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If someone wants to start their conversation off on the wrong foot with a licensed massage therapist they can simply ask them which massage parlor they work at, but they are well advised to brace themselves for a well-deserved glare, or worse. On a good day we can muster enough calming energy to manage the conversation from there, but even then, not without wondering why no one understands who we are and what we actually do in our work.

But, let’s be honest, this is only a part of our dilemma, the real problems for us occur with the rare client who ends up on our table with expectations around more than a massage. When those situations do occur, and fortunately they are infrequent (though becoming reported more often), we’re not only wondering how this client slipped through our screening process, but we’re suddenly tapping into one of our brain’s most ancient functions, our limbic system.

Suddenly, fight or flight may be in play and we’re put into a position of trying to determine our best options instead of focusing on our client’s wellbeing. But how did we get here?


Since 2008 I have been curious about the issues around illegitimate, or illicit, massage and how it effects our profession, or, if it does at all? One of my first lessons in the process was that not everyone wanted to have this discussion, and for a variety of reasons. None the less, I pressed on, the curious portion of my brain could not be suppressed.

One of the early concerns I had was whether or not illegitimate, or illicit, massage businesses (IMB’s) served as a source for some of the mindset that viewed massage as some form of sex work, but drawing such a conclusion was nearly impossible. None the less, over time, I came to learn that the most severe incidents I heard about from therapist’s, involving inappropriate behavior and requests from client’s, were exactly the same as what I had seen for years on the online review boards for those who seek sexual massage, such as eroticmp.com and then rubmaps.com.

Certainly, the most obvious actions such as removing the drape, touching the therapist, either overtly on in a subtler way, and of course asking directly were common practice in IMB’s on those websites. Even the more polished and subtle approaches such as laying cash out in plain view on a table in the massage room showed up from time to time. So, there they were, if not the same clients, then the same activities/behaviors overlapped, so instead of trying to determine if their clients were also our clients from time to time, the key was not the clients, but rather the methods they employed.

Also, and fortunately, over time, those in our profession generously gave me an opportunity to engage with them about these issues, and to some degree my prior career in law enforcement likely provided some added credibility at times I suspect. But, a willingness to engage in discussions around illegitimate massage and even human trafficking in IMB’s and its relationship to these kinds of incidents was still hard and the professional associations that wanted to move us forward in many ways continued to avoid these conversations in a meaningful way.

In fact, they mostly seemed not to want to know about how their members were affected by such incidents and that, in my view at least, continues for the most part today. The good news is that I have found an open mind on these issues with the WSMTA, thus this article.


I’ve quietly awaited the results of an effort by the Polaris Project (https://polarisproject.org/) that was initiated a few years ago, where they pulled in the professional massage associations for a discussion on the issue of human trafficking when it hides behind signs that say “Massage” or “Spa” on the front of businesses. For a little background, Polaris runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and manages the human trafficking hotline (888-373-7888) here in the US and they felt that we needed a place at the table on these issues.

Now, some time later, not every association has decided to actively engage on all this, but the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards saw the opportunity and formed a task force to look at the problem. Now, they have issued their initial report (see link below) and it will be a major topic at their next board meeting. In my view, the FSMTB has decided to engage and participate in finding common solutions, good for them.

Having read the report, one key finding is how human trafficking in IMB’s creates a safety issue for not only the general public but also for legitimate massage therapists. Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more, or maybe I should say, they couldn’t agree more with me as I’ve had this view for some time now. None the less, there will still be disagreement on these controversial issues, and I think that’s healthy, if it’s manifested by open and thoughtful discussion, rather than silence, great. You see, I think silence may well be our biggest problem here. And as the old, yet accurate adage goes…”if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem”.


Consider this, every profession has safety concerns around the work place. Realtors, bankers and roofers all have concerns specific to their work environment and therefore put strategies in place to counter those concerns. I know all too well about the banking industry, given the number of bank robberies I’ve investigated through the years. And, Realtors I know personally have shared a few of their tricks of the trade with me for staying safe at open houses and other encounters with potential buyers. As for roofers, well, strangely enough their primary attacker is our old friend gravity, so not every threat takes the form of a bipedal, carbon based life form it seems, but countering potential threats to our safety and wellbeing is just a common-sense practice as it turns out.

The key, is matching your response and strategy to your primary concern or threat and can take the form of something as simple as, in our case, as the use of an intake form, you see those who seek sexual massage hate intake forms. But, having several strategies in place as a web or filter is the best approach for any profession.


As it happens, Farshad Talebi, the primary attorney with the Washington State Attorney General’s office who focuses on human trafficking issues here in our state, will be doing a brief presentation during January’s massage board meeting. Your association president, Marybeth Berney, and I have already met with Mr. Talebi a few months back, believing early engagement to be better than knee jerk responses to strategies that create more issues for us than they might for the criminal traffickers.

A key benefit in early engagement like this is relationship building and we hope to continue this process going ahead, just like people don’t understand who we are and what we do for a living, we can’t expect to understand the issues law enforcement and the AG’s office are dealing with in getting to better solutions. But, there’s a place at the table, and if you decide to stay home expect to be surprised by the solutions that are proposed in your absence.

I can’t speak for the WSMTA leadership as I write this piece, but I suspect we’re mostly on the same page in recommending that you attend this board meeting when it occurs. You see, this overlap between illegitimate, or illicit, massage and our profession will be front and center at this meeting. And, not only will you learn more about these issues, but it will also be an opportunity for you to hear what may lie ahead as Government agencies consider strategies for responding to these issues that may affect how you do business. If you like surprises, great, look under the Christmas tree for those soon, but these kinds of surprises may not be that much fun to unwrap.

Lavon Watson, LMP

Watson Consulting Services

Learn more at: https://watsonconsultingserv.com (or) http://watsonconsultingserv.com/home-page/

FSMTB Human Trafficking Task Force Report: https://www.fsmtb.org/consumer-information/human-trafficking/

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