San Francisco Passes Controversial Massage Ordinance

By Editorial Staff
May 29, 2009

San Francisco Passes Controversial Massage Ordinance

By Editorial Staff
May 29, 2009

The Golden Gate Bridge. Lombard Street. Cable cars. San Francisco, long known for its distinct charm and appeal, has a little something for everyone. And effective July 1, 2004, "The City by the Bay" will add a controversial massage ordinance to its long list of unique characteristics.

In December 2003, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown passed the ordinance, which, among other things, shifts massage permit authority from the San Francisco Police Department to the Department of Public Health (DPH), and creates a two-tiered massage permit system that recognizes "therapeutic massage practitioners" on the one hand, and "adult entertainment massage workers" on the other.

According to information posted on the San Francisco Massage Ordinance Web site, the ordinance was created out of the need "to regulate adult entertainment massage and, in particular, massage parlors, which were perceived as a cover for prostitution-related crimes and as a magnet for activities ... that degrade the quality of life in a neighborhood." And though it was not intended to regulate massage practitioners, "therapeutic practitioners have been directly affected by the ordinance," nonetheless.1

The San Francisco Coalition of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork Practitioners -- an alliance of professional massage therapists created to protect their interests -- did not believe in the necessity of city massage regulation; however, the coalition ultimately consented to the ordinance because of ensuing politics: "Most San Francisco elected officials have no desire to wipe out the massage parlors, so the net result is that therapeutic practitioners have to coexist, for the time being, with adult entertainment practitioners. We have come to the best compromise that we believe possible at this time."1

On the San Francisco Ordinance Web site, the coalition cited the following reasons for supporting the ordinance:

"Moving the permitting process from the police department to the Department of Public Health helps remove the negative onus associated with massage in general and therapeutic massage in particular. We feel that DPH is much more responsive to the needs of therapeutic practitioners than the police department has been;

"We support the creation of an Advanced Massage Practitioner better define the distinction between adult entertainment and therapeutic massage practitioners;

"We believe that the creation of a Solo Practitioner Massage Establishment permit, which only holders of the Advanced Massage Practitioner permit could obtain, makes it easier for therapeutic massage practitioners to operate a private practice."1

Under previous local legislation, all massage therapists were referred to as "masseuse/masseur" and required to have 70 hours of massage education. Under the new two-tiered system, the first level of practitioner, the "general massage practitioner," is required to have 100 hours to practice, while the "advanced massage practitioner" is required to have 200 educational hours.2

The ordinance also adds the "solo practitioner massage establishment" - a third business-permit option - to existing "massage establishment" and "outcall massage" options. The solo massage establishment business permit is available only to advanced massage practitioners and subject to fewer regulatory conditions.

While the ordinance may ease the permit process and clearly distinguishes therapeutic massage practitioners from adult entertainers, its implications do not sit well with some Bay Area massage therapists, especially since adult entertainment massage is often - though not always - associated with prostitution.

"Giving San Francisco's 'sex slave' rings, a compromise gift is not my idea of good massage legislation," said Brian Goodwin, BA, NCTMB, a massage therapist for over a decade. "I'm not necessarily saying California's massage law has to follow paths used by other states, but I do think any massage law should help protect the public. The new San Francisco massage law may offer the public a license to look at, but a license [that] represent[s] nothing."3

However, David Palmer, founder of the TouchPro Institute and co-chair of the coalition, sees things differently. "Legislation in the massage field is a complex issue," Palmer said in a phone interview with Massage Today. "The primary reason for all massage legislation is because of prostitution. Because prostitution is illegal, [some] are using massage as containers for business. In order to control adult entertainment, [we] need to regulate massage parlors...San Francisco is unique in that the Board of Supervisors does not see massage parlors as a 'legal' issue; they prefer to see massage parlor prostitution decriminalized except when there is a victim [of a crime]."4

According to Palmer, San Francisco city officials are primarily concerned with human trafficking offenses and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases. In order to address these issues, "San Francisco has not chosen to take a standard route to separate or distinguish adult entertainment from therapeutic massage," he said.4

And though Palmer admits the ordinance is "not a perfect solution," he believes it is a "clear step forward," and insists it is not a setback for the massage profession or future massage regulation. Instead, Palmer believes the ordinance benefits therapeutic massage practitioners, especially in regards to establishing private practices.

Palmer also stressed that the ordinance had the support of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) and Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals -- something Goodwin finds disheartening. "Months back, I wanted to get my picture taken setting my AMTA certificate on fire, and get [the photo] published," he said.

Goodwin has since taken a less drastic approach of conveying his distaste for the AMTA's support of the ordinance by simply withdrawing his membership.3

Conversely, Palmer is unfazed by critics. "San Francisco is a trendsetter," he said. "The message going out is that we've grown up in the past 20 years in this culture. San Francisco is saying, 'We trust [that] our citizens can make the distinction [between adult entertainment and therapeutic massage].'"

Palmer believes the ordinance is just the first of many transitions relative to San Francisco massage regulation. "It's not the last word in massage," he said. "But it's a good first word."


  1. San Francisco Ordinance Info/Link. History.
  2. San Francisco Coalition of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork Practitioners. Summary of Changes in the Proposed Massage Ordinance.
  3. E-mails from Brian Goodwin to Massage Today. May 26, 2004 & June 1, 2004.
  4. Phone interview with David Palmer and Massage Today. June 1, 2004.