Massage parlors are as embedded in Sin City's landscape as casinos and neon. No one has to search hard to find one.
Just drive within three miles of the Strip. Or look in the Yellow Pages under "massage."
Full-page ads brim with suggestive language, offering a "hot oil rubdown" or a "friendly masseuse" or "a simply spectacular prolonged teasing massage with extensive tantric techniques."
Some ads are emblazoned with hot-pink hearts, and most carry an Asian theme.
Although many massage therapists are state-licensed and give nonsexual treatments, the businesses commonly labeled as "parlors" are often brothels in disguise, thriving within the whatever's-fun-is-fine culture of Las Vegas.
But as the cost of renting sites on or near the Strip skyrockets, massage establishments suspected of being illicit are branching out and creeping closer to residential areas. Neighbors complained to Clark County officials last year about what they saw as bordellos cropping up too close to their homes.
The county now seeks to crimp massage operations.
"The residents are driving this," said Carolyn Boyle, a county planning spokeswoman.
Under proposed rules, a standalone massage clinic would be limited to the hours between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. New shops would have to be at least 200 feet from a residential area and 1,000 feet from another massage business.
Massage therapists who work in hotels, fitness centers or established spas would be exempt, as would those affiliated with a medical practitioner. The new code would mirror the one the city of Las Vegas enacted several years ago.
County commissioners will discuss the proposal on Feb. 20 and decide whether to impose the new rules.
RESTRICTIONS CALLED UNFAIR
Critics say the code could hurt licensed therapists who offer healing massages rather than the erotic type.
"The ones that are operating legitimately should be allowed to operate in a way that doesn't put them out of business," said Allen Lichtenstein, an attorney representing a massage trade group. "A substantial part of the business is after 10 p.m."
Lichtenstein argued that it was ridiculous to restrict hours in a city where everything runs round the clock, be it restaurants, bars, casinos or hair salons. A casino worker might want a massage after a late-night shift, or a tourist might want a back rub at 2 a.m. after a long stretch of gambling, he said.
Many people assume that every Asian masseuse is a prostitute, Lichtenstein said, calling that an "irresponsible argument."
"I think there is a lot of stereotyping," he said.
Ferreting out the places that supply illegal services would be fairly simple, he said, because these establishments would lack proper licensing.
Hurting legitimate operators
Two licensed massage therapists say they welcome the time restrictions and wish that government leaders would crack down even harder on shady operations that masquerade as massage clinics. But they have misgivings about restricting the location of the businesses.
No legit therapist takes clients past 9 p.m., said Angelina Nye, who started an area practice in 2005.
People who work late in, say, a casino can get a massage on their days off, or before they start their shift, Nye said.
Still, she doubts that limiting hours will stop unlawful businesses who offer a "happy ending" to a massage. They'll simply find a way to signal in johns after they display their "closed" signs, Nye said.
"They're going to work around the law no matter what," she said.
Valarie McKenzie, a 20-year massage therapist, said many brothels advertise blatantly because authorities look the other way.
The Yellow Pages are a prime example, she said. In other states, licensed therapists grace the "massage" section, whereas here the sketchy parlors dominate the pages.
Both McKenzie and Nye say they won't place ads in the Yellow Pages for fear they'll be mistaken as prostitutes.
"I don't want to get weird phone calls," Nye said.
Both women disagree with keeping massage practices more than 200 feet from a neighborhood, saying it would hinder lawful therapists.
This would be yet another instance of those in the healing arts being lumped in with prostitution, Nye said. Local laws already bar female therapists from doing outcalls to a male client's home.
Nye said she and her husband plan to open a small clinic when he graduates from massage school, and the site restrictions could hamper them.
'STOP BAND-AIDING IT'
Nancy Lipski, a county planning manager, said the new rules must apply to all businesses zoned for massage therapy. No distinctions can be made between one type of enterprise and another, she said.
County staffers surveyed spas, fitness clubs, medical clinics and standalone shops to get a sense of what would be reasonable rules, Lipski said. "It wasn't like we were pulling this out of thin air."
Bill Cassell, a Metropolitan Police Department spokesman, said the proposed code would create uniform rules throughout the county and simplify enforcement. Right now, police must check a map to see whether a site is within the city and subject to the city's stricter laws, he said.
Illicit parlors tend to shift geographically over time, and are now clustered in the Spring Mountain Road area, he said.
It's not always clear which places are unlawful, he said. For instance, some massage businesses that stay open after midnight are perfectly legal.
Nye questioned whether the proposed rules were a token effort to clean up a longtime racket. If authorities were really serious, they'd tighten licensing rules and shut down the brothels instead of picking on legitimate therapists, she said.
"It's right in their face," Nye said. "Stop Band-Aiding it, and go after it full force."
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland @reviewjournal.com or (702) 455-4519.