Sex worker advocacy groups on Monday opposed a proposal to increase San Francisco’s ability to shut down massage parlors, saying it would only drive illicit activity further underground.
Under legislation introduced by Supervisor Katy Tang, The City would have greater power to fine massage establishments or revoke their permit. It is only the latest effort in San Francisco to combat brothels fronting as legitimate massage parlors.
But the proposal drew opposition from groups who advocate for sex workers, the St. James Infirmary, a health clinic for sex workers in the Tenderloin, and US PROStitutes Collective, a group of women who work or have worked in different areas of the sex industry.
They said the proposal would only harm sex workers more by driving sex trafficking underground, and would also result in closures of massage parlours, eliminating job opportunities for immigrant women of color.
Despite the opposition, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee voted to send the legislation to the full board for a vote next week.
There are approximately 200 massage establishments and 1,200 practitioners in San Francisco.
Leah, of St. James Infirmary, who declined to give her last name, said the increased regulations “will force the trade underground and only increases situations that are more susceptible to trafficking and exploitation.”
“In order to address human trafficking, people must have access to resources that can pull them out of poverty,” she said.
Rachel West, a spokesperson for the US PROStitutes Collective, told the San Francisco Examiner that sex work should not be criminalized “and if it was decriminalized, The City wouldn’t be wasting resources harassing parlors to find out if sex working is going on.”
In 2008, 41 percent of San Francisco voters supported Proposition K, which would have decriminalized sex work.
West told the committee that “The City’s been cracking down and harassing massage parlors for the last 20 years. They haven’t gone away. This is just another attempt to put a stranglehold on them by any means necessary to shut them down.”
She added, “Many see this as part of the ongoing gentrification policies that are pushing lower income and people of color out of the city.”
The group’s statement said, “If and where women are selling sex, parlor closures will force women on the streets where [it] is much more dangerous to work.”
Tang, however, said, “I think that there is some confusion around what this ordinance is going to achieve.”
“We are not here to pass judgment on sex work — consensual or not,” Tang said. “This is about the fact that if you are getting a land use approval and in conjunction a DPH health permit for massage, that massage is the use that is going on. Just like when we issue permits to a small business that is selling clothing, for example. That is what is supposed to be sold in that business, versus something else.”
Under the legislation, the Health Department can access local, state and federal criminal history of permit applicants and deny permits for convictions of “any offense related to prostitution or solicitation of prostitution.” Tang amended the proposal to allow for the permit if “the conviction was vacated based on a showing that the individual was a victim of human trafficking.”
Advertising on the internet for sex worker services would come with a $1,000 fine and a 30-day permit suspension under the proposal.
Evidence of groceries, bedding or sleepwear in the facility was added to the list of violations, and businesses are not allowed to have locks on the doors of massage spaces. The proposal would also create a $191 fee for inspectors to return to the site to determine if violations were corrected.
Jennifer Callewaert, manager of the massage program for the Department of Public Health, said the proposal will close “loopholes” of “illegitimate massage” businesses moving from one neighborhood to the next and authorizes the City Attorney to take legal proceedings after they have had cases “ where illegitimate massage establishments refuse to discontinue commercial sex at their facility.”