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.”
Merced went from 5 massage storefronts in 1997 to 45 this year. While the city’s population has grown by 25 percent in that time, the number of massage storefronts has gone up 900 percent.
Fresno went from 30 to 220 massage storefronts. My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the total square footage in Fresno 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 a city spokeswoman. Compared to Fresno’s 633 percent total growth and Merced’s 900 percent, Modesto’s 145 percent increase has been downright restrained.
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 ago.
The usual narrative has naïve young women lured to the United States to work as models. Once here, they’re forced into prostitution. But a look at the ages of those charged by police in various cities for soliciting sex at massage houses doesn’t fit 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; a few are even in their 60s. A random sampling from 2017:
▪ In Bakersfield, there was evidence a 45-year-old was offering sexual services.
▪ In Fallbrook, in San Diego County, two women, ages 61 and 48, were caught up in an undercover prostitution sting.
▪ 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.
Research by Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University, based on interviews with 100 migrant sex workers, found that 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 blacked-out windows, neon signs and extended hours – have largely forced those scantily clad women who once worked on city streets corners out of business. Specialty websites and smartphone apps are much more efficient for assignation.
Jeremy Bagott, a former journalist, writes about California finance and land-use issues; he wrote this for The Modesto Bee.