A Queens state Senator has introduced new legislation that would require the city's massage parlors to register with the New York State Department of State, in a move that he says will help shutter establishments that also sell sex.
Filed by Senator Jose Peralta earlier this month, the bill would require all massage-therapy establishments to obtain a four-year license from the Department of State, with a penalty of $2,500 imposed on those that fail to register.
Registered businesses would also have to list their hours on a searchable database, which Peralta believes would make it easier to weed out the "bad actors."
"We've been getting a lot of complaints from constituents...because some of these locations are open past 1 a.m.," Peralta told Gothamist. "Who gets a massage at 1 a.m.? Who gets a body rub at 1 a.m.?"
While state law requires nail and hair salons to obtain businesses licenses, massage parlors have so far been able to skirt the regulation, according to Peralta, because massage-therapists are technically licensed by the Department of Education. The difference in laws has created a regulatory loophole, Peralta says, allowing plenty of illicit establishments to employ a single licensed therapist to show up in the event of a raid.
It's unclear what the change in law would mean for the sex workers currently operating out of these establishments. In recent years, raids on massage parlors have spiked, with 649 arrests—mostly of Chinese and Korean women—made at these parlors in 2016. According to the Legal Aid Society, 91 percent of the last year's cases were against non-citizens.
"The vast majority of our clients are recent immigrants and they don't understand the licensing laws," Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told Gothamist. "Invariably they are not advised by the boss or owner that they themselves have to be licensed to practice massage in New York."
While the NYPD promised earlier this year to focus its enforcement on johns, pimps, and traffickers, police have continued to arrest women on prostitution charges. Some worry that Peralta’s bill would serve to increase these arrests.
"Our experience with massage parlors where unlicensed masseuses are working is that typically the owner and boss are not present, so when police go into these locations, they're making assumptions about who the owner is based on who is behind the desk, and they don't do much, if any, investigation about who the owner is,” Latimer added. "Our concern is that this would be another layer of liability for people who are being exploited by owners, without effectuating the stated goal of the legislation."
In Peralta's view, however, the bill would have a positive impact on both sex workers and the city's massage parlors. "One, we're legitimizing these massage parlors," he said. "And two, if you are part of this and you happen to be sex trafficked, you now can blow the whistle on these guys and get some help."