Tampa council finalizes "bathhouse" ordinance changes to target Kennedy "massage parlors"

Despite the pleas of sex workers and advocates, the council unanimously passed the measure.

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click to enlarge Christa Hernandez, a sex-trafficking survivor-turned-author and activist, urged the council to pass the ordinance. - Screen grab, City of Tampa
Screen grab, City of Tampa
Christa Hernandez, a sex-trafficking survivor-turned-author and activist, urged the council to pass the ordinance.

Ever since it was brought to light that the so-called massage parlors and lingerie modeling shops on and near Kennedy Boulevard were largely functioning as brothels, city officials have sought to crack down, ostensibly out of concern over human trafficking.

On Thursday, Tampa City Council gave final approval to a measure that aims to curb instances of prostitution, especially when it involves women and men forced to do it.

But some sex workers and their allies said the ordinance punishes the workers — willing or unwilling — while doing nothing to curb demand for paid sex or human trafficking.

Multiple people spoke on either side of the issue ahead of the unanimous decision, which six council members supported (Councilwoman Yolie Capin was absent).

The first speaker, Joseph Manson of the group Clean Up Kennedy, noted how it was "quite a coincidence" that Thursday was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Via a projector, he showed maps of various cities, including Tampa, featuring locations of so-called massage parlors said to offer sex work via Craigslist. Locally, the blue location markers seemed to cluster off Kennedy Boulevard.

"We have an opportunity here in the Tampa Bay area to do something special. And we have an opportunity to make this map look like this," he said, switching to a map showing Tampa free from the blue markers. "And when people look at these maps, and they're going to see Tampa and they're going ask what's different? What are they doing? And they're going to see the city, a city council and a community working together to solve this issue."

click to enlarge Activist Joseph Manson showed this Craigslist map of so-called massage parlors that offer sexual services clustered along Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard. - Screen grab, City of Tampa
Screen grab, City of Tampa
Activist Joseph Manson showed this Craigslist map of so-called massage parlors that offer sexual services clustered along Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard.

The ordinance places further regulations on these facilities that make it more difficult to obtain a permit, require them to keep a visitor log, bar customers from entering through the back door and mandates regular inspections, among other things.

But critics urged the council to take more time to consider the consequences of a crackdown for sex workers.

Beth Eriksen of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Tampa Bay called for a more holistic approach to human trafficking — community education, social and legal services for sex workers, investigations into cases and other potential needs. In other words, a "comprehensive, trauma-informed, evidence-based approach" aimed at preventing further abuse rather than targeting the women and men being exploited.

"I am urging City Council to delay your vote on this ordinance and further workshop this by inviting in victim advocacy groups...to ensure that it is victim-centered," Eriksen said.

Julie Solace, cofounder of Sex Workers Solidarity Network, said the ordinance targeted long-stigmatized sex workers by doing little for those who are involved in it involuntarily.

"We are here because we desire a more compassionate approach to legislation, not harsh surveillance," Solace said. "You claim that this ordinance will not throw human trafficking victims in jail, but really, how do you make that distinction if you are to find illicit activity or otherwise? Isn't the general tactic to arrest first and ask questions later? Every mugshot is public record, every arrest — the details, the date, the picture (is public record)."

She compared the prohibition on prostitution as to the outlawing of alcohol and drugs: it's going to happen anyway, and enforcement of laws tends to target the wrong people.

"Sex and drugs are not going to go away just because you throw more stuffy legislation at it, and it's certainly not going to address human trafficking," Solace said. "Whether or not you have moral or ethical reservations regarding these realities is completely irrelevant."

While some speakers pointed out that some women and men do sex work because they want to do it, Christa Hernandez, a sex trafficking survivor-turned author and activist said that industries like sex work and pornography often attract people who are already victims of exploitation.

"No little girl grows up dreaming of being sexually exploited. Something goes terribly wrong along the way. I see the sex workers. When you're in that life, it's easy to act like it's all okay and it's this great job because then you don't have to internally feel the pain, as long as you're acting like it's great," Hernandez said. "You have to act like that to survive."

She called for a buyer registry so that men who try to buy sex would be less inclined to do so, and said she doubts many of the women in the Kennedy facilities are there by choice.

"I can guarantee you they're not there by choice. These women are being forced to be there," Hernandez said. "I don't think anywhere in this ordinance does it say that if you choose to go into a strip club and you want to dance, that has anything to do with this ordinance. This ordinance from what I understand, is for the women who are being held in these illegal brothels."

Given that this was the second reading, council members had little left to say on the subject. Councilman Luis Viera said he contacted State Attorney Andrew Warren's office, which responded by saying it has no intention of going after those who are victims of human trafficking. He read aloud a letter written in response to his inquiry, and offered his two cents shortly before the vote.

"This is a good ordinance, but this ordinance does not stand by itself. This ordinance stands with community partners...religious, secular, government and private, et cetera," he said. "I take a look at this ordinance and I see some of the accusations against it, and I just objectively see no consistency. The things that this ordinance seeks to do: closing bathhouses after 10 o'clock, with signs prohibiting sexual activities at spas, quarterly inspections, requiring human trafficking and prostitution awareness class, restricting felons. I see no causal link between that and the gross injustices that are being alleged here today."

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