Local government leaders in Eastern Iowa are finding there is no simple solution to addressing human sex trafficking.
Cedar Rapids, Coralville and Iowa City are among the Iowa jurisdictions developing policies meant to crack down on so-called illicit massage businesses. Police say those businesses provide illegal sex services, and even worse, some rely on human trafficking.
Cedar Rapids City Council members are drafting an ordinance which would require massage therapists to obtain a business license from the city, which they say would allow law enforcement to discern reputable practitioners from disreputable ones. However, a draft ordinance revealed at a committee meeting this month faced criticism from licensed massage therapists and anti-trafficking advocates alike.
We support the cities’ efforts, but we are also mindful this cannot be the only step cities take to address sex trafficking.
Some advocates say there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses operating around the country, but it’s impossible to know for sure. One online community used by sex buyers shows 19 such businesses in Cedar Rapids, but the operations are known to close or relocate quickly. Some worry our community may already be a regional destination for this sort of illegal activity.
It’s crucial to understand most massage therapists are not selling sex services, and not all people selling sex services are victims of sex trafficking. Moreover, trafficking takes many forms. While some women may be forcibly held captive and subjected to violence, there are other forms of coercion and exploitation. Women can be emotionally abused, face threats over their immigration status, or convinced they have no other options to make a living.
Given those circumstances, police face difficult decisions. However, we are skeptical about their strategy of charging potential trafficking victims with crimes in order to convince them to cooperate with the investigation, and reporting undocumented immigrant victims to federal authorities. That will only promote distrust of law enforcement among victims.
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It’s also important to recognize shutting down illicit massage businesses will not reduce demand for illegal sex services, and could drive the market further underground, ultimately making it more difficult to investigate.
The three council members on the Cedar Rapids Public Safety Committee were wise to delay moving forward with their massage licensure policy at their meeting earlier this month. Government leaders should continue their conversations with massage therapists and anti-trafficking victims, with an emphasis on compassion and cultural sensitivity. Human trafficking is too complicated an issue to solve with any single ordinance.
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