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A Pittsburgh city councilman wants to license massage parlors and their employees, and have the businesses keep lists of their customers, in an effort to prevent human trafficking in sex workers.
"It is going on under our noses right now," Councilman Doug Shields, a Democrat, said Monday at a news conference announcing the bill he intends to introduce Tuesday. "It's a horrible story. It's one that needs a response. And it needs the cooperation of everybody."
If enacted, the ordinance would require businesses to keep records of each massage, which would help ensure the businesses aren't selling sex or employing people who are forced into sex work by, Shields said. It also would protect employees from prosecution if it's determined they were coerced into sex work.
Shields said the ordinance would be enforced by the city Finance Department because its purpose is also to ensure city wage and other taxes are being paid. Any evidence of criminal wrongdoing could also be used as probable cause to begin a police investigation, he said.
"The old story is, they never got Al Capone for murder, but they did go after him for tax evasion," Shields said.
Shields is working on the issue with a coalition of Pittsburgh university students, professors and activists. One of the activists, Carnegie Mellon University student Jessica Dickinson Goodman, said she has identified 15 businesses in the city and seven others nearby that either advertise or were identified as providing sexual services on adult websites and on blogs where "johns" compare the services they received.
Because of the secrecy and other hurdles necessary to track sex workers, Goodman said estimates of people ensnared in human trafficking -- for sex and other purposes -- ranges from 12 million to 27 million people worldwide.
"Why don't we have exact numbers? Pimps don't file income tax returns," she said, reiterating the purpose of Shields' bill.
The owners of two businesses on Goodman's list who returned calls from The Associated Press denied doing anything wrong.
Norma Jean Barreca, owner of Elite Tanning & Body Contouring on the city's South Side, said she's operated for 15 1/2 years without incident. The independent contractors who work for her don't offer sexual services and sign agreements to that effect, she said.
"I have signs in there and I won't put up with such things," Barreca said.
Some customers ask for sexual services, apparently because they assume they're offered, she said. "And I've thrown them out," Barreca said. "You do have degenerates sometimes."
She noted that her business belongs to the Better Business Bureau. The agency's website confirms her business has an "A+" rating -- the highest possible.
John Moran, who identified himself as part-owner of the Lucky Dragon massage parlor in the same section of the city, also denied selling sex. He called Goodman a "naive do-gooder" who's "likely going to be in court for slander."
Moran said a law that took effect this year, requiring massage therapists to be licensed by the state, supersedes any ordinance the city might pass. He contends the city ordinance is unconstitutional because it allows unannounced inspections and doesn't specifically say what can be inspected.
Shields said inspectors would be empowered to check the businesses' records and ensure workers and the business have proper identification and licenses.
Goodman said Moran has nothing to fear if his businesses are legitimate.
"If this bill is passed and enforced properly, perhaps johns will learn that they cannot go into a legitimate massage parlor and sexually harass their masseuses into providing a 'happy ending,'" Goodman said, using a euphemism for sexual services.
Shield and his spokeswoman, Judy Feldman, said the ordinance has exemptions for doctors, physical therapists and anybody else that is licensed in the state to perform massage or related medical or sports training services.
"We're getting a little pushback from some of those other (unlicensed) massage businesses, but I think most everybody else is happy we're doing this," she said.