Pressure Points: St. Louis massage therapists hope new regulations will rub them the right way

First, let's get a couple of things straight: Greg Roggeman is not a masseur, and his business, Second Sight Therapeutic Massage, is not a massage parlor.

"The term 'massage parlor' is associated with the sex trade," explains Roggeman, who is a card-carrying massage therapist. Unlike the majority of sex workers, he is a trained health care professional and licensed by the state of Missouri.

This distinction may seem a matter of semantics, but it has been a touchy subject for Roggeman for the past year and a half, ever since he moved to St. Louis from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to start up his own massage-therapy business. He graduated from a massage school, obtained his state license in April 2007, and was starting to scout out potential locations when he learned he also needed a city business license.

"That opened up a can of worms," Roggeman says. "I thought I would pay my license fee and get my city license and pay graduated tax. Instead they told me I needed an occupancy permit. Five inspectors came through here, and the health department. It was all well and good until I ran into a snag with the petition."

Under St. Louis' zoning ordinances, massage parlors are grouped with adult bookstores, X-rated movie theaters, pawn shops and pool halls as examples of "urban blight." In order to get his business license, Roggeman would have to circulate a petition throughout the residential area near his Lindenwood Park office in order to affirm that no one objected to a "massage parlor" in the neighborhood.

"I refused to do the petition," Roggeman recalls. "I wasn't going to do it for a massage parlor or bath establishment. I didn't want to be perceived as a massage parlor. I wanted to be as legitimate as possible. I wanted them to change the ordinance."

Roggeman proceeded to contact his alderwoman, Kathleen Hanrahan, who, coincidentally, is also a licensed massage therapist. "She initially didn't seem too concerned," says Roggeman. "I was surprised she wasn't more gung ho." But after the American Massage Therapy Association intervened on Roggeman's behalf, Hanrahan got to work on a bill which she presented to the board of aldermen. The measure is expected to be voted on in September, when the board of aldermen returns from its summer recess. "We want to redefine massage therapy," says Hanrahan, who represents the 23rd Ward in south city. "Massage is a therapeutic healing art." Hanrahan modeled her bill on an ordinance that took effect last year in Lee's Summit, a Kansas City suburb. Among other things, the bill defines massage therapy as a "health care profession," requires massage therapists to display their licenses and prohibits massage of the genitals.

It will also prohibit people of opposite genders from receiving massages in the same room, which will eliminate "couples massages" offered in a few spas in the city.

Now that massage establishments will no longer be confused with brothels, Hanrahan hopes more practitioners will return to the city. The vast majority of massage therapists work in St. Louis County; fewer than 30 are licensed within the city limits.

Some massage therapists, though, remain confused by the myriad of existing regulations — never mind the new restrictions contained in the new ordinance — that govern their business.

"I should be able to set up shop like a chiropractor or a lawyer," says Joel Lathrop, who operates Wizard's Hand in Lafayette Square. "They need to have their buildings inspected to make sure they're up to code. I had to do that, too, but I have to have a business license. I also had to have a criminal background check and a handwriting analysis. They do that to weed out individuals who are potential sexual predators."

Roggeman doesn't anticipate any changes to his business when the ordinance takes effect. He does hope, however, that massage therapists in the future will not have to undergo all the hassles he has. "I've seen a lot of bureaucracy in my day," he says, "but the City of St. Louis has made a fine art of it."

 
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