Janelle Thistle calls herself “extremely fortunate.”
Over about 13 years, she’s built her career as a massage therapist, a job that requires she continue taking classes to keep up with emerging trends and stay fresh on her knowledge of the human body. About nine years ago, she started working as an instructor for others seeking to enter the profession. And for the last four years, she’s run her own business: Afterimage Salon and Spa, in a strip mall on Davenport's north side.
She’s also never had a customer ask for an erotic massage.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate that I haven’t had anyone that’s called and been weird about asking for extra services, thank God,” Thistle said. “But if it does become more prevalent in the area, I think it very well could (happen).”
Thistle is one of many massage therapists troubled by a growing number of parlors run by unlicensed operators. Many of those establishments, local leaders say, are breeding grounds for prostitution and sex trafficking, and should be regulated.
Last week, Davenport aldermen discussed proposals to crack down on illicit massage parlors that masquerade as legitimate businesses. City officials referenced a recent municipal rule change in Des Moines as an example of a policy to mirror, saying a proposal could be on its way to City Hall as early as February.
The call to action comes as municipalities around the state have sought to rid their communities of illicit massage parlors without placing undue burdens on business owners who run legal shops.
For the purposes of state regulation, massage is split into two main categories: massage therapy and reflexology. The first is defined as a health care service by the state and includes myotherapy, massotherapy, bodywork and therapeutic massage.
The latter is defined under state law as “manipulation of the soft tissues of the human body which is restricted to the hands, feet, or ears, performed by persons who do not hold themselves out to be massage therapists or to be performing massage therapy.” That second option is also one that's exploited by those who run illicit massage parlors, city officials and area therapists say.
In 2017, Iowa lawmakers opened the door for municipalities to enact their own rules for licensing businesses or for local authorities to make other mandates. The proposal Davenport officials are considering would allow local law enforcement to shutter massage businesses that aren’t run by state-licensed operators.
City leaders are taking up the action amid a larger push for heightened awareness on the subject of sex trafficking around the country.
Maggie Tinsman, a former state senator and longtime advocate of policies for human trafficking victims, says “we do know that human trafficking is going on in the Quad-Cities” and “the reason to (create regulations) is so that we can indeed tell the public that this is a safe massage parlor where there is no human trafficking going on.”
“It’s very difficult to quantify it because it’s very undercover,” said Tinsman, who founded the locally based human trafficking resource group Braking Traffik.
Tinsman said there are several methods by which traffickers are finding ways to conceal illegal operations, but massage parlors are one way. She also said 68 survivors have sought help from local organizations within the last year — all from the Quad-Cities region.
“I think people should realize not all massage parlors are a problem either,” Tinsman added. “This isn’t trying to get at the whole industry of massage parlors. (It’s) just trying to assure Davenport citizens that the massage parlors that they have are safe.”
For Thistle, the owner of Afterimage Salon and Spa, the association of massage with illicit parlors is something that “kind of gives (massage therapists) a bad name,” she says. And while she’s heard some people — even friends — joke around about illicit massage in the past, Thistle insists it is no laughing matter.
“People see it in the movies and they see it everywhere, and some people just don’t see the problem of it, and they don’t understand that it’s taking away from the people that are truly doing it for a good purpose,” Thistle said. “We don’t joke about this because it does happen and it’s not funny, and it just takes away from the legitimacy of the business."