Minneapolis may soon start licensing massage businesses, following the lead of surrounding cities as it tries to crack down on prostitution.

The move would also allow those establishments anywhere in the city, updating archaic city codes that still consider massage parlors a "sexually oriented use" and restrict them to downtown.

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said that while the licensing division has thought about such a change for many years, as other cities in and beyond Minnesota adopted more massage regulations, the new proposal was prompted by the city's recent focus on stopping sex trafficking.

"This is a big industry that has a lot of very experienced, serious professionals. … They don't like the massage industry name being besmirched by illegal actors who are taking advantage of an unlicensed industry," Glidden said.

As Minnesota remains one of the few states that does not require massage therapy licenses, local cities in recent years have stepped in with their own licensing requirements, from Eden Prairie to Woodbury to Blaine. Many in the massage industry have pushed the state to license them, complaining that the current systems forces them to navigate a patchwork of local ordinances if they want to do business in multiple cities. By contrast, states such as Illinois require massage therapists seeking a license to receive 500 hours of training, pass a state exam and undergo a background check.

Change overdue, some say

Kelli Quist, owner of Todays Touch in Plymouth, said the industry has pushed for some form of state licensing for 25 years, but hasn't been able to convince Minnesota officials that massage therapy requires any public protection.

"In some respects, cities kind of need to have it," said Quist, who is also president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association. "It protects both the therapists and our profession."

She added: "If you're working in a city that has no city ordinance, you could sell shoes one day and be a massage therapist the next day."

Minneapolis' lax regulation stands in stark contrast to St. Paul, which adopted licensing rules about two decades ago in response to prostitution concerns.

The city's 236 massage licensees were required to receive national certification in therapeutic massage and bodywork, pass a written and practical exam, and pay annual fees of $223 to operate in a commercial center and $90 to operate out of a home.

Minneapolis officials met last month with the industry to discuss the possible changes and is still working out details on what getting a license would entail. A public hearing could be scheduled in August.

City and police officials did not discuss specific cases of prostitution at massage parlors. They've cropped up from time to time: In 2011, for instance, police arrested a Burnsville woman for engaging in prostitution at a Nicollet Avenue storefront that advertised massage services. And in recent years, the city has issued a handful of violations to businesses with names like Single Girl Office and Sensual Massage for offering massage services that included sexual or adult entertainment while not having an entertainment license.

Some observers are skeptical, though, that licensing massage businesses will really address the problem of sex crimes.

Leo Cashman, president of the Minnesota Natural Health Legal Reform Project, said massage therapists are already regulated well under a state law allowing the Department of Health to take action against massage therapists and those in other unlicensed, similar professions, for crossing sexual boundaries or violating other professional standards.

Requiring licenses is "unnecessary regulation" that shuts out people who don't have a certain level of training but are gifted at what they do, Cashman said.

"The things that the unlicensed people are doing are quite safe," he said. "They're not doing surgery, they're not prescribing drugs, they're not doing invasive things. OK, some of these massage parlors are going to be fronts for prostitution, but prostitution is already illegal, and you don't really need to have to license a massage therapist to say, this is illegal, this is outside of ethical conduct."

Current rules oft-ignored

Beyond the prostitution debate, several massage therapists want fairer regulations.

Efay Imani, owner of Inside Three Hands Bodyworks downtown, said she supports the proposal to have licensed massage businesses outside of downtown.

"There's a law that says you're not supposed to do it on the books, and they do it anyway," she said. "It doesn't affect me because I think it's a ridiculous rule in the beginning. … It should have been taken off the books a long time ago. The deal is, if no one complains about the place, they don't say anything."

Indeed, massage businesses are flourishing all over the city.

Jymme Golden said she had been practicing massage in a south Minneapolis building for 13 years when someone complained to the city — she still doesn't know who — and an inspector sent her a letter "out of the blue" saying she was violating zoning laws. Golden had never heard of the rule that she couldn't do business outside of downtown.

She was forced to move her business to another building where her friend was an acupuncturist (the city allows massage businesses beyond downtown if they are an "accessory use" to some other establishment).

"They're completely aware of tons of people doing massage in places other than that, and they do nothing about it," said Golden. "So it's just this haphazard enforcement."