By Danielle Wilson
On an afternoon not long ago, as I prepared to sit down for lunch, I happened to glance out the window just as the mail was being delivered. The mail truck was once a welcomed sight when I was younger, but as an adult I’ve grown accustomed to bills or junk, so I knew this trip to the mailbox wasn’t going to be thrilling. I flipped through the stack.
Bill, junk, junk … something from the city. I better open that one.
I can’t say I was surprised by the letter in the envelope, but I never thought after all this time I’d be faced with the change it proposed. My city, Burnsville, MN, was imposing a substantial increase to my annual licensing fees to offset costs of regulating massage businesses in the city, three times as much as I have ever paid, in fact. A meeting was set for Nov. 10 (tomorrow) wherein I could voice my opinion, and I sure did have an opinion.
Who better to enlighten the city council than me? I am a massage therapist in Minnesota, one of the last few unlicensed states. I’ve been practicing for 10 years, and in that time I have been licensed in two cities — Savage and Burnsville — each with vastly different requirements. Although both cities border each other, and both of my offices are less than 10 miles apart, I had to obtain a license to practice in each city. Both cities required a background check and some level of proof that I had a minimum amount of training in massage before I was issued my first license. The first city, Savage, required only $100 in annual fees where the second, Burnsville, (which started at $100) was now seeking $300. While this seems pretty straightforward as requirements go, there are cities that impose much more outrageous, outdated, and clearly offensive regulations.
In Minnesota, massage regulation is performed at the municipal level, there is no state-level board certification, which is regularly seen for other public healthcare and service professionals such as nurses, hair stylists, or even electricians. At the municipal level, regulations vary widely as do the costs associated with overseeing that they are upheld. Some cities charge as little as $50 annually to upwards of $3,500. In addition to the costs, there are equally differing regulations. Commonly seen are regulations on attire and cleanliness, and, although rare, some cities require a medical exam that provides proof that therapists are free of venereal disease. The latter is not only offensive but implies a substandard understanding of the evolution of professional massage therapy.
Massage therapists are consistently associated with sexual deviance, sex trafficking, and prostitution as our current laws reflect. Even though the municipal language does not always clearly state that the city believes massage and sex practices are intertwined, it is evident that they are policing legitimate massage businesses in this way. Underneath it all, that is what the fee increases really represent, an attempt to discourage prostitution. Understand that I’m not ignoring the fact that these sexual services exist or even that some have masqueraded as massage for decades. Rather, I am saying that legitimate massage businesses and practitioners are penalized due to a public association with prostitution, and cities are burdened with the challenge of differentiating between a massage business and a brothel.
Proper massage regulation has long been an issue for the government, massage professionals, and the public. Ideally, there would be a solution that protects the public, allows massage therapy to be recognized as a legitimate profession, and removes some of the confusion and burden faced by the government. Without some form of statewide licensure or registration, we struggle to accomplish this goal. Other neighboring states have had success by implementing state licensure similar to the requirements a nurse or doctor adheres to. Here in Minnesota, there is a movement toward voluntary registration in the hopes that there will be future state licensure. Unfortunately, the bill has yet to pass, but is currently awaiting further discussion in the 2016 state legislative session.
Voluntary registration would eliminate the responsibility of local government to monitor legitimate businesses which will allow them to focus more closely on combating criminal prostitution. By streamlining the requirements, massage therapists would be qualified at the state level, much in the same way of other healthcare and service professionals. Additionally, removing the responsibility from local governments will lower their expenses. The bill is self-funded by therapists choosing to register. No additional cost will be incurred by the state. Lastly, this bill will also give the public a way to identify therapists who are properly credentialed limiting their exposure to potential harm.
As a massage therapist in Minnesota, I see voluntary registration as an obvious solution to the obstacles faced by everyone involved. Until then, I’ll attend the meeting, and voice my opinion with the support of my colleagues. I can only hope to convey this message clearly enough to help more people understand that our current system is not working for anyone, collecting more fees from me doesn’t end prostitution, and that I’m willing to work towards a better solution to this problem in the meantime.