The Tampa City Council voted 6-0 on Thursday to approve an ordinance aimed at curbing human trafficking by cracking down on illicit massage parlors.
The measure is a revision to an 1980s-era bathhouse ordinance, adapted to close the loopholes that allow such massage parlors in Tampa to operate.
It comes after months of advocacy by the group “Clean-Up Kennedy,” who have had their members fill City Hall council chambers throughout the second half of 2017 to push the council to act.
Supporting the council on Thursday was Christa Hernandez, who wrote a book about her experience as a victim of sex trafficking.
“When you’re in that life, it’s easier to act as if it’s all okay and it’s this great job, because then you don’t really have to internally feel the pain, as long as you’re acting as its great,” she said of sex workers who opposed the ordinance.
Critics of the measure say it would criminalize those in the sex trade.
“We can’t keep pushing people in the margins and expecting solutions to come forward. They do not come forward by pushing people out,” said Angelo D’Angelo with the Restorative Justice Network.
But Dottie Groover-Skipper, Salvation Army’s anti-trafficking campaign coordinator, disagreed.
“There is a safety net,” she said, adding that she was working with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office, the council and the 13th Judicial Circuit to implement a diversion court for those caught up in the industry.
“They will not go to jail,” she insisted, adding that prostitution is against the law.
City Councilman Mike Suarez said he sympathized with the critics of the proposal, but said, “this not a criminal statute. This is an ordinance. It is not about criminalizing people who are victims of sexual trafficking.”
Councilman Harry Cohen told opponents that just because the ordinance was passed doesn’t mean it can’t continue to be improved.
“We’re all ears, just because we passed an ordinance today doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to work on the topic. It’s really the beginning, not the end.”
Council Chair Yolie Capin left the meeting early, and did not participate in the final vote.