News & Politics

Rubbed the Wrong Way


Back in the days before whores had Web sites, guys who wanted sex for money got a “massage.” You wouldn’t know it now, but there was a time when massage parlors proliferated, and thousands of New York storefronts concealed cubicular rabbit warrens in which people did as rabbits do, but on a paying basis. Massage parlors offered patrons a handy low-cost form of sex, and sex workers an indoor job for which advanced English skills were not required. It’s safe to say that no one involved in the equation knew the first thing about therapeutic massage.

Which is one reason why, in 1967, the city enacted a massage statute that functioned as a de facto antiprostitution law. Someone had to differentiate between the professionals who help relieve chronic back pain and those who provide a $100 half-and-half. The initiative worked. Once the vice squad had mopped up the massage parlors, prostitutes found other venues and legitimate massage went on to ascend in our general social estimation from a kooky outsider occupation to a cornerstone of alternative medicine.

With massage parlors effectively gone from the civic map, the prostitution law has rarely been invoked. Which is why the events of May 26 seem particularly strange. It was on that afternoon, as a woman we’ll call Milla Ulrich— a dancer and shiatsu therapist trained at both the University of Amsterdam and the Ohashi Institute— was in the middle of a treatment, that four cops from the Seventh Precinct vice squad banged down the door of her studio in a Sixth Avenue professional suite and placed her under arrest. A fifth cop was the guy on a futon, an undercover plant.

The police handcuffed Ulrich and hauled her to the station house, but not before investigating nearby studios for “suspicious” activities and breaking down an adjacent door. “They pulled guns,” says a therapist who teaches an exercise technique called The Method next door. “They told me to shut up and told my student to get out.” This woman’s student, an investment broker, was, as the client puts it, “a little freaked out. Here I am having a physical exercise session and the vice squad comes in with guns drawn to arrest someone doing shiatsu. I mean, this woman comes to work on a bicycle with a backpack and wearing Birkenstocks, and they sent five people to nail her in a sting. When I asked the cops what they were doing, what were they looking for, they said, ‘We do quality of life crimes.’ ”

Ultimately, as Ulrich tells it (the police department failed to respond to repeated calls and faxes), she was taken to central booking and charged with practicing without a license, “which is a big old Class E felony, the same as a doctor who practices without a license.” Ulrich was held for 10 hours and given an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which essentially means that, although no plea was entered, she can no longer work at her profession under threat of arrest. And there, according to people in the field, lies the crux of the matter. “We’re seeing the end game of a policy that was written years ago,” claims Don Schwartz, spokesman for a body workers’ coalition called the New York State Coalition of Non-Massage Organizations.

According to the New York State Department of Education and the State Board for Massage Therapy, massage is narrowly defined as “engaging in applying a scientific system of activity to the muscular structure of the human body by means of stroking, kneading, tapping, and vibrating with the hands or vibrators for the purpose of improving muscle tone and circulation.” As it happens, the Swedish Institute, whose method is the one the statute effectively outlines, is also the only New York City institute to teach courses leading to massage accreditation.

What about all the other “body work” and movement techniques? Under the umbrella of the Coalition of Non-
Massage Organizations are listed 14 different groups, including the International Independent Reiki Masters, the Alexander Technique International, the New York State Reflexology Association, the Feldenkrais Guild, the Trager Institute, the American Polarity Therapy Association, and others. And even this group doesn’t account for such hugely popular body work therapies as Pilates or, for that matter, yoga.

“We don’t see ourselves as massage,” says Schwartz. “We don’t want to be regulated as massage” and forced, moreover, to take a state-mandated 500-hour course primarily oriented to Swedish techniques. (Come January, new regulations will stipulate 1000 hours.) “But the licensing requirements define all touch, movement, and energy work as massage. It’s a disgusting and horrible waste.” Few in the field oppose establishing professional standards, Schwartz adds, echoing the sentiment of a dozen therapists contacted by a reporter. “All of us would be glad to go through some kind of certification,” said one. “But most of the people in these therapies are certified anyway from their own training institutes.” As Rebecca Klinger, a licensed massage therapist with a large Manhattan clientele, remarks, “someone doing Reiki does not need to know about Swedish effleurage.” The only ones to gain from mandated Swedish massage training, many body workers say, are the massage schools. “How many body workers are there out there?” says Klinger. “Thousands. How much does it cost to take a licensing course? We’re talking big bucks.”

While this reporter’s attempts to solicit comment from Manhattan’s Swedish Institute were unsuccessful, Milla Ulrich is quick to return her calls. “When the guy called to make the appointment,” she explains, “I asked what I always ask, ‘Have you ever had shiatsu?’ I explained that it’s a treatment based on oriental medicine and that it uses the same meridional points as acupuncture to direct the body’s energy using pressure instead of needles. I explained that I make a diagnosis and administer shiatsu according to what I find. I told him what I tell everyone, not to eat beforehand, and to wear sweats and a T-shirt. You definitely don’t take your clothes off for shiatsu. Anyone who hears that would have to know I’m not a prostitute.”

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