Tampa city leaders discuss massage spa sex ordinance sparked by 8 on Your Side investigation

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa City Council members took action on human trafficking Thursday with a draft ordinance aimed at shutting down rampant prostitution at Asian massage spas, a pervasive problem exposed by an 8 on Your Side investigation last April.

“It’s a modern day slavery is what it is and it’s happening in our back yard,” said Council Member Guido Maniscalco

Since our News Channel 8 investigation, two of the massage spas we highlighted have apparently shut down or changed ownership.

The proposed Tampa ordinance revives the city’s bathhouse regulation that was originally aimed at stopping sexual practices that spread HIV during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.  Tampa Council Member Mike Suarez credited Asst. City Attorney Mike Schmid for taking a creative approach to solve the problem.

“It was a brilliant idea to bring out an old ordinance and to change it to meet today’s needs,” Suarez said.

8 on Your Side uncovered a pattern of prostitution, often committed by so-called massage therapists that have a history of prostitution arrests and convictions. Experts say the women employed by Asian massage parlors in Tampa and nationwide are often the victims of human trafficking and are shuffled from one establishment to another with little ability to escape the sex trade.

“For Tampa to be taking this step and including causes that address trafficking is an incredible first start and we’re really proud of and excited for it,” said Rochelle Keyhan who represents the Polaris Project, a national organization dedicated to ending human trafficking. Keyhan flew in from Washington DC along with two coworkers to monitor the city’s action and offer advice.

Former sex worker Christa Hernandez now runs an organization called Loving You Where You Are that helps victims of human trafficking. Her concern is that the new Tampa ordinance doesn’t punish the women who are forced into providing sexual services inside the spas.

“The target should be the people who are selling the women the people who are behind this the big organized crime people,” Hernandez said.

The “bathhouse” proposal which won a first round of approval by Tampa City Council members today would do a number of things including:

  • requiring massage parlor establishments to obtain bathhouse permits
  • requiring permit holders, managers and employees to register their names and addresses
  • requiring patrons to sign a register accessible to Tampa police
  • requiring operators and employees to take human trafficking and prostitution awareness classes
  • prohibiting hours of operation between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
  • banning property owners from leasing to un-permitted bathhouses
  • banning operators or employees from having criminal records, in particular sexual offenses
  • banning nudity and sexual activity at massage parlors
  • allowing inspections by Tampa police up to four times a year.
  • mandating fines or jail time as punishment for violations

“Clean Up Kennedy” group organizer Joseph Manson says the draft ordinance is a great first step in cracking down on the prostitution that 8 on Your Side first exposed last April, but raised concerns whether the “bathhouse” approach will allow massage spa owners from sidestepping regulation by changing their operations to exclude bathing services.

“We’re worried the places just might change what they’re doing to avoid it but it’s a great start and we need to start somewhere, and I think it’s a great place to start,” Manson said.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Schmid says state law makes it difficult to regulate massage spas directly and that’s why he took the bathhouse approach.

The Tampa City Council will hold a public hearing after a first reading of the ordinance Dec. 21 at 10:30 a.m. Final approval won’t come until sometime after the new year because there has to be a second reading and another public hearing before final passage.

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