TAMPA (WFLA) – Women who make their living in the sex industry are banding together to defeat—or at least change a proposed measure designed to end the sex trade in Tampa’s Asian massage spas.
The Sex Worker Solidarity Network formed a group on Facebook with the explicit purpose of derailing efforts to end prostitution on Kennedy Boulevard and other Tampa locations disguised as therapeutic massage.
“It’s just going to criminalize women,” said Sydney Eastman, a Solidarity Network leader who describes herself as a sex worker advocate. “This ordinance is looking for ways to arrest victims and that’s been a common problem with a lot of human trafficking ordinances is they continue to criminalize victims of the crime as opposed to addressing the people who cause the crime.”
The group formed on Facebook a few weeks ago to rally opposition to the Tampa City Council’s proposal that would revise an existing Bathhouse ordinance in order to make it apply to the city’s massage spas. City council members Mike Suarez and Guido Maniscalco started calling for action after seeing our 8 On Your Side investigation.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Schmid and other members of the city legal staff have spent months researching and drafting an ordinance that would require spa permits, inspections, registration of owners, employees, and clients and prohibit any sexual activity. It would also require human trafficking signage education by spa workers.
Supporters insist the proposed Bathhouse measure is the best way to uncover human trafficking in Asian spas where experts say women with limited English skills and sketchy immigration status are shuffled from business to business and city to city with little ability to leave the sex trade.
“Sex trafficking in Tampa is a multi-million dollar business,” said Joe Manson who founded a group called Clean Up Kennedy in response to an investigation of massage spa prostitution practices by 8 On Your Side. Manson says the city’s proposed crackdown has wide support among anti-human trafficking groups, former sex workers, social service agencies and police whose previous tactics of undercover vice arrests has proven largely ineffective.
“Across the board they all agree there’s human trafficking going on in some or all of these illicit massage businesses on Kennedy Blvd,” Manson said.
Eastman doesn’t dispute there is prostitution taking place but says her group believes willing sex workers should be left alone as long as they are consensually engaged in the city’s sex trade. “Most of the folks we work with do sex work consensually,” Eastman said. “This is a job they want they take pride in. They make good money in doing it.”
Eastman agrees that human trafficking should be addressed, but believes the proposed ordinance will do more harm than good to women who are truly trapped in Tampa’s sex trade. “Let’s target the traffickers and not the victims,” Eastman said. “We don’t want to arrest victims.”
“Rounding up these women and throwing them in jail has never been part of the conversation,” Manson said. “In fact it’s been explicitly been not part of the conversation.”
There will be plenty more conversation in the City Council chambers Thursday at 10:30 .m. when there is a second reading of the Bathhouse ordinance and a public hearing.
The Sex Worker Solidarity plans to be there and so does Clean Up Kennedy along with the Polaris Project, a national organization dedicated to ending human trafficking.
“I think it’s up to victims to reach out when they’re being victimized,” said Eastman. But city leaders and groups like Clean Up Kennedy are forging forward.
One group that hasn’t spoken out includes the spa owners themselves. They’ve kept a low profile in the months since 8 On Your Side publicized the problem in April. “The fact that they haven’t come forward at all to the city or to my group or any group to kind of clear their name points to illicit activity,” Manson said.
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