Backpage Shutdown – Happy Ending for Massage Businesses?

In the past few weeks, the FBI shut down Backpage or Backpage.com, a widely used online classifieds site, due largely to the allegation that the site was being used predominantly to promote sexual services. Many of these services were advertised in a “massage” related category and many of those offering these services relied on these websites to advertise and gain clients.

As a result, the popular website Craigslist also decided to shut down not only its “therapeutic” services section where massage would often be advertised (some presumably legitimate and some not) but also their entire popular personals section, where presumably there were also sex for money exchanges happening.

Combining massage therapy with sexual services is nothing new or shocking. Everyone knows about those red light “massage parlors” and an increasing number of “Asian” or “Oriental” massage places – some of which most certainly offer the “happy ending” which hopefully requires no further explanation.

What is new is that the United States Justice Department appears to be ramping up the age-old battle against various forms of “prostitution” and sex work, and they are taking their battle to the internet. As mentioned with respect to Craigslist, this is having a chilling effect on some websites being used by both parties to find what they are looking for.

One might reasonably assume that for a legitimate massage business, taking down websites such as Backpage.com or Craigslist where services that include those of the sexual nature are advertised, there should be no impact. For the most part this is true, however there are perhaps some unintended ripple effects that may be felt by legitimate massage businesses like Body Well along with some independent practitioners who might have heretofore advertised legitimate services there. This article takes a brief look at how these actions and results impact the greater world of massage therapy, including some unfortunate and unintended consequences.

Two views of the happy ending massage

First off, let’s recognize that there are two distinct ways one can view the issue of “sexual massage services” (for lack of a better descriptor) which can range from a massage that includes a “happy ending” to nothing more than sex without any massage involved;

One view sees these illegal services as an affront to true massage professionals that damages it by causing people to lump them together, and also raises prejudicial suspicion of those therapists who would never think of doing anything sexual. On the same side are those who simply view it as an illicit or immoral activity and simply dislike it for one of these reasons. In either case this view would argue that these kinds of sex services should be eradicated if at all possible. These are more or less ideological arguments.

The other view, which is one that I hold personally and have written about before  (albeit in a different context) is that by criminalizing and forcing massage, combined with the “oldest profession” known to man into a black market, this in and of itself creates all kinds of problems – some more obvious than others.

Speaking more broadly about the former view – what is likely the most damaging to many individuals is that by compelling people to operate in the shadows due to their illegal activity, it’s possible that this is contributing to the human and sex trafficking problems that have been intertwined with various massage-related businesses. Many have argued for as long as I can remember that prostitution is a victimless crime. Actually, by making it a crime, we are probably causing there to be more victims of sex trafficking using a supposedly legitimate licensed massage business as a bit of a shield from scrutiny.

Ripple Effects of the Backpage Shutdown

Regarding shutting down the websites, doing so actually makes it more difficult for customers to distinguish between a business that provides a completely legitimate therapeutic services, and another business that probably doesn’t (and perhaps a few that discreetly fall in between if we are being honest).

That means for companies like mine, we do occasionally have to field some questions from people who are obviously testing the waters to see what we might reveal or hint to them about what may or may not happen for them of a sexual nature. We have to act out this charade with people who are barking up the wrong tree. We are already seeing more of these types of calls as those who used to use those classifieds websites are now trying to find alternatives in all the wrong places.

The other thing is that if websites like Backpage or Craigslist stop offering a forum for these other types of “providers” then it only forces them to try to blend in more with the legitimate community of massage therapists. To me this is not helpful at all. It only further blurs the lines between the professionals on the non-professionals.

Just when I thought I had heard that dumb joke about whether or not my company does happy endings for the last time, we’ve got the potential for things to swing back around the other direction!

Or what could be worse for some of these providers or sex workers is forcing them out onto the streets or into less organized and potentially more dangerous situations in order for them to continue to try to earn their living doing what they do. They don’t call it the oldest profession on the world for nothing. It has always been here and it always will – let’s not kid ourselves and make the situation worse and less safe for everyone concerned!

As I alluded to earlier, some legitimate massage therapists now have fewer places to advertise their services, because they are being lumped together with bad actors. This is hardly the first time massage therapists have paid a price for others engaging in illegal activities. For example, Florida became the only state in the country to ban massage therapists from providing therapy through insurance to those injured in car accidents. Why? Because some criminals were using massage licenses as a tool to commit insurance fraud. Many therapists paid a heavy price as their livelihood was taken away (and many injury victims are still not able to get doctor prescribed treatments covered by their insurance).

The practical approach to the sexual vs. non-sexual massage issue

When it comes to the therapeutic vs. sexual massage issue, what would be the most helpful from my point view would be to allow our different services to clearly distinguish themselves without fear of being criminalized. If we didn’t have to worry about enforcing anti-prostitution laws, we could have separate and distinct categories on these classified websites, without fear of the FBI shutting them down. Further, brick and mortar massage business could do likewise – making it more apparent without the head scratching as to what type of service one could expect to receive there without playing games and bothering people who want nothing to do with what they are looking for.

In conclusion, by going after victimless crimes, federal law enforcement is probably creating more risky and dangerous conditions for sex workers while creating a ripple effect of other problems that also negatively impact legitimate massage therapy businesses.

Ironically, the best way for the legitimate massage industry to shake off the red (light) cloud of suspicion, caused in part by those advertising on places like Backpage.com, would be to forward the idea that sexual massage services be legitimized, properly categorized and made clearly separate and distinct from those like me and most massage therapists who never want to hear that “happy ending” joke again.

Dan Melmed, LMT

Owner & Founder, Body Well