There are 36 licensed professions in the state of New York — including architect, midwife and athletic trainer. The education department and attorney general are responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations. But state law specifically directs local authorities to enforce licensing requirements for massage therapy — the only profession singled out.
As a result, police across the state and particularly in New York City routinely raid massage parlors, and it can get pretty ugly. Massage workers have told researchers stories of police sexually assaulting those they arrest in these raids, or taking cash and other valuables and never returning them. In 2017, massage worker Yang Song fell four stories to her death during a police raid on a massage parlor in the Flushing section of Queens, New York. Asian immigrant women have disproportionately been subjected to these raids on their workplaces.
Newly introduced New York State Assembly Bill A8281 aims to change that. The bill does not change licensing requirements for massage therapy or get rid of penalties for violations, but it does decriminalize unlicensed massage work and remove local police and district attorney enforcement.
Supporters see the changes as part of the broader work needed to fully decriminalize sex work and related lines of work that in real life exist on a spectrum and aren’t always so easily distinguished.
“For a very long time, the Asian massage workers in New York City have been experiencing the same old things, only too much,” said a massage worker with 20 years’ experience who identified herself only as Charlotte, during a February 25 press conference announcing a campaign in support of the new bill. “We have been arrested simply for the fact we practice massage.”
Charlotte is a member of Red Canary Song, which describes itself as a “grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and allies” based in Flushing. They worked with lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties Union, immigration rights organizations and other legal aid groups to draft A8281. State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, whose district includes several Queens neighborhoods close to Flushing, sponsored the bill
“Sex workers are part of our community, massage workers are part of our community, and they’re not all the same but often both/either are undocumented and therefore excluded from the licensing procedures,” González-Rojas tells Next City. “Law enforcement weaponizes these statutes to raid these businesses, to target women of color, to target undocumented communities to quote-unquote clean up communities or quote-unquote save trafficking survivors, but we all know that police intervention is not a tool of justice nor does it serve any of the populations that we are working with.”
The launch of the campaign for A8281 coincides with the release of a report, “Un-Licensed: Asian Migrant Massage Licensure and the Racialized Policing of Poverty,” co-authored by members of Red Canary Song, Butterfly, Massage Parlor Outreach Project, Bowen Public Affairs, and the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
The report details the striking similarities between the experiences of massage workers in New York, Butterfly’s home of Toronto, the Massage Parlor Outreach Project’s Seattle, and Brown University’s Providence. While the laws empowering the policing of unlicensed massage are all specific to each location, in each case those laws did not specifically target Asian or immigrant women yet those arrested for unlicensed massage were almost exclusively Asian immigrant women. The similarities even surprised Esther Kao, a co-organizer with Red Canary Song and consultant with the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, a legal aid group.
“I expect at least a few exceptions to the rule, but the fact is that it’s just all of these laws working together like clockwork in this specific form of oppression,” Kao says.
The lived experiences documented in the new report square with prior research. The nonpartisan Urban Institute published a report in April 2017 on the policing of prostitution. Analyzing data collected from 1,400 cases, that report noted Asian-identified people arrested for unlicensed massage in New York City increased by over 1,900% between 2012 and 2016 (from 31 to 631). The total number of arrests of Asian-identified people charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution in New York City increased by 2,700% between 2012 and 2016 (from 12 to 336). Out of all those cases, the report found noncitizen Asian migrant women made up 87% of the arrests for unlicensed massage.
In New York, unlicensed massage work is actually more severely penalized than prostitution — the state considers prostitution a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in prison and a fine of up to $500, while practicing any licensed profession without a license is class E felony, punishable by up to four years in prison. Kao says it has not been unusual to encounter workers who have pleaded guilty to prostitution as part of a deal to avoid the higher charge of unlicensed massage.
For those engaged in either kind of work, or both, advocates say any sort of distinction between sex work versus sex-adjacent work like massage isn’t very helpful. Sometimes if the rent suddenly goes up or there are bills to pay — perhaps legal bills and fees to get through the immigration process — a massage parlor worker may find opportunities to earn a little extra cash through a bit of sex work here and there for trusted clients, but they may not disclose that work to anyone.
“At Red Canary Song, when we’re doing our mutual aid work, we don’t force massage workers to identify as sex workers or trafficking victims because these are unhelpful distinctions to make,” Kao says. “Because of stigma, massage workers often don’t even disclose to colleagues working across the hall from them what kind of labor they’re performing. Oftentimes women doing regular massages might feel economic pressures to perform sex labor to make some extra income but they don’t identify as a sex worker.”
There’s “a continuum of intimate labor from unpaid to paid realms, public and private realms, there’s so much intimate care work going on around the world all the time that doesn’t fit into any codified legal scripts,” says Elena Shih, assistant professor at Brown University and a fellow at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “When we are doing our outreach we don’t draw these lines, we look at the industry as a whole, and all of these workers are being targeted and policed the same.”
Only one prosecutor, former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., has ever said their office would stop prosecuting both prostitution cases involving consensual sex work and unlicensed massage. Vance decided not to run for another term, and newly elected successor Alvin Bragg has not said anything yet about whether he will maintain that policy.
González-Rojas says it would be better not to have to rely on the whims of prosecutors to protect those who do sex work, massage work, or both.
The assemblymember also says the licensing process needs to be more accessible for those without English proficiency. The way things are now, she’s heard about scammers targeting massage workers by taking exorbitant payments for fake licenses or simply taking their money and disappearing, knowing that the undocumented status of many unlicensed massage workers means they won’t be saying anything to police.
In the meantime, advocates would rather not have a constant threat of police raids on massage parlors disrupting lives — and in at least one highly visible case taking a life. Besides arrests, police are known among massage workers to confiscate and never return cash taken during raids, which are often conducted in the name of fighting international human trafficking or child sex trafficking. The new bill would take away police authority to conduct these raids.
“Even if you think trafficking is happening in a massage parlor, the way to help is not by arresting massage workers and pushing them through courts,” says Jared Trujillo, a former public defender who helped draft A8281 as an attorney now with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Advocates say decriminalizing sex work, including unlicensed massage work, would actually provide a tremendous boost to anti-trafficking work, not to mention improving working conditions for sex workers and massage workers. It’s these workers, Kao says, whose reliance on this income means they are more invested than anyone else in ensuring that their workplaces are safe and reputable and not selling children into sexual abuse. But as long as they are criminalized, it is nearly — though not entirely — impossible for them to organize for better conditions or play a stronger role in rooting out actual human traffickers.
“If you’re looking at whether garment industry work is considered trafficking or exploitative, you’re looking at the relationship between employer and employee,” says Shih. “So why not in this case, really, can we look at these workers’ ability to organize, to negotiate and demand better wages?”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct Elena Shih’s Brown University title.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.