Howard rules target massage parlor sex County considers boosting restrictions on businesses

hearing set for tomorrow

October 19, 1997|By Craig Timberg and Jill Hudson | Craig Timberg and Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Howard County has become a regional haven for massage parlors, which crime experts say are often a new suburban face of the world's oldest profession.

Despite years of crackdowns, massage parlors have become increasingly prominent in the consumer landscape, operating side-by-side with doughnut shops and convenience stores in strip malls across the country.

"Business is booming in suburban areas, and people are spending more time there," says University of Maryland criminology Professor Lawrence Sherman. "Getting sex in the suburbs is now like getting groceries."

The Howard County Council is considering tough new rules -- including a ban on cross-gender, "recreational" massages -- that county officials hope will put the parlors out of business. A public hearing is set for tomorrow night.

Lawyers for the parlors -- who say rigorous self-policing prevents sex acts in the establishments -- promise a fight.

"They are just trampling people's rights," said Columbia lawyer Robert L. Fila. "I've never seen a law like this."

Baltimore County police and prosecutors have been cracking down on illegal massage parlors for several months but have found it difficult to drive them out of business, despite stronger laws than Howard's.

Howard County has tried before to restrict massage parlors. In 1994, the council passed a licensing law for massage parlors that county officials now acknowledge has loopholes and is nearly impossible to enforce.

Authorities knew of nine massage parlors then. Now, at least 13 operate, in Ellicott City, Jessup, Elkridge, North Laurel and Columbia. That does not include massage therapists, who have extensive professional training and are not restricted by the Howard County law.

Police attempted undercover sting operations against massage parlors in 1995, only to see the cases disintegrate amid charges that officers had unnecessarily engaged in sex with parlor workers.

The five parlors caught in the raids escaped with fines and one-month suspensions.

All of those parlors are still in business. So are several new ones, encouraged by easy highway access to Howard and the weakest massage parlor regulations in the region.

"World Sex Guide," an Internet guide purportedly written by consumers of prostitution, reports on seven massage parlors in Howard County, rating each establishment by price, attractiveness of women and available sex acts.

Typical services -- according to first-person reports posted in the past 18 months -- include showers, massages and sex acts administered by nude or semi-nude women.

The police stings of 1995 and earlier raids found similar activities.

Police intelligence reports -- provided by angry wives, disgruntled customers and the occasional ex-husband reporting on the profession of his former spouse -- suggest that the sex acts have not stopped but that enforcement has become more difficult.

"A lot of the women have gotten a lot smarter about the legality of this issue," said Lt. Timothy Branning, commander of the county police vice unit, "Most of them do not have intercourse with their customers, but I'd say 60 percent of them perform some sort of sex act for a fee."

Some massage parlor owners acknowledge problems in their industry.

Fatima Thomas, owner of the Columbia Therapy Center in the Dorsey's Search Village Center, says her massage parlor doesn't permit sex acts but that many others do.

"It's difficult to hire people who don't go way beyond the call of duty and do those things," Thomas said. "We've had our share of problems [but] we're really, really strict."

Despite such assurances, ads for the Columbia Therapy Center and other Howard massage parlors are titillating.

"Hot Honey Buns," reads a recent Baltimore City Paper ad for the Columbia Therapy Center.

Sun reporters visited a dozen county massage parlors and were greeted by women in various stages of undress at several locations.

A woman hurriedly pulled on her clothes as she answered the door of an Ellicott City parlor. The foyer was fitted with a two-way mirror and a video surveillance camera. The inner door had a peep hole and a doorbell.

Police say security at most massage parlors is tight because of the thousands of dollars they take in each week.

Prices typically range from $60 for a half-hour massage to $100 or more for longer massages. With several masseuses on staff and overhead typically low, the profits can be so large that armed robbers prey on them, authorities on crime say.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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