This Montana city treats massage therapists like sex workers


Lust: an unrestrained craving

Occasionally, Theresa Vondra gets a client who has the wrong idea about her massage business.

“We have had a couple instances where there’s been a gentleman who’s come in… and apparently, he was thinking he was going to be getting something else,” Theresa, a Montana masseuse and small business owner, says.

One client exposed himself to a massage therapist on Theresa’s staff. The therapist made him leave, and Theresa told the client never to come back to her business.

When things like that happen, it’s an objectifying, violating experience for a legitimate massage therapist like Theresa. Still, she says, “in all my years of doing massage, I think I could count on one hand the instances we’ve had like that.”

But now Theresa’s own government is treating her in a similarly objectifying, violating way—and unlike with a bad client, Theresa can’t bar the government from her business. In Billings, Montana, the local government is satisfying its lust for power by stereotyping and sexualizing all massage therapists, treating them like sex workers to gain access to their private property.

Theresa’s calling

Theresa wasn’t content to spend the entirety of her life working for someone else.

Breaking free from the monotony of the typical 9-to-5, she took the entrepreneurial route, opening a massage therapy business in her hometown of Billings.

Massage therapy hadn’t always been her dream. Like many young adults, Theresa for a time had been unsure of where she wanted to go with her career. While she figured it out, she took a job in a chiropractor’s office. It was there that she fell in love with helping people achieve total body wellness. Armed with her newly realized calling, she headed off to massage therapy school.

The decision to start her own business came with a fair share of obstacles. She was new to the world of entrepreneurship and had to learn on the spot the ins and outs of running a company.

All her hard work paid off. Just seven years later, her business is thriving and she now employs five massage therapists. Theresa takes great pride in her profession. Every day she gets to ease the pain her clients experience not only from physical injuries, but from psychological trauma as well.  It’s rewarding work, but not everyone views the massage therapy industry in such a positive light.

Massage therapy is a tricky business, thanks to the country’s sordid history of “massage parlors” pretending to offer therapy, when in reality they offer… shall we say, unsavory and illegal services. Even though Theresa runs an honest business, the stigma tied to the industry still impacts her work.

Billings’ new law

Compared to the hustle and bustle of big cities like New York and Chicago, Billings is a quiet, western town tucked away in the mountains.

Quiet though it may be, the area still has its fair share of illicit businesses—some of which hide behind the legitimacy of massage therapy.

Around the time Theresa began practicing massage therapy, the neighboring state of North Dakota experienced an “oil boom.” Consequently, Billings saw an influx of transplants, primarily from Texas, who had followed the money to the mountain states.

Shady businesses—including possible sex trafficking operations—also followed the money.

Concerned about potential sex trafficking on their own turf, city officials decided it was time to crack down—not just on credible threats, but on every single massage therapist in the city. Under newly adopted legislation, Billings now requires licensed massage therapists to allow  law enforcement into their establishments anytime, unannounced, to conduct warrantless searches of their business. No complaint needs to be made, nor any suspicion raised, prior to the search—it is left entirely to the government’s discretion.

The Fourth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights specifically to prevent the government from arbitrarily invading an individual’s privacy and property. Billings officials are not legally allowed to use the fear of sex trafficking to sidestep the Constitution.

That hasn’t stopped them from trying. Anyone who refuses to agree to this new requirement is not only subject to a search; they also face fines, loss of license, and even jail time.

It should be noted: These searches aren’t just casual pop-ins where an officer comes in and looks around to see that everything is in order. No, the law allows armed law enforcement to enter the premises and look in “all rooms, cabinets, and storage areas.” It also forces business owners like Theresa to turn over very sensitive patient records—constitutional rights be damned.

Each of Theresa’s clients has unique circumstances and reasons for seeking massage therapy.

When her clients complete their intake forms, they are asked if they have any past trauma so that the therapists are sensitive and aware of any trigger that may come up during a session. This is very personal information that law enforcement now may access .

Not to mention, because  the law lets them search everything on the property, that means they can go through client and employee belongings that are placed in lockers outside the massage rooms. Anything on the premises is fair game. And the law does not limit searches to possible evidence of sex trafficking or massage-therapy regulations but allows the police and code enforcement officers to look for violations of any civil or criminal law.

Theresa has an obligation to protect the privacy of her clients—not only for her personal ethical standards, but legally as well.

Billings’ outrageous law has left her feeling powerless to fulfill her duty to her clients. It also jeopardizes her livelihood. Imagine you’re a first-time client waiting for your appointment when, suddenly, cops barge in and begin searching the property.

Logically, you would think some red flag must have been raised to cause such a stir. You might feel uneasy about continuing with your appointment and decide to go somewhere else, justifiably so. That is one possible scenario that worries Theresa. But she’s also worried that the law is so vague that it opens up her employees to potential legal nightmares.

It says, for example, that no lubricants can be used in massage businesses. But there is no definition as to what constitutes a lubricant. Massage oil could technically fit the bill, and it will be found in any legal massage therapist’s office.

The potential for this law to be abused by law enforcement is frightening. As if this weren’t bad enough, Billings’ new law applies to home-based businesses as well.

For therapists who operate out of their homes, this means not only having the privacy of their business violated, but also every single aspect of their personal lives. Nothing is off limits as long as it is on the property where massages are given.

The realities of sex trafficking

Sex trafficking is, of course, a heinous crime. But the assumption that the massage therapy industry is a hotbed for sex trafficking is, in fact, overhyped and vastly flawed.

As Deborah Kimmet points out in her research study, “Human Trafficking Hijacking the Massage Therapy Profession,” the vast majority of massage therapy businesses are law-abiding with absolutely no ties to sex trafficking. As Kimmet writes, “Legitimate massage therapists are already dealing with the stigma of being associated with prostitution and other sexual crimes.” There is no valid reason for governments to add to existing stigma with unconstitutional laws.

Treating honest people like Theresa as potential sex traffickers without any proof is wrong. A staple of our U.S. legal system is the presumption of innocence.

Each person is innocent until proven guilty. If the government believes there is credible evidence of a crime, they must obtain a warrant before violating a person’s Fourth Amendment right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Local governments are not allowed to ignore the Constitution’s promise of individual privacy whenever they please—especially in the absence of probable cause. And the mere act of practicing massage therapy is not probable cause.

Painting Theresa and other legitimate businesses as potential perpetrators of heinous sex crimes is a slap in the face. Theresa’s employees already have to deal with the occasional lustful advance from a creepy client. Now they’re also dealing with a far-more-constant and persistent threat: a government intent on spying on and sexualizing their legitimate business.

There are better ways

Theresa was against this law from the moment it was proposed. As its passing began to seem likely, she decided to fight back, not just for the privacy of her own business but to protect her clients and employees from the long arm of the government.

In conversations with Theresa, city officials acknowledged that her business is above board. Even so, when she pushed back against their plans, she was told to “take one for the team.” As if objecting to the bill somehow made her a sex trafficking sympathizer.

Pacific Legal Foundation is helping Theresa and other Billings-based massage therapists stand up for their constitutional rights against the city’s attempt to violate their privacy.

There is no rational justification for the city to go to these extremes to stop sex trafficking. Warrants work. When Billings law enforcement suspects a non-massage business of criminal activity, they obtain a warrant.

The government’s lust for power and control cannot trample constitutional rights. That’s how authoritarianism creeps in.

This won’t stop with massage therapy businesses

The Billings law is not an aberration, but rather representative of a trend by which local, state, and federal governments require law-abiding citizens to surrender a constitutional right as a condition of using their own property or pursuing a livelihood or hobby.

Now, in the wake of COVID-19 and the new work-from-home reality for many Americans, governments aren’t just trying to get inside commercial businesses to “inspect” for “compliance” without obtaining warrants. Those business places are often private homes. In its lustful bid for power over the lives and fortunes of everyday working Americans, regulators are claiming the right to worm their way—without warrant or cause—into the homes and businesses of cake bakers, upholsterers, short-term landlords, ham radio operators, dog breeders, and more.

No one should have to choose between their livelihood and their property rights—which is why Pacific Legal Foundation represents people like Theresa.