A police sting that shut down three massage businesses in 2017 and resulted in a strict new ordinance earlier this year for local businesses has prompted a backlash from legitimate massage therapists.
Two local massage therapists addressed the Oak Park village trustees at their June 18 meeting, saying a requirement that they provide a written statement to clients that they are not to solicit a sex act from the business, among others, is excessive.
“I was very concerned that there were prostitutes masquerading as massage therapists in our village, and I can certainly understand that the board wanted to pass an ordinance to try to curtail and prevent this type of activity, but there are several aspects of this ordinance that I find deeply troubling,” said David Fleucke, who has practiced massage therapy for 23 years, the last 11 in Oak Park.
Fleucke told trustees that he’s asked clients over the last several months how they would have responded if he’d presented them with the notice upon their first appointment.
“The response came under two categories: One, they felt that maybe I was an ex-prostitute required to give that to them – something akin to the sex-offender registry. Or they wondered if they were in an establishment where that type of activity so frequently that I felt the need to do this,” he said. “It made them uncomfortable. One woman said that she would have left. Many questioned why their physician referred them to me, and one man said, ‘It would have immediately decreased the credibility of your establishment in my eyes.'”
Fleucke said that the Illinois Massage Licensing Act states that home-rule municipalities like Oak Park may not regulate the practice of massage therapy.
“I consider any communication between my client and myself, either written or verbal, to be part of my practice and should be firmly beyond your reach,” he said.
Fleucke also took issue with a section of the ordinance preventing massage therapists from treating anyone under the influence of drugs or narcotics. He said 75 percent of his clients are in chronic pain, and the other 25 percent suffer from acute pain, chronic anxiety or depression.
“I see people who are on benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants,” he said. “I see people who struggle with alcoholism on account of their back pain, so as a licensed professional, I think it is up to my discretion who should be treated and who is competent to be on my table, not the village’s.”
Fleucke also objected to the requirement that massage therapists maintain an economic record of massage therapists’ activity and open their doors to inspection by the village every six months.
“This seems to me to be written because the village cannot be sure that I am not a prostitute or a human trafficker, and if they come into my establishment in January and decide I’m OK, in July they need to check again, and in January again, and as long as I practice here,” he said. “And I find that demoralizing and stigmatizing.”
Debbie Simmons, who said she has been a massage therapist for almost 30 years, said she’s seen the profession change in “leaps and bounds.”
She applauded the board for working to stop illegal prostitution rings posing as massage therapy businesses.
“I’m one of the major massage therapists who is referred to from the Rehab Institute of Chicago,” she said. “I think it would be scary [to clients] if I were to hand them a piece of paper letting them know that they couldn’t solicit me for sex or vice versa.
“It would completely destroy my reputation as a profession and also as a person whose people are coming for help. I want us to be recognized as health care providers.”
Trustees voiced their concern that the ordinance may be too onerous and should be reviewed.
“The goal was to address the illegal massage therapy, I guess, trend in Oak Park,” said Trustee Simone Boutet, who played a lead role in drafting the ordinance. “And I’m not married to it, and I’m very welcoming your input if there’s any changes, I’d be happy to meet with anybody or meet with whoever’s interested in following up on that from the board.”
Trustee Bob Tucker agreed, adding: “If we’ve made some mistakes, and I think it sounds like we have, let’s fix it. Let’s fix it fast, and carry on, and I hope you continue to look to Oak Park for your establishment knowing that we’re going to take care of these things.”
Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb directed village staff to review the ordinance and return to the next board meeting with proposed changes.
“There’s no need to continue business under this ordinance, so for next meeting I would like that to come back to the board,” he said.