Photo credit: Julio Rodriguez, Ybor City Stogie

On January 11, the Tampa City Council passed a “bathhouse” ordinance that strictly regulates local massage parlors and spas, allowing the police to randomly conduct raids. Now Hillsborough County is attempting to mirror the city with an ordinance of its own. This has been framed as an ordinance to stop sex trafficking. However, the ordinance does nothing to combat sex trafficking. In fact, the ordinance does the opposite of what it actually claims to do by further burdening the lives of sex trafficking victims.

Last Tuesday, local activists and advocates held a press conference in front of the Hillsborough County Center in downtown Tampa. It was held to condemn the city and warn the county about the current ordinance.

The Sex Worker Solidarity Network, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), the Restorative Justice Coalition and Amnesty International at Stetson made their demands for 100 percent immunity for victims and immigrants.

In most cases, the trafficking victim is treated like a criminal. The National Survivors Network stated that 90 percent of human trafficking victims are arrested during their time of victimhood. In addition, 70 percent of the human trafficking victims that were convicted were unable to have their convictions dropped. According to Angel D’Angelo of the Restorative Justice Coalition, the victims have no chance to get out from under this persecution.

Photo credit: Julio Rodriguez, Ybor City Stogie

“They live the rest of their lives with a criminal charge. It prevents them from getting employment, housing, public benefits and applying for school,” said D’Angelo. “The ordinance re-creates human trafficking rather than defeating it.”

The “bathhouse” ordinance harasses, interrogates and further victimizes the individuals that it claims to protect. But if immunity is guaranteed, victims of human trafficking and sexual violence are much more likely to come out of the shadows and report crimes.

The ordinance also has clear signs of racism. It was specifically designed to target spas that employ Asian immigrants located on Tampa’s Kennedy Boulevard. The ordinance allows the police to randomly conduct raids on these businesses. The threat of raids has a direct impact on the lives of these immigrants.

Kennedy Boulevard is part of the South Tampa region, one of the more affluent parts of the Tampa Bay area. For many years, the massage parlors and spas have been considered an eyesore for the wealthy and elite that reside in South Tampa. They would certainly welcome the idea of removing the businesses that they have incessantly complained about for years. The closure of the parlors and spas would also open up new properties for the elite to acquire, allowing them to take one step closer to fully gentrifying their community.

Sydney Eastman, cofounder of The Sex Worker Solidarity Network, is hopeful that Hillsborough County will eventually meet with them, and at the very least, listen to their concerns. “We think that we can present to them all of the research in favor of real solutions, such as immunity for victims of abuse, human trafficking, and sanctuary for immigrants,” Eastman told Liberation.

Eastman wants a full overturn of the ordinance but does not see city and county officials actually implementing their demands right away. “We have to do more outreach, build a little more power and apply more pressure,” said Eastman.