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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Massage parlor column rubbed some the wrong way

Uploaded: Feb 27, 2012

My column in last Friday's Weekly (Feb. 24) triggered a few interesting responses, and rubbed some readers the wrong way -- especially current massage therapists. Could one say they might be a bit thin-skinned?
But they have a point that judging today's certified, well-trained massage therapists by the sex-parlor masseuses of the 1970s is unfair.
And one person corrected my addition: December 1976 was 35 years ago, not 33, of course. I should have put in "more than" ahead of "a third of a century ago," as the controversy spread over many months before city officials felt they could move.
One person asked in an e-mail why the current enforcement and revisiting of the massage ordinance has come up now, and wondered as I have if this isn't a solution seeking a problem. Ah, it's preventative.
And I heard from the operator of the "one legitimate massage business" referred to repeatedly in the Palo Alto Times news stories, which then was known for its training in sensual massage and located on Bryant Street a block north of Lytton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. It is now known as the Massage Therapy Center and since 1981 has been on California Avenue, offering training and therapeutic massage.
Following is a sampler of some of the e-mails, including the one from the Massage Therapy Center.
"I enjoyed your perspective and historical commentary on the massage scene in Palo Alto 33 years ago," Lucia C. Miracchi, owner, therapist and counselor at the center, said in an e-mail. "... We are the direct descendants of 'that one legit massage parlor' and have been fighting long and hard to legitimize therapeutic massage.
"In fact, we are probably the most established, long-lasting therapeutic massage business in Palo Alto that prides itself for this service without the addition of spa treatments, facials, hot stones, cucumber slices, or body wraps.
"How much more legitimate can you get?" she asks. Good point.
Not so pleased was physician Randall Weingarten, who wrote:
"I read with chagrin your self-congratulatory column today in regard to the 'Great Massage Parlor Raid.' ... Your column did less for the historical record and more to tarnish the value and integrity of massage, movement and contemplative/body awareness therapists of today.
"By reminding us of the ways that men and women have abused and may continue to be abusing this privilege of human touch you continue to emphasize the dark side of this essentially healing and educative practice," Dr. Weingarten wrote.
"Holistic health care working in collaboration with traditional and contemporary medical care is an inherently cooperative enterprise. Pharmaceuticals and herbal supplements, massage therapy and physical therapies -- all have different but complimentary aims: to bring to bear kindness, compassion and skillful care for our human ailments illnesses and restorative aims.
"We cannot ignore or blind ourselves to serious, illegal transgressions in all fields of human endeavor, including providing erotic play or prostitution under the guise of touch therapies.
"However, your article -- as so much in our media today -- glorifies the ugliness of life, and diverts our attention from the ways in which we can care for and serve each other in diverse ways."
That's a pretty heavy judgment for a column that was about an incident from history, not doing an assessment of today's massage-therapy profession. And I certainly wasn't trying to glorify the operations of what the Palo Alto Times called the 17 "sex parlors" in town. If anything, the column might be considered an object lesson in how bad or extreme things could get if allowed to go over the top of community norms and standards.
Massage therapist Elizabeth Robinson also took issue with the column, and made some good points:
"I usually find great wisdom in your reflections, but I did not see a glint of it in your recent article on massage. Though it may have been fun for you to relive the 'old' time issue of scantily clad women in massage parlors and your still unrevealed source, for me it brings up only the dark side of massage and bodywork, and nothing about the positive."
Robinson, who follows the Moshe Feldenkrais school that emphasizes a mind-body connection and involves the client in the therapy, has been doing bodywork for 22 years. She wonders what the deal is today in terms of Palo Alto's renewed focus on massage.
And she asks why massage therapists should be singled out to pay a tax for practicing while other health professionals aren't, and notes that doctors often suggest massage as a way of dealing with stress from work, illness or grief.
She said police talk in City Council meetings about "the burden of doing undercover work in illegitimate massage parlors" and asked if it wasn't "equally burdensome for them to do undercover work with gangs, drug pushers and violent criminals."
And the key question: "How much of an issue is this in the city of Palo Alto?"
She said she has no problem with requiring certain levels of training or certification, but said this "is an opportunity to modernize old notions, not increase negative images."
Well, modernizing old notions seems to be well underway.
Another reader, Steve Follmer, was already engaged in writing to City Council members about the proposed tightening of the massage ordinance.
"I enjoyed your article about the great massage parlor raid. I am writing to ask if you or the Palo Alto Weekly could continue this tradition of investigative journalism." (That's a tradition of which the Weekly has long been proud.)
Follmer asked if there might be a connection between a recent article reporting that the California Massage Therapy Council is contributing $1.2 million to renovate California Avenue and the city's review of its massage ordinance.
"Whatever the merits of that project, why exactly is a state Massage Council spending money on street repair? Does their charter include deep tissue work for asphalt and sidewalks?"
"I notice that suddenly, 33 years after the raid, 15 years without a need for an ordinance, the police and City Council are shocked, shocked, to discover that there is massage going on in Palo Alto. This is all too much of a coincidence. The CMTC exists to prop up expensive massage, and here they are buying off Palo Alto with 1.2 million dollars, in exchange for Palo Alto's support in destroying inexpensive massage. ..."
"I don't see any statistics showing Palo Alto suddenly becoming a destination for illicit massage."
Now to hear from some advocates of tightening and enforcing the massage ordinance.
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a cc: to jaythor@well.com.