NAMPA — In the wake of Nampa and Caldwell police arresting seven massage parlor employees on prostitution charges in August, Nampa Councilman Rick Hogaboam is looking to improve how the city regulates these businesses.
Nothing in Nampa’s city code specifically regulates massage parlors, and Idaho law puts most of the penalties on the victims.
“I hate being a soft spot,” Hogaboam said.
Illicit massage businesses set up shop like a legitimate massage parlor but serve as a venue for sexual acts or human trafficking.
An estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors operate in the U.S., according to the Polaris Project, a national nonprofit dedicated to fighting human trafficking. That’s nearly double the number of Walmarts in the country.
Jennifer Zielinski with the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition estimates there are 260 illicit massage parlors in Idaho, and she believes most of the women working in them are victims of human trafficking.
The laws are so relaxed in Idaho, she said it’s the “perfect place” for illicit massage parlors to open up and run trafficking rings from behind closed doors.
INSIDE THE CRIME
Nampa and Caldwell police arrested seven women on Aug. 21 on prostitution-related charges following a monthslong investigation into what they believe was a prostitution ring involving six different massage parlors in Nampa and Caldwell.
Nampa Police Lt. Eric Skoglund said police have not yet determined whether any of the women were victims of trafficking.
Hogaboam, who works as a pastor outside of his council duties, said these businesses “hide in plain sight,” appearing on the outside as a typical massage parlor alongside busy roads, but on the inside, the women working as masseuses will offer to perform sexual favors in exchange for money. Hogaboam is concerned the women working at illicit massage parlors are victims of human trafficking.
Massage parlors accounted for nearly 3,000 cases of human trafficking in 2017, according to a Polaris analysis. It was the second most common form of trafficking they researched, behind escort services.
At least one of the women arrested in August was living at the massage parlor she worked at, according to Caldwell police. She said she paid rent to the business’ owner — another woman who was arrested — and only got to keep her tip money, while the owner kept the money from the massages, according to an Idaho Press report.
Zielinski said this is common for women being trafficked inside illicit massage parlors.
In a previous Idaho Press report, Zielinski said victims almost never self-identify. Because the women either can’t or won’t identify themselves as victims, they will be charged as prostitutes, she said.
“From our point of view, they’re all victims,” she said. Even some of the women who were allegedly “running the show” in the recent arrests are still trafficking victims. Traffickers use different types of coercion to keep the women working for them, she said.
If any of the women are found to be victims, Skoglund said police would work with prosecutors on their charges. He said they potentially would not be charged with a crime.
Legitimate massage parlors are registered businesses through the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office and employ massage therapists that are licensed through the state’s Bureau of Occupational Licensing. Zielinski said many illicit massage parlors are not registered with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“They don’t exist, but they’re functioning,” she said.
Nampa Building Director Patrick Sullivan confirmed in an email that Nampa does not verify whether a business is registered. The city also does not require a general business license.
Hogaboam said most illicit massage parlors are not subject to regular inspections. Neither Idaho’s Bureau of Occupational Licensing or the Department of Health and Welfare have the authority to conduct inspections. Julie Eavenson, administrative support manager for the bureau, said cities have the authority to do inspections. Sullivan said Nampa does not inspect massage parlors.
“It might be one of those businesses like tattoo parlors that just don’t get inspected,” said Niki Forbing-Orr with the Department of Health and Welfare.
As of July 1, human trafficking in Idaho is a standalone crime, meaning prosecutors can file charges against someone for that crime alone.
The law defines human trafficking as recruiting, transporting or harboring a person, by use of force or coercion, for labor, including sexual activity — something advocates and police believe is more common in the Treasure Valley than other types of trafficking, the Idaho Press previously reported.
State Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, also tried to introduce legislation to regulate prostitution, but faced road blocks. In 2018, he introduced a proposal that would make the solicitation of a prostitute a felony on the first offense. The proposal died in committee.
Currently, Idaho law classifies solicitation of a prostitute as a misdemeanor on the first two offenses, and increases it to a felony on the third offense. Because of this, Crane said when prostitution arrests take place, it’s often the women or the person pimping the women out who are held accountable. The person buying the services almost always walks free, he said.
Crane believes his proposed bill died because other legislators were concerned about its impact on the men who would be charged because of it. Many legislators, he said, believe the prostitution takes place between two consenting adults, but Crane argued that most of the women aren’t consenting.
If Idaho were able to pass legislation putting more responsibility on the men seeking out the services, that would lead to a lot of progress in the fight against sex trafficking in Idaho, he said.
WHAT’S BEING DONE
Hogaboam hopes to revise Nampa’s city code to increase active enforcement and prevent illicit massage parlors from opening in the city. He said the Nampa City Council should hear proposals in the next month or so.
Hogaboam met with officials from the Nampa Police Department, the Nampa City Clerk’s Office, Mayor Debbie Kling and Crane to discuss this issue. Zielinski said she is also meeting with Hogaboam and Kling later this month.
Dozens of cities across the country have made efforts to reduce illicit activity in massage parlors over the last year. Many of the ideas Hogaboam said could work in Nampa are focused on recognizing and taking action against the common signs of illicit massage parlors.
Illicit massage parlors often have covered windows, ask customers to enter through a door that is somewhat hidden to the public and keep their entrances locked during business hours, Hogaboam said. One proposal he supported would require massage parlors to keep their doors unlocked during the day.
Hogaboam also supported an idea to require massage parlors to maintain regular business hours. He said many illicit massage parlors operate in the late evening or early morning.
Kling said in an email that Nampa officials are considering implementing a general business license. If Nampa required a general business license, Crane said that would allow the city to verify the legitimacy of the business and would give the city the authority to conduct regular inspections.
Nampa City Councilman Bruce Skaug said in an email that he opposes the idea to require general business licenses for Nampa businesses.
“This would be a bureaucratic overreach and an offense to freedom,” Skaug said in the email.
A challenge Nampa faces is how to regulate the parlors in a way that doesn’t discriminate against legitimate businesses, Hogaboam said. In several other cities, massage parlors have supported increased regulations, mainly because the proposed rules are things they already adhere to, he said. Licensed massage therapists are sometimes subjected to sexual harassment from clients who buy into the stigma that all massage parlors offer sexual services, he said.
Even if Nampa shut down every illicit massage parlor, Crane said there would still be a large fraction of the sex trafficking industry that remained in the city, with women sold under the guise of escort services or through other forms. None of the trafficking victims who testified for Crane’s proposed bill in 2018 worked in a massage parlor, he said.
There needs to be further efforts outside of regulating massage parlors to reduce human trafficking, he said. Crane suggested increasing education on the issue, particularly for parents, as traffickers are actively recruiting children.
“It angers me, as a native Idahoan, that it’s not a safe place anymore,” Crane said.
The data on human trafficking is hard to obtain, the Idaho Press previously reported. An Idaho State Police crime report lists no cases of human trafficking in 2017 or 2018 — in part, likely, because the activity just became a standalone crime in Idaho last month. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is getting calls from Idaho, though, logging 32 calls and recording 26 cases of human trafficking in the state in 2018.
Crane is working to introduce a new proposal in the 2020 legislative session that would be a revised version of his 2018 proposal. Instead of making solicitation of a prostitute a felony on the first offense, it would remain a misdemeanor, but would include a fine that would increase with the second offense. On the third offense, it would still move up to a felony.
“It gets to the root of the problem,” he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated as of Sept. 16, 2019 to clarify information regarding cities' authority to regulate massage parlors.