Tampa tries new tactic to tackle massage spa prostitution exposed by 8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Six months after our 8 On Your Side investigation revealed organized prostitution inside a number of Asian massage spas on Kennedy Blvd, the Tampa City Council is taking steps to shut them down.

“I’m glad we’re discussing this because this entire situation is a complete embarrassment to the city,” said Councilmember Harry Cohen. “And it should be an embarrassment and we should be concerned about it.”

That concern has now turned into a new tactic to crack down on spas that boldly engage in sexual services along Kennedy Boulevard, Dale Mabry and a number of other locations around Tampa.

“I know my friends from Clean Up Kennedy are here but it’s not about cleaning up Kennedy it’s about cleaning up Tampa,” said Tampa Councilmember Mike Suarez who spearheaded Thursday’s workshop on the prostitution crackdown.

Our “Storefronts for Sex” investigation revealed a number of prostitution arrests at various Tampa massage spas over the past five years that failed to shut down any of those businesses or end the ongoing sex trade. Now, the city is considering a strategy that relies on a long-dormant ordinance regulating bathhouses.

The Tampa bathhouse ordinance was crafted decades ago during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, but city attorneys believe it can now be reworked to apply to massage parlors. They are considering restrictions on hours, making spas have streetside entrances and forcing clients to register when they check in for services. There might also be city permitting and inspections, new sanitation requirements and a rule that would make spa workers wear uniforms instead of lingerie and other sexy clothing intended to entice clients into sexual acts.

“I’m hoping that this works if the bathhouse ordinance doesn’t work we’ll try something else,” said Joe Manson who organized the Clean Up Kennedy activist group after seeing our massage spa expose back in April. Manson’s movement has now caught fire with the city council and other human trafficking groups. “A lot of people are saying enough it’s time for this to end,” Manson said after Thursday’s massage spa workshop at city hall.

Manson’s movement has now caught the attention of the Polaris Project, a national anti-human trafficking group that his highly regarded for its efforts. Thursday, two Polaris representatives flew to Tampa from Washington D.C. to join the chorus of massage spa critics and support the new effort to tackle the problem in Tampa.

“This is absolutely human trafficking many of the women are recruited through fraudulent job recruitment ads,” said former prosecutor Rochelle Keyhan who now serves as Polaris’s Strategic Initiatives Director. “For Florida, especially Tampa being the lead in Florida, taking a stand on this could have ripple effects across the country if they do this right.”

Thursday marked the first time that Tampa leaders have articulated a new strategy to eliminate storefronts for sex that line Kennedy. City attorneys say they will return to the city council on December 7th with a new draft of the bathhouse ordinance. Council member Mike Suarez wants it to include provisions to help women escape the cycle of prostitution that helps perpetuate the sex trade.” It’s not enough to arrest people take them out and they’re going to go right back in in a few days,” Suarez said.

Meanwhile, the Seven Star spa, one of the city’s more notorious massage parlors—where Clean Up Kennedy activists have been demonstrating for months, recently closed and re-opened under a new name—Sun spa. “They’re not fooling anybody with their change of name,” Manson said. “We know what’s going on in there.”

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