Public Safety

Illicit massage crackdown in Cedar Rapids raises questions

Should sex trafficking even be mentioned in ordinance?

Ellen Meyer, a licensed massage therapist at Hands in Harmony, performs cupping therapy Wednesday on Kayla Pirtle of Ced
Ellen Meyer, a licensed massage therapist at Hands in Harmony, performs cupping therapy Wednesday on Kayla Pirtle of Cedar Rapids at the massage studio. A Cedar Rapids City Council committee last week tabled discussion of a local ordinance to license massage therapists in an effort to reduce human trafficking. Legitimate massage businesses say they don’t want a licensing measure to mention sex trafficking; critics said the proposed ordinance doesn’t go far enough. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When Wahneta Dimmer started Hands in Harmony nearly 20 years ago, she knew of “maybe one or two” disreputable massage businesses in Cedar Rapids.

Occasionally, she said, one would get raided. An arrest or two might be made and the business would shut down for a bit, then reopen.

But in the past few years, Dimmer said, it has gotten worse.

Max Freund / The Gazette

“All of a sudden it’s like a rash,” she said. “It’s like having a pimple on your cheek and then a week later, waking up with severe acne. We went from one or two (of these places) and then boom, they’re all over the place.”


Illicit massage parlors long have been a problem in Iowa. But as the issue of sex trafficking — people, most of them women, being forced by violence, indebtedness or illegal smuggling, among other threats — has gained attention, more cities are seeking ways to close them down.

In the Corridor, Iowa City and Coralville are discussing possible measures. In Cedar Rapids, city staffers presented an ordinance last week, but a committee of council members sent it back for more work.

The questions facing Cedar Rapids are emblematic of what other cities are contending with: How far should a city go in fighting sex trafficking?

During the Public Safety Committee meeting last week, Cedar Rapids officials estimated there are 15 to 20 illegitimate massage business operating in the city., a user-driven website that lists massage business offering illicit sex and allows users to review their experiences, lists 19 illicit massage parlors in the city, four of which were marked as closed.

Other cities in the region listed on the site include Iowa City, which supposedly has 11 illicit parlors; Marion which has five, two of which are marked closed; North Liberty and Coralville, which each have two — one in each are marked closed — and Hiawatha, which has one.

Sgt. Robert Collins, commander of narcotics and vice with the Cedar Rapids Police Department, said police have tried in the past to take on these illegal business with undercover sting operations and investigations, but there is only so much they can do.

“These are tricky and problematic operations,” he said, adding the raids often yield little reward. “We have tried to address this on a criminal level, but there are many obstacles.”

First, he said, most of the sexual transactions are negotiated through non-verbal cues — there is not a discussion up front. Second, he said, once someone is arrested for performing a sex act, that defendant is not likely to cooperate.

Many of these women — targets of sex trafficking — have suffered brainwashing and abuse, he said. They are controlled through fear and intimidation and conditioned not to talk to authorities.

“It seemed futile to keep trying on that end,” he said. “So instead we decided to go after the businesses supplying those services.”


Enter the city’s proposed ordinance. It would require massage businesses in town to be licensed through the city and bar them from employing anyone who is not licensed by the state to practice massage therapy.

The ordinance calls for disclosure of business information, including location, hours of operation and services provided, as well as a list of all employees, their criminal histories and proof they are licensed by the state.

When conducting researching for Cedar Rapids, SAFE-CR Program Manager Amanda Greider said staffers looked at ordinances passed in Johnston, Urbandale, Clinton and Marion to see what they did.

“Johnston’s ordinance was successful in ensuring those practicing massage therapy were licensed,” she said. “And Marion and Urbandale were successful in being able to placard a property when the owner was unable to provide or perform corrective action. So we combined those aspects to create what we though would work best for Cedar Rapids.”

Without such an ordinance, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said, the department is limited in what it can do. In being able to shut down these illicit businesses, Jerman said the department would be better able to help victims of trafficking and connect them with services that could help them.

“We’re trying to stop this thing that is going on in our town,” Sgt. Collins said. “We’re not going to tolerate it here. And think if all the other communities did the same thing. What if all other communities eliminated that avenue for these businesses? They would have nowhere to go to operate their businesses. They would be out of business.”

If passed, the ordinance would go into effect next year.


In consulting with local massage therapists and business owners, Greider said a major concern they had was over the language.

“Massage therapists didn’t want any language about prostitution or sex trafficking included in the ordinance,” she said. “They only wanted the facts about how they would be licensed, because that language could be harmful to their businesses.”

Dimmer said she lobbied hard to have the language scrubbed of any reference to sexual activity, prostitution or human trafficking.

“We understand that human trafficking and prostitution is a problem and that they’re hiding behind our shingle,” she said. “But if an ordinance is going to be written to regulate legitimate massage therapy businesses, it cannot include any sexual language because that has nothing to do what we do.”

Dimmer said if the real goal behind this ordinance is to target human trafficking and other types of exploitation, then the city should write different rules.

“If they want to regulate these sexual practices, they need to write an ordinance with language tailored to that,” she said.


During last week’s committee meeting, several there questioned if the ordinance would really help those victims of human trafficking.

The ordinance shies away from including any language targeting prostitution, human trafficking or any other type of exploitation.

Christian Shields, a pastor with Christian Life Church who also works closely with Chains Interrupted — an advocacy group for victims of human trafficking — called the ordinance “woefully ineffective” at getting to the root of the problem.

“I have some huge concerns,” he said. “I haven’t seen any language about victims, (and) I believe this should be a victim-oriented approach.”

Shields said he questioned whether the city and police department were properly equipped for dealing with victims of trafficking.

“In my experience, shutting down businesses does not free women from human trafficking,” he said. “All it causes them to do is be trafficked elsewhere or be trafficked deeper underground. I really appreciate that something is being done, and I support the CRPD fully in working to address this, but it seems to me that ... this ordinance is going to be woefully ineffective in actually rescuing women who have been trafficked.”

Jennifer Tibbetts, a transitional housing program manager at the Catherine McAuley Center, shared those concerns.

“I was really hoping (the ordinance) would explicitly address trafficking issues within Cedar Rapids,” she said. “Trafficking is an issue that effects primarily women, and it is one that is not really understood and not really seen. There is an image of what trafficking looks like, but it really is broader and bigger than what we think. Women in those situations feel powerless.”

Though Tibbetts said she believes the ordinance is well-intended, “there needs to be more education on what trafficking looks like. That way the city can fully address trafficking and not just target one aspect.

“Trafficking involves huge networks that span the country and the globe,” she added. “If the ordinance goes into effect and a business gets placarded, these women aren’t going to leave that business and lead full and happy lives. They’ll be moved and forced to do the same work somewhere else.”


During last week’s public safety committee meeting, the council members voted 2-1 to table the proposed ordinance for another month.

“It’s a good start,” said City Council member Ashley Vanorny. “That being said, I still have a lot of reservations about where we’re at currently with this.”

Vanorny said she felt the proposal fell short in its ability to help the victims of human trafficking, and felt there needed to be more research into how to best address their needs.

Council member Dale Todd also expressed concerns, mainly that the ordinance did not include any cost analysis.

“Whenever a new public policy comes forward, we should be aware of what the cost is going to be for the city to implement and enforce, and also what the cost will be to businesses or people who will have to pay for that policy,” he said. “Before going forward ... we should have that information to consider.”

Council member Susie Weinacht was the only member of the committee ready to move forward. Though she said she shared similar concerns, she also insisted human trafficking is not something to wait on.

In the coming weeks, Greider and Collins said they will conduct more research, and likely speak with more business owners and victim advocacy organizations.

Next month, Greider said, they expect to present an ordinance to the committee again and ask that the ordinance be moved forward for the council’s consideration.

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