Where Do We Go From Here?

"Mass murder. Misogyny. Racism. Sexual violence. Therapist safety. Human trafficking. Massage parlors.

The murders committed March 16 in Atlanta raised issues both inside and outside the massage community. Most importantly, eight people lost their lives in a senseless act. The tragedy of this loss of life cannot be overstated; all other issues pale in comparison. Eight people didn’t come home that day.

As I write this, I am trying to process my thoughts and feelings while learning about another mass murder—this one in Colorado, at a grocery store just a half-hour north of our office. A grocery store. It defies all logic. The common thread is violence with tragic consequences to innocent lives.

When we learned of the murders in Atlanta, our ABMP social media communities were abuzz with thoughts, concerns, and—naturally—conjecture, frustrations, and opinions. As our team worked to prepare an initial statement, I encouraged them to focus on what we knew to be true, and to remain respectful of the tragedy. As always, they knew what to say and how to say it. I am blessed to work with incredibly thoughtful, bright, compassionate people. Not all in the field saw our response in that light, and I understand. There is a palpable current of anger, sadness, and frustration surrounding this attack and the underlying issues referenced at the start of this note.

The Atlanta murders have shined a light once again on issues we have suffered with for too long, often at the hands of others—organized crime, indifferent regulators, lax law enforcement. These aren’t easily surmountable challenges.

The Atlanta tragedy occurred in what the media have characterized as “Asian spas.” These characterizations flow from a certain narrative, and perpetuate biases long held in even our own profession. One of the victims was a business owner who was a licensed massage therapist. Does that fit the narrative?

Many responses on social media were a variation of “What is ABMP going to do?” Some used our motto, “expectmore,” as an expectation for ABMP to address the difficult issues our profession faces. It is a fair request. I’d like to explain how we have been working to address these issues and how we will continue to do so.

When I started with ABMP in 1994, one of my initial responsibilities was to manage our government relations (GR) efforts. At that time, our leadership was anti-regulation, fearing that regulation would be bad for our business. Fortunately, with new leadership in 1996 came a more progressive approach to serving the profession.

From my first day working in GR, I learned quickly about the pervasive nature of “massage parlors,” and our field’s quest to escape the stain of those businesses. In the early ’90s, long before enacting statewide licensure, our home state of Colorado passed a “massage parlor exemption” law, which exempted those massage therapists with a minimum of 500 hours of education from the state massage parlor code. In 1998, when the Missouri legislature enacted a massage therapy licensing law, it was because the sponsor “heard from the sheriff about these parlors.” Of course, the presence of “massage parlors” predates most state regulations.

Today, ABMP members have outstanding professional representation by our Government Relations Director Laura Embleton. Her focus has been to support professionals in the least invasive form of regulation that is practical, while aiding in the repudiation of human trafficking and massage parlors. One of our main messages to massage boards and state legislators is that empowering massage boards and law enforcement to bring harsher penalties upon owners of massage parlors may help to eradicate these places instead of focusing on prosecuting the individuals perpetrating the acts, many of whom are victims of human trafficking.

Trying to address these issues most likely belongs in the criminal code and not with regulatory agencies. Florida was one of the first states to have an establishment license, and I hated it. My philosophy was that we are professionals, and we do not need to have our place of work regulated in addition to us being regulated. A physical therapist or occupational therapist does not have their place of business regulated—why should we? This always struck me as an undue burden. Could a good, thoughtful establishment license work? To date, we haven’t seen effective establishment licensing, and until it’s proven capable, we won’t support adding to massage professionals’ regulatory and financial burden. But promoting, protecting, and supporting professionals must continue to be our primary objective.

None of these challenges will be quick to solve, and ABMP cannot do it alone. We have no magic wand to wave away organized crime. The tragedy in Atlanta brought these issues to the forefront, but it did not make them any less complicated or easier to solve. We’ll continue our work as outlined below, and are discussing what we can do—and how we can empower our members—to fight hard for fair regulation, hold those who oversee our regulations accountable, and continue to educate the public and promote our members and this profession we all love. 

Les Sweeney


March 24, 2021

To access the original article, or to learn more about how ABMP's Government Relations team works, you can read the full blog post here.

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