January 01, 2009 News » Cover Story

Unhappy ending 

An attempt to legitimize the massage industry may blur the distinction between qualified therapists and sex workers

Both activities involve skin-to-skin contact, benefit from clean linens and evoke occasional groans of pleasure.

Beyond that, Virginia Gwaltney resists the suggestion there's any link between massage and prostitution.

"Only if you're a prostitute," she says.

Gwaltney's distinction is less priggish than it is practical: Though "massage" may be among the services offered by prostitutes, it is often used as a code word for kinds of touching that can't legally be sold.

Gwaltney, on the other hand, sees herself as a medical professional. In 1992, she completed a 1,150-hour training course in anatomy, physiology and the massage techniques used to help people recover from soft-tissue injuries or to improve their health.

The same year, she passed written and practical exams to become a licensed massage therapist in Colorado Springs, giving her a helpful credential as well as legal standing to practice her profession. In the 16 years since, she's come to see the city's licensing program, with a 1,000-hour training minimum and a professional board enforcing standards, as having added a dose of legitimacy to her career.

Now, Gwaltney and nearly a thousand other licensed massage therapists in Colorado Springs are preparing to see that system disappear. A new state program will simply register therapists instead, and cut the required training to 500 hours without requiring applicants to actually prove they've completed even a single hour.

After years in which the city's massage therapists made progress toward being treated as medical professionals, Gwaltney fears their efforts will be undone all in the name of making it tougher for prostitutes to find cover while plying their trade.

"My feeling is the state should not target our industry to eliminate prostitution," she says.

To tell the truth

Gwaltney's reaction is opposite what the bill's backers intended, according to Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West, one of its sponsors.

"The bill was and is an effort to ensure respect for the industry," McFadyen says.

At the moment, the industry looks different in different parts of the state. Colorado Springs has its licensing board and 1,000-hour requirement. Many cities in the Denver metro area and resort communities have lower requirements of 500 hours. In much of the state, including unincorporated El Paso County, there are no training requirements.

The bill, with its 500 training hours, is meant to standardize those requirements while giving law enforcement agencies the power to go after massage parlors that offer prostitution. Beginning April 1, any massage therapist practicing in Colorado will be required to register with the state, and cities and towns will lose their power to regulate the industry.

The registration process for currently practicing therapists is surprisingly simple. First, they must complete an affidavit confirming they are eligible to work in the United States, and they must get fingerprinted and have the Colorado Bureau of Investigation conduct a background check.

When it comes to training, they simply check a box and explain which of three criteria they meet to be grandfathered into the system. They're supposed to have completed 500 hours of training, passed either of two national exams, or have completed 300 hours of training and accumulated five years' experience.

Gwaltney was surprised to find no information about where to send her transcripts or other proof of training. So she called the Colorado Division of Registrations to see what she'd missed.

Nothing, it turns out.

"By signing it, you're attesting what you're saying is true," a clerk at Registrations explains when the Independent raises the same question about a hypothetical registration.

So anyone with a clean criminal record and a certain flexibility with the truth could become a registered Colorado massage therapist.

McFadyen says she doesn't think that will happen, because anyone committing fraud could be prosecuted.

Jean Robinson, government relations director for the national massage industry group Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals, and also a backer of the legislation, takes a similar view. With more than 6,000 massage therapists in Colorado, she says, the first challenge is to get all of them registered. Credentials will be checked later with a random audit.

The possibility of untrained therapists getting registered is nevertheless discouraging. Gwaltney sees the law as a multi-pronged assault on her profession as it lowers standards, eliminates professional oversight and makes her subject to having police officers demand to see her registration at any time.

If the law aims to root out prostitution, Gwaltney suggests, that might be a lost cause.

"I think prostitution will find another way," she says.

Good for the county ...

Colorado Springs, as a home-rule city, has long regulated industries involving public safety, health or welfare. Besides massage therapists, the city licenses cab drivers, trash haulers and security guards, among others.

El Paso County, though far more expansive than its largest city, mostly just enforces state law.

This difference in enforcement is the reason "massage parlors" often appear in built-up areas along the city's edge. Unlike the staid, office-like environment preferred by most licensed massage therapists, these pleasure-oriented businesses often feature "masseuses" in scanty outfits offering customers "body shampoos" and other delights.

In late 2007, KOAA-Channels 5/30 reported using a hidden camera to record offers of sex at four massage shops in unincorporated El Paso County. At least one of the businesses subsequently closed. An investigator with the region's multi-agency Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence suspects prostitution is available at the estimated 20 such businesses operating near Colorado Springs.

As state legislators considered the massage therapy bill last winter, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa was a vocal supporter. It would help his investigators police businesses offering prostitution, he argued, because they could request registration documents without first getting a search warrant.

While he says would have been happy if the county were given the authority to piggyback the Springs' licensing program, Maketa sees the standard imposed by legislators as a vast improvement.

"They raised it by 500 [hours] in the unincorporated areas," Maketa says.

The going could get rough after April 1 for local spas that make their real profits from prostitution. Even employees who have the required training can be barred from registration if they have a felony or prostitution conviction. And offering massage without a registration could be costly, with fines starting at $250 and climbing into the thousands.

Maketa thinks some owners of massage parlors will decide it's not worth the effort to stay in business: "I get the sense a lot will just close their doors."

... bad for the city?

As some doors close in unincorporated El Paso County, others could be opening in Colorado Springs.

Not that anyone anticipates a rush of prostitutes faking their way to get a massage therapy registration so they can hang up a shingle in the city. But 1,000 hours of training made it difficult for some massage therapists to practice in Colorado Springs, leaving them too practice on the outskirts, according to Jean Robinson. Now, without a city licensing requirement, some may decide to open up shop in the city.

Robinson sticks by the 500-hour requirement as the industry norm, adding that keeping towns and cities from setting their own standards was actually a big motivation for the bill. Therapists in the Denver metro area, for instance, might have done work in multiple different cities, requiring registration in each for $100 or more. The new law only requires them to register once every two years, with the state now charging $90, plus $40 for a background check.

One disappointment with the law, in Robinson's view, is that it is a registration instead of a license. State officials opposed creating a massage therapy license because it would have meant the expense and effort of setting up a professional board.

Cynthia Edwards, a local massage therapist and a member of the Colorado Springs massage board, shares that disappointment. Even after 1,000 or more hours of training, she says, new massage therapists taking practical exams sometimes need to be shown basics such as how to drape patients and not reveal their privates.

She's concerned that new therapists with only 500 hours of training and no interaction with a professional board may not know their stuff. She points out that some parts of Canada require as many as 3,000 hours of training to be licensed. The Springs may have been a far cry from that, she suggests, but its licensing program was at least a step.

"Our city has done a real good job of trying to up the bar," Edwards says.

Ripple effects

Fourteen students graduated from the Colorado Institute of Massage Therapy in December, completing a 1,150-hour course that has been offered since 1985. (When Gwaltney attended, the school was called the Stress Massage Institute.)

This month, the Colorado Springs massage school will begin offering a 650-hour program. Roger Patrizio, the institute's president, says it was the most streamlined course that could be devised. He thinks some students will still choose the longer course, using the additional training (and knowledge of the body) to focus more on injury rehabilitation.

Marcus Schlansker, a recent institute graduate, faces uncertain terrain. The 31-year-old former high-tech worker must get a license in Colorado Springs for the next three months while also registering with the state. He tries to sound nonchalant about Colorado drawing no distinction between his training and a program that would have stopped 650 hours earlier and saved him thousands of dollars.

"It kind of discounts my education," he says.

Gwaltney agrees. She says she kept her Colorado Springs license current even when she practiced in other parts of the state. A new state standard, she suggests, should raise the bar or, at a minimum, not lower it.

"It's almost," she says, "as if we're being diminished because of this."


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