Massage may be an ancient form of therapy, but prostitution is the oldest profession on earth.
In a pair of targeted busts in the Southeast -- one in Macon, Ga., and the other in Broward County, Fla. -- police arrested what they said were dozens of prostitutes hiding behind the guise of massage therapy to sell customers sexual favors.
Over two phases of "Operation Massage Parlor," undercover officers from the Macon Police Department have made 21 arrests at eight different businesses across the 100,000-population Central Georgia city.
Various charges include keeping a house of prostitution, masturbation for hire, solicitation of prostitution and simple prostitution, according to Macon police. The suspects range in age from 17 to 70 and were arrested between June 26 and 27, and July 15 and 17.
"The woman would solicit the sexual act and at that time the officer would identify himself as a police officer and would make an arrest," Sgt. Melanie Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Macon Police Department, told ABCNews.com.
Five establishments were shut down in Macon and arrests were made at several others. In only two of the parlors targeted by police did the women not offer undercover officers sexual favors for money.
In the second phase of the operation, carried out last week, Macon officers arrested three women at the All American Spa and Massage on Wednesday and came back the following night to make two more arrests at the same location.
There are more than 5,000 licensed massage therapists in the state of Georgia, according to the secretary of state's office. Licenses require practitioners to receive training that educates them on the do's and don'ts of massage therapy -- including restrictions on sexual contact.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said that many local massage parlors go to great lengths to circumvent license restrictions while presenting would-be customers with advertisements heavy on sexual overtones. Billboards on the drive into the city, he said, feature attractive women with "seductive looks" offering massage services.
"This is one we're not going to ignore, that's the message," Reichart said. "We're willing to spend the money on manpower to break it up as a community."
Reichart said that some of the businesses busted even had in-house ATMs. "Here's the oldest profession in the world and they're keeping up with the times," he said. "They got billboards, they're on the Internet and they've got ATMs inside their locations."
In Macon, the issue is not exactly a new one. "We've actually been doing undercover operations at massage parlors since they came to town in the late 1990s," Hoffman, the police spokeswoman, said.
Meanwile, on Friday, July 18, the sheriff's office in Broward County, Fla., made 21 arrests in 14 different massage parlors during an operation they dubbed Red Light.
Officers swarmed locations with names like 7th Heaven, Roosters and Golden Eye. They also responded to two individual homes where women had advertised massage services in local publications, according to a Broward County Sheriff's Office statement. Charges against the suspects there included unlicensed massage, offering to secure lewd acts, and prostitution.
The investigation into the establishments began about a month ago, according to Keyla Concepcion, spokeswoman for the Broward County Sheriff's Office, in response to a flurry of citizen complaints.
"This was the best way to get the most bang for our time," Concepcion said. "We were able to dedicate about a month, investigate, and go out and make all these arrests at once."
Like Georgia, Florida has very specific laws governing the massage therapy industry. The state's massage therapy board addresses sexual contact between therapists and patients explicitly. "The massage therapist-patient relationship is founded on mutual trust," according to the state's massage therapy rules. "Sexual misconduct in the practice of massage therapy is prohibited."
In fact, 38 of 50 states have laws governing the massage therapy industry, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. Most of those require 500 or more hours of education, fees and examinations before a license will be issued.
M.K. Brennan, president of the AMTA, acknowledged that headlines like those out of Georgia and Florida, along with some portrayals of massage therapy in both news media and popular culture can be a nuisance, giving the impression that sexual favors are widely available at massage therapy centers.
"Don't call them massage parlors if they are not offering massage therapy as we have set it to be," Brennan said, describing the rigid licensing restrictions most therapists face and which her organization works to strengthen.
One of their ongoing goals, she said, is to disassociate prostitution from the overwhelming majority of massage therapists who offer legitimate wellness services. Brennan even cringed at the language like massage "parlor" and "masseuse," claiming that the words' connotations are misleadingly suggestive.
Massage therapists work in massage therapy centers, she said.
Brennan said they have made some positive strides in eroding these stereotypes. "We do believe the vast majority of Americans know the value and legitimacy of massage therapy," she said.