Joe Mathews: Surge in massage parlors reveals a naked truth about California

Clients enjoy a foot massage at Happy Day Spa in south Sacramento.
Clients enjoy a foot massage at Happy Day Spa in south Sacramento.

For the record, I did not intend to get naked for this column.

But the woman at my local massage parlor insisted that I remove my pants before she would put her hands on me. So I took it all off – to better understand my fellow Californians.

Judging by all the parlors along our thoroughfares, California is a state of massage.

Since the December 2007 arrival of the Great Recession, no retail business sector has grown faster, with hotbeds in San Francisco, San Mateo County, Fresno, Sacramento, Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, where I live.

Little old ladies in Pasadena can now choose from more than 100 massage parlors, up from nine a decade ago, the Pasadena Star-News reported earlier this year. My own neighbors in South Pasadena also seem to have a lot of stress in need of relief. On a recent walk, I counted 10 massage businesses within six blocks of our house, with names like Shiatsu of Zen, Massage Villa and Gifted Hands.

All this massage reveals quite a bit about today’s California. For more than a decade, our state’s policymakers and their media cheerleaders have claimed that they are working to restore local control to California communities, even as the laws they make often do the opposite. Massage regulation is one small, but telling, part of the story.

The huge growth in massage parlors came after 2008, when the Legislature enacted a “reform” bill to clean up the massage industry in local communities. But the law actually prohibited cities from treating massage businesses any differently from other licensed professional services, such as law and medical practices.

The result: Massage parlors became one of the easiest businesses to open in the state because cities couldn’t do much to stop them.

Most massage parlors are honest businesses. But there have been enough cases of prostitution and human trafficking involving massage parlors to make local law enforcement wary of this rapid growth. Cities, after considerable lobbying, won back some power to shut down massage parlors in legislation approved in September.

But massage parlors retained their loose licensing and should remain prominent in California for quite some time.

To better understand this reality, I decided to find out firsthand what goes on in the massage parlors in my neighborhood. On a recent weeknight, I walked one short block to a parlor (its sign said “Asian Therapy”).

Inside, a woman told me a half-hour would cost me $35, led me into one of five rooms in the dimly-lit rear of the store and told me to disrobe. When I tried to keep my underwear on, I was told that nudity was essential to the massage experience.

Properly naked, I was told to lie face-down on a table, with my nose and mouth over a hole through which I could breathe. The masseuse placed a towel over my rear end, and then worked her way from my feet to my neck before asking me to turn over.

What kind of massage is this? I asked.

Swedish and Chinese, she said.

I love a good fusion, but the rubdown wasn’t healing or relaxing. After a half-hour, I was ready to go home – but then the upsell began.

She told me I needed a full hour. I said fine. She wanted me to try hot-stone therapy, but I balked when the first stone burned. Then she offered to “walk my back” to bring additional pressure to my sore muscles.

Everything seemed fine as she walked up my lower spine. But when she stepped on the top of my back, the force of her foot knocked all the snot out of my nose – and down through the hole in the massage table onto the floor below.

I might have ended the session then, but I lacked the oxygen to speak. A few minutes later, it was over. The extra half-hour made the total bill $55, plus a $10 tip.

As I left, she handed me a membership card. After five more services, I’ll get one free.

But I don’t plan to go back – at least until my City Council can protect me from anyone walking on my back.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.