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Where Do We Go From Here?


Mass murder. Misogyny. Racism. Sexual violence. Therapist safety. Human trafficking. Massage parlors.

The murders committed March 16 in Atlanta raised issues both inside and outside the massage community. Most importantly, eight people lost their lives in a senseless act. The tragedy of this loss of life cannot be overstated; all other issues pale in comparison. Eight people didn’t come home that day.

As I write this, I am trying to process my thoughts and feelings while learning about another mass murder—this one in Colorado, at a grocery store just a half-hour north of our office. A grocery store. It defies all logic. The common thread is violence with tragic consequences to innocent lives.

When we learned of the murders in Atlanta, our ABMP social media communities were abuzz with thoughts, concerns, and—naturally—conjecture, frustrations, and opinions. As our team worked to prepare an initial statement, I encouraged them to focus on what we knew to be true, and to remain respectful of the tragedy. As always, they knew what to say and how to say it. I am blessed to work with incredibly thoughtful, bright, compassionate people. Not all in the field saw our response in that light, and I understand. There is a palpable current of anger, sadness, and frustration surrounding this attack and the underlying issues referenced at the start of this note.

The Atlanta murders have shined a light once again on issues we have suffered with for too long, often at the hands of others—organized crime, indifferent regulators, lax law enforcement. These aren’t easily surmountable challenges.

The Atlanta tragedy occurred in what the media have characterized as “Asian spas.” These characterizations flow from a certain narrative, and perpetuate biases long held in even our own profession. One of the victims was a business owner who was a licensed massage therapist. Does that fit the narrative?

Many responses on social media were a variation of “What is ABMP going to do?” Some used our motto, “expectmore,” as an expectation for ABMP to address the difficult issues our profession faces. It is a fair request. I’d like to explain how we have been working to address these issues and how we will continue to do so.

When I started with ABMP in 1994, one of my initial responsibilities was to manage our government relations (GR) efforts. At that time, our leadership was anti-regulation, fearing that regulation would be bad for our business. Fortunately, with new leadership in 1996 came a more progressive approach to serving the profession.

From my first day working in GR, I learned quickly about the pervasive nature of “massage parlors,” and our field’s quest to escape the stain of those businesses. In the early ’90s, long before enacting statewide licensure, our home state of Colorado passed a “massage parlor exemption” law, which exempted those massage therapists with a minimum of 500 hours of education from the state massage parlor code. In 1998, when the Missouri legislature enacted a massage therapy licensing law, it was because the sponsor “heard from the sheriff about these parlors.” Of course, the presence of “massage parlors” predates most state regulations.

Today, ABMP members have outstanding professional representation by our Government Relations Director Laura Embleton. Her focus has been to support professionals in the least invasive form of regulation that is practical, while aiding in the repudiation of human trafficking and massage parlors. One of our main messages to massage boards and state legislators is that empowering massage boards and law enforcement to bring harsher penalties upon owners of massage parlors may help to eradicate these places instead of focusing on prosecuting the individuals perpetrating the acts, many of whom are victims of human trafficking.

Trying to address these issues most likely belongs in the criminal code and not with regulatory agencies. Florida was one of the first states to have an establishment license, and I hated it. My philosophy was that we are professionals, and we do not need to have our place of work regulated in addition to us being regulated. A physical therapist or occupational therapist does not have their place of business regulated—why should we? This always struck me as an undue burden. Could a good, thoughtful establishment license work? To date, we haven’t seen effective establishment licensing, and until it’s proven capable, we won’t support adding to massage professionals’ regulatory and financial burden. But promoting, protecting, and supporting professionals must continue to be our primary objective.

None of these challenges will be quick to solve, and ABMP cannot do it alone. We have no magic wand to wave away organized crime. The tragedy in Atlanta brought these issues to the forefront, but it did not make them any less complicated or easier to solve. We’ll continue our work as outlined below, and are discussing what we can do—and how we can empower our members—to fight hard for fair regulation, hold those who oversee our regulations accountable, and continue to educate the public and promote our members and this profession we all love. 

Les Sweeney

ABMP President

March 24, 2021

How ABMP's Government Relations Team Works for You

What Is ABMP’s Role in Government Relations?

ABMP’s Government Relations department advocates on behalf of our members for reasonable regulation of the massage therapy profession in all 50 states. We work with our members, massage therapy boards, state legislatures, and massage therapy coalitions nationwide to ensure the regulation of the profession stays focused on public protection and does not overly burden massage professionals with high licensing costs or bureaucratic red tape. We travel the country or meet online with massage professionals, licensees, and regulators to learn about issues facing professionals locally and help craft solutions.

From 1996 to 2016, our energies were directed to states initially adopting statewide regulation of massage therapists. We worked for regulation fairly balanced between public protection and equitable treatment of massage therapists, including “grandfathering” provisions to help long-established practitioners obtain a license. During that period, the number of states regulating massage grew from 20 to 46. More recently, ABMP staff has spent the majority of its time working with states to implement regulations, advocating for methods to address human trafficking in a reasonable manner that does not penalize massage therapists, and working to let our members know what is happening in their states and how they can have an impact on what affects them. It’s a dynamic, evolving universe. ABMP never loses sight of fair, reasonable rules for massage practitioners.

What is ABMP’s Stance on Individual Professional Licensing for Massage Therapists?

Massage therapists are licensed in 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Licensure is required in each state in which a massage therapist practices and must be renewed on a regular basis, with a majority of states requiring continuing education as a requirement for renewal. Massage therapists must practice within the scope of practice defined by these state licensure laws. The practice acts, rules, and regulations comprise the law governing massage therapy practice within a state.

Licensure brings uniform regulation and a clear set of standards for all massage therapists in the state. Mandatory licensure maximizes public protection and substantially enhances clarity and certainty, and provides the following advantages:

  • Licensure provides for government oversight, which affords legal due process in the licensure, compliance, and disciplinary processes.
  • Statewide licensure means all massage therapists practicing in a community are subject to the same state law. As such, local governments no longer need to have different licenses/registrations and duplicative administrative processes for certified and uncertified professionals.
  • Licensure dramatically simplifies investigative and policing enforcement.
  • Licensure incorporates a legally recognized scope of practice. Massage therapists, in turn, gain a clear definition of what is and is not considered massage. This means they will not infringe upon other professions or perform services outside their scope of practice, avoiding disciplinary action.
  • Uniformity of standards supports professional mobility and entry into the work force, making it easier for massage therapists to move and maintain a steady income—many states allow for licensure by endorsement (although not enough states, in ABMP’s opinion).
  • Licensure allows consumers to feel safe in a massage therapy environment by gaining access to an individual’s license status. They can consult a real-time updated directory of active licensees or insist upon seeing an individual’s current license, which the licensee can be required to have in their possession wherever they practice.
  • When massage therapists are licensed, they operate on a level playing field (i.e., everyone in the profession has consistent education requirements, pays the same licensing fees, and operates under the same ground rules). This means success is measured by the value of services provided.
  • Massage therapists are health-care professionals. Other health-care professionals—such as nurses, physicians, and physical therapists—have a baseline requirement of possessing a state license to practice. A license requirement recognizes massage therapy as a valued, credible profession.
  • Licensure allows those massage therapists who want to offer an alternative pain management method to be able to provide massage therapy and in certain cases bill Medicare and Medicaid. Unlicensed individuals cannot bill these programs.
  • Properly drafted state licensure ensures elimination of unnecessary redundant local government burdens on the licensee.
  • Licensure tightens, and in many cases eliminates, the loopholes for bad actors who attempt to opt out of credentialing and oversight. Licensure creates a universal statewide database listing adjudicated cases of massage therapy malpractice and lowers the risk of potential harm to consumers.

What is ABMP’s Stance on Human Trafficking Legislation?

While ABMP acknowledges that human trafficking intersects on the fringes of massage therapy, we believe licensed massage therapists alone should not shoulder the financial burden of countering these illicit businesses. Massage therapists and massage therapy regulators should not be responsible for solving the issue of human trafficking or illegal sex businesses.

Massage therapists and massage boards should work with local law enforcement, educating them about what massage therapy is and what it is not. We believe the best way to stop the illicit businesses is to revise criminal codes with jailable misdemeanors and substantial fines for owners and managers who hire nonlicensed individuals to perform “massage.”

What Does ABMP Think are Some Effective Ways to Counteract the Issues of Illicit Businesses Operating Under the Guise of Massage Therapy?

ABMP believes in going after the owners and managers of these establishments with substantial fines—over $5,000 per infraction—if they have people who are not licensed massage therapists providing massage in the location.

In the human trafficking context, these workers are victims. They should not be charged with prostitution, unless it can be proven that they are engaged in the activity willingly. District attorneys must be willing to prosecute these cases, and police must build the cases.

What Does ABMP Say to Media Outlets Who Use the Term “Massage Parlors”?

The term “massage parlor” is not used by the massage therapy profession. The places that use that term, or are referred to by others, are not legitimate massage therapy offices. They are almost always referring to illicit businesses that provide sex under the guise of offering massage; the overwhelming majority of licensed massage therapists are not engaged in illegal activity involving sex.

What Does ABMP Recommend to States Who Use the Term “Massage Parlors” in Legislation?

None of our members work in massage parlors. Accepted terms used by the massage community are massage therapy “businesses,” “services,” “practices,” or “establishments.” The use of massage parlor, in today’s vernacular, refers to illicit sex businesses.

We recently wrote to urge the state of New Jersey to stop referring to massage establishments as massage parlors. Massage therapists in New Jersey are required to have 500 hours of education, pass a national exam, provide a background check, and complete 20 hours of continuing education every two years.

What Does ABMP Say to a State Trying to Fight Prostitution Through Massage Regulation?

ABMP works with state boards and a number of local governments across the country to draft laws and ordinances that provide state and local governments with the tools to deal with illicit businesses. We encourage using the criminal code to pursue owners and managers who allow illicit activities to exist in their “businesses.” In addition, sole practitioners should be exempt from such requirements as they are not engaged in the activity these ordinances seek to curb.

ABMP works with cities to craft ordinances that go after illicit businesses, rather than overcharging massage and bodywork therapists.

What Can Massage Therapists and Bodyworkers Do to Get Involved?

ABMP’s involvement in state and local government affairs has typically been prompted by engaged members. The best resource we have is engaged massage therapists letting us know what regulation-related issues are present. We always want and need to know what therapists are hearing regarding massage legislation and regulation—past, present, or future. Let us know if we can help advocate on your behalf.

Look up your state’s massage therapy board, find out when the next board meeting is, and attend! Learn what your state’s board is thinking about and planning for, especially with regard to rules and legislation. Submit public comments to let the board know your opinions. Apply for a board seat, attend meetings of massage coalitions, and get to know other massage professionals in your area.

We encourage you to use this advocacy email template courtesy of ABMP to voice your opinions to your local legislators.

Related Resources from ABMP

ABMP Education Center

“Ethics: Preventing Sexual Misconduct in Massage Therapy,” by Ben Benjamin,

“Maintaining Sexual Ethics: Part 1, Key Concepts,” by Anne Williams,

“Maintaining Sexual Ethics: Part 2, Protecting Clients,” by Anne Williams,

“Maintaining Sexual Ethics: Part 3, Protecting Practitioners,” by Anne Williams,

“Maintaining Sexual Ethics: Part 4, Protecting Students,” by Anne Williams,

Massage & Bodywork Magazine

“Clients Crossing Boundaries in the Treatment Room,” by Ben Benjamin, March/April 2020, page 54,

“Massage is Legal: Human Trafficking is Not,” by Karrie Osborn, January/February 2013, page 82,

“Hiding in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking’s Impact on Massage Therapy” by Heather McCutcheon, January/February 2013, page 72,

The ABMP Podcast

Ep 80 – Respect Massage: Create a Zero-Tolerance Practice with Joyce Gauthier