intensive (ongoing surveillance, lack of cooperating witnesses who use the business for legitimate purposes, may take multiple visits by undercover officer before sex act is attempted if suspicious of new client); defense attorneys attempt to impeach credibility of officers, may take multiple officers to build case
  • Existing state regulations are intended to regulate legitimate massage therapy licensees without consideration for illegal sex acts being conducted in the trade
  • State investigators and financial resources available to the state regulatory board to conduct investigations are limited
  • Punitive actions are typically directed at individual offenders rather than business owners/managers
  • Prosecutors may struggle with the amount of resources needed to prosecute these misdemeanor violations
  • Offenders committing acts of prostitution are often from out of state or international, may abscond prior to court date or be transitioned out of state within an existing interstate criminal enterprise
  • Arresting individual employees for misdemeanor crimes may not cause the business manager to close without additional regulatory action
  • Community members and neighboring businesses become frustrated with length of time it takes to build reactive criminal case based on outside complaints
  • Legitimate massage therapy businesses and individually licensed therapists are very concerned about these illegal criminal enterprises infecting the reputation of their chosen profession

The typical profile of a massage therapy business committing acts of prostitution include:

  • Store front openly advertised as Asian Massage
  • Advertising sex acts with customer confirmation reviews on the dark web (EX: Back Page)
  • Business manager is from out of state and may be international
  • Business manager will have previous arrests or licensing challenges from other states related to prostitution and similar offenses
  • Upon verification, posted state licensure for active massage therapist(s) are often counterfeit
  • Employees are often not licensed in the state and frequently shuffled in and out of state/country within a criminal enterprise that models human trafficking
  • Clientele are typically all males and uncooperative upon approach by law enforcement

Also, please read a Johnston Police Department case study which gives two examples of massage businesses that have closed. There has since been a third massage business to close.