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A bill that would have targeted illicit massage businesses will be taken on during the interim

Tommi Komulainen
Flickr via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A bill that would have closed a loophole and targeted illicit massage businesses failed to be introduced in the Wyoming House. Uprising, a Sheridan-based anti-human trafficking organization, asked legislators to reintroduce a bill that would outlaw illicit massage in Wyoming. A 2021 bill targeted these businesses and added language to the existing act of sexual intrusion that would make those providing these kinds of services guilty of prostitution, a misdemeanor with a punishment of not more than six months in jail and fines not exceeding $750.

“What this particular bill is for is one very purposeful thing which is adding what we're referring to as manual stimulation as a sex act in our statutes because right now, what we're having is [that] law enforcement are starting to do investigations on these illicit massage businesses,” said Terri Markham, Uprising’s Executive Director. “They are getting some of the buyers to confess to having had sexual services at them but what they're confessing to is what's known as a happy ending, which is not full-on intercourse and it's not defined as a sex act in our statute, which is crazy to me, because what else would that be for?”

The 2021 bill wasn’t considered for introduction as well over concerns from some legislators that the bill could punish victims instead of perpetrators. Markham added that existing state statute prohibits receiving sexual services for a fee, including intercourse, in businesses such as massage parlors, but a loophole exists.

“What we found is that our state statute does not include manual stimulation in the statute as being a sex act,” said Michelle Hall, a lieutenant with the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office and Uprising board member who was involved with municipal ordinances recently passed there. “Green River did not even have an ordinance and Rock Springs’ was very archaic, so both of those two cities created an ordinance where manual stimulation is considered a sex act because we know that illicit massage, that it happens a lot as well as even full sex, but it gives law enforcement a reason to investigate it further.”

Uprising has engaged with law enforcement agencies to provide better training that focuses on illicit massage. Markham and Hall recently attended a convention in California to learn more about what other states are doing to combat illicit massage. They’re focusing on brick-and-mortar locations that offer these services, including supporting legislation that would target the finances of these businesses.

In addition to Rock Springs and Green River, Casper and Cheyenne also have existing ordinances prohibiting illicit massage services. The goal it to pass legislation that would make it very difficult for anyone to open an illicit massage business in the state, which is much easier than trying to close them down once they’re operating, Markham added.

Wyoming, in addition to Kansas, Minnesota, and Vermont are the only four states that don’t regulate the massage industry. Oklahoma, another state that hadn’t previously done so, recently did.

Illicit massage services are often advertised on the open as well as the dark web, where many other illegal and illicit services are offered worldwide. There are currently around 18 illicit massage parlors operating in the Cowboy State currently, she said.

“What we're finding is that the most effective ways to go after this crime are actually through ordinances like code enforcement, so that is one area that we would like to see,” she said. “We've seen success in other states with even charges like racketeering because it's like a criminal enterprise. Most of these businesses are connected to other businesses and other states. And I know for a fact that some of our law enforcement agencies, as they've been starting to investigate these, they are starting to uncover the web of these connections, but what they're missing is that initial crime to get in the door is what they tell me.”

Markham said there is a misconception about illicit massage, the workers who perform them, and the clients that seek them out.

“There’s such a stigma where people assume, ‘Well, it's just consenting adults so if someone really wants to pay for that, like it's not hurting anyone,” she said. “What they don't realize is that victims inside of those massage parlors, they are trafficking victims, they are largely brought over from Asian countries, they are told that they're going to come here for a legitimate job. And literally, as soon as they step on the plane to travel here, they end up taking their documents once they get here. They find out the job that they're doing is not what they signed up for.”

Getting legitimate massage businesses on board is something that Uprising is striving for in order to protect these providers. They’re also interested in going after the large networks that traffic illicit massage workers rather than the clients who seek out their services. And while Markham is in favor of having a licensed massage industry in Wyoming, it’s not their major focus in this fight.

“I don't want to hurt legitimate massage therapists that are out there, obviously,” she said. “I know that all the legitimate massage therapists that we've encountered as these city ordinances are being brought to the table, they don't want to see human trafficking thriving in their community, and they don't want to see people who are offering commercial sex instead of legitimate services being allowed to flourish and make all the money in their community.”

Despite the bill’s failure to progress, there is a chance that the Joint Judiciary Committee could take up the bill as an interim topic during this session. This means that it could be introduced in that committee this year out of session and could be reintroduced next session.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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