Out in the Open: Joanna Robinsons Lunar Massage has its clients behind screens, not in private rooms. s Lunar Massage has its clients behind screens, not in private rooms.
Out in the Open: Joanna Robinsons Lunar Massage has its clients behind screens, not in private rooms. s Lunar Massage has its clients behind screens, not in private rooms. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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At first, the well-to-do, silver-haired man Yvette had been summoned to massage in his hotel suite didn’t look like a threat: He was a senior citizen who could barely make it up onto her table because of a limp. Then working for a downtown luxury hotel, the massage therapist (who didn’t want her last named used) tried to look out for men who wanted more than the knots in their backs rubbed out. But this wasn’t the kind of guy who’d cause problems: “He probably doesn’t even know about happy endings,” Yvette thought.

Soon after he disrobed, Yvette assumed the elderly man was sweetly delusional as well. “He kept calling me Maggie,” she recalls. The first few times, Yvette corrected him each time he called her by the other name, but then let the matter go, surmising that somewhere along the line, her senile customer had a black woman like her as a caregiver.

She got to work, using her knowledge of the human body to improve the man’s well-being. Yvette is serious about the healing aspects of her discipline, so much so that these days, she specializes in oncology massage.

When her patient reached up for her, Yvette figured his delusions were kicking in again. She kept guiding his hands back down. But when the reaching turned into groping, she firmly explained he needed to stop. “But Maggie lets me touch her boobies,” the man protested. Yvette’s face went hot. She was convinced she’d fallen for a ruse.

She encounters such situations about once a month, she says. “Sometimes, you get nervous when you see an erection,” says Yvette. But she’s learned to look for secondary signs that the session is about to become inappropriate, as well, since a bulge sometimes just means a male client is relaxed, she explains. “You watch the clients breathing patterns, you watch to see if he wiggles, or grabs himself.”

Lots of times, though, if a client wants to be serviced sexually, that isn’t clear until the end, when he starts using “coded language” to figure out what Yvette is willing to do. “Are we done? Is that it? Is it finished?” the client will ask. Or sometimes, more forwardly, “Is there anyway I can get something extra?” Over the years, Yvette has learned not to freak out. “Oh no darling, this is not going to be that kind of session.”

Such are the hazards of offering legitimate massage services in an industry that’s often used as a cover for a business that’s decidedly not above board in D.C.: brothels. At any given moment, one police source says, there are about eight massage parlors operating as fronts for prostitution somewhere in the District. “As soon as we close one down, another pops up,” says the cop.

Inside one of those places, after what’s likely to be a fair to middling massage, a john can get a “hand job or a blow job.” Though the Metropolitan Police Department has tried to rid the city of brothels, particularly because of the connections between organized prostitution and human trafficking, it’s a losing battle. The cop says D.C. is the perfect place for such businesses to flourish, since the city has a large professional class that might not be able to afford “$500-an-hour escorts,” but also doesn’t want to cruise around looking for street prostitutes.

The “rub and tug” massage joint is such an established way for brothels to operate below the radar that the regulations and business practices involving massages all wind up, in some way, responding to the not-so-secret sex trade.

Massage parlors, legally, are required to employ therapists who go through the D.C. Department of Health’s stringent licensing process. They also need to obtain a massage establishment basic business license, which costs $800—the theory being, apparently, that the license would help keep massages from being too personal.

But that’s almost never enforced. A spokesman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Helder Gil, says records show only 17 massage establishments in the District have the required business license. A Google search, meanwhile, turns up more than 100 massage businesses in D.C. That means many of Washington’s top spas and hotels are technically providing illegal massage.

Gil says DCRA isn’t worried about the slackers, though; the license only becomes important if an establishment does something bad. “We only target problematic places,” he says. “But if we got a complaint about a business, yeah, we would go after them [for not having a license].”

The presence of the pseudo-massage establishments, and also sex workers who advertise their services online by masquerading as masseuses, means the city’s above-board massage experts sometimes get mistaken for sexual play things. So finding ways to make clear to patrons that all they’re getting is a massage isn’t easy. At Lunar Massage, on Columbia Road NW, owner Joanna Robinson designed the place with that in mind (and also at her other location, near Mount Vernon Square on 5th Street NW).

If clients walk in looking for sex, after taking in the canary yellow walls and the potted plants and the mod furniture, they know they’re in the wrong place. “They walk in and see how open it is and they walk right back out,” says Robinson. If they don’t, seated behind a tidy black desk in a zebra-print chair, is the big-eyed and statuesque Robinson, ready to inform them of something: They’ll be keeping their clothes on.

The 30-year-old business owner aggressively markets what she calls “non-creepy massage.” Clients are required to keep their clothes on during their first session with one of her massage therapists, and are never taken to a private room. Lunar’s massage tables are divided by screens in an otherwise open studio area. She believes these details improve the retail experience, make both client and therapist feel safe, and help cut down on any confusion, driving home the point that her workers don’t provide erotic services.

Ask almost any massage therapist, though, and they’ve got stories of clients getting inappropriate, quickly. At Georgetown’s posh M3 Massage, where an hour of deep tissue kneading costs $100, owner Guillaume Tarralle has had problems. “Some people look for things that are illegal. I’ve had to kick people out several times,” he says. Guillaume also says he gets calls from men obviously fishing for sex.

The problem isn’t just limited to female therapists. A good-looking guy whose smooth features and bearded face looks like he was inspired by the aesthetics of ancient Persia, Tony Jackson works for Lunar and says hard-up women clients do it more subtly, but will also look for something more than a tension release. “They’ll ask what time you get off,” says Jackson, “or if you can come to their house.”

David Starn, an independent massage therapist who sees clients at his home in Dupont Circle, says female clients looking for sex often tell him they have a pain “in their inner thighs.” Starn says the behavior crosses lines of sexuality as well as gender. He remembers guiding a man who’d scheduled an appointment into his studio, only to have the client give an inquisitive look when he spotted Starn’s massage apparatus. “I’m a little confused about what the table is for,” said the client. Starn found himself explaining he wasn’t a prostitute.

But mention the District’s licensing requirements as a way to help set legitimate massage apart from its non-legit counterpart, and Robinson’s jaw tightens. A former fundraiser for libertarian causes, she thinks the $800 license does little to help the situation. “It’s creating a legal hurdle for people who want to have a legitimate business, and it’s doing nothing to curb prostitution,” she says. There does seem to be a flaw in the logic behind the licenses, especially without enforcement; after all, it’s not like a brothel couldn’t afford the fee.

Robinson is convinced the answer lies in branding. “It’s the industry’s own fault that people are still mistaking their places for brothels,” says Robinson, who says she’s never had to ask anyone to leave for asking for a “happy ending,” because customers understand what’s being offered at Lunar early on.

Another step that could help, of course, is letting prostitutes work without the threat of arrest, so they wouldn’t have to pose as masseuses. Just ask Cyndee Clay, the executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, an organization whose “mission is to assist female, male, and transgender individuals engaging in sex work in Washington D.C. in leading healthy lives.” Clay says she knows quite a few sex workers providing illegal massage but that “the majority of the individuals we deal with are not coming from trafficking situations,” contradicting stereotypes. One is even a licensed massage therapist who’s doing “sensual massage” to keep up with her mortgage, she says. “If people could be more explicit about the services they seek or provide the confusion wouldn’t exist.”

Yvette, for her part, isn’t convinced that any measure will completely eradicate the problem. “I’ll always go with God,” she says. “D.C. is a high-powered town. You never know what you’re going to encounter.”