Outcry from the massage therapist community led City Council to abandon a proposed new ordinance. The ordinance, introduced without comment or debate at its last meeting, was intended to make it easier for the police to halt alleged prostitution and sex trafficking within the City. However, it included numerous provisions, said many therapists, that would have in effect driven them out of business in Evanston.
Therapist Sarah McLaughlin of Abhaya Bodywork Inc. said work she now does would be illegal in Evanston “if the ordinance is passed in its current form.” She cited as an example a post-mastectomy massage to soften scar tissue. The proposed ordinance would have made contact with the female breast illegal. A buttock massage would also be illegal, she said, and many sports massages include muscles in the butt.
Other provisions also present problems, such as a requirement that a massage must take place in a room that cannot be locked. Ms. McLaughlin said she has valuable equipment in her studio, and preventing her from locking it would risk theft.
Steve Ragney of Zen Shiatsu said the “same set of issues faces us today” that faced the community in 2012 when changes to zoning ordinances were passed. “Prostitution and human- trafficking are already illegal,” he said, adding the massage and body-work community is always willing to help enforce those laws.
The proposed ordinance “missed the mark because of a lack of stakeholder input,” he added. “People’s emotions, including my own, have been running high because of the lack of stakeholder input.”
The national headquarters of the American Massage Therapists Association is located on Davis Street just a few blocks from the Civic Center, said James Specker, its government affairs specialist. The organization helps communities draft similar ordinances across the country, he said. “We are here in Evanston and we are willing to help.” The AMTA was not consulted in the drafting of the current ordinance, he said.
A chastened City Council agreed to hold the ordinance even before the meeting began. “I will be holding this,” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward. “It was never the intent to harm anyone’s business. … We need to sort all that out and get it all right, and when we get it right we’ll bring it back…. We’re just educating ourselves better to give you something better.”
“This is exactly why we have second readings,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, referring to a rule requiring an ordinance to be introduced at one meeting, then debated and voted on at a subsequent meeting. After introduction, flaws are often discovered. Ald. Braithwaite also said, “Sarah McLaughlin did an excellent job of articulating the issues.”
“A lot of the same individuals that spoke tonight have contacted the legal department,” said Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, whose office drafted the ordinance in question.
“I apologize for my lack of knowledge… You caught us with our pants down,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward.
“That’s what the ordinance is trying to prevent,” joked someone in the audience.
There is no timeframe for a modified ordinance, as a suggestion to bring the matter back on a date certain failed to gather any support.