Stafford authorities are concerned that some of the massage parlors popping up around the county may be exploiting a loophole in the state’s law against prostitution.

The Sheriff’s Office thinks at least a dozen of Stafford’s massage parlors offer “masturbation services,” which Virginia law “strangely” does not explicitly prohibit, according to a county report. So the county wants to take matters into its own hands.

The Board of Supervisors voted this month to authorize the advertisement of a public hearing for a county ordinance that would ban sexual acts, including masturbation, for money. The proposed ordinance defines the sexual act at issue as “the erotic stimulation of the genitals of oneself or another by manual or other means.”

Violations would be a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen said the Sheriff’s Office asked him to put forward the ordinance because state law makes it difficult to prosecute the growing number of massage parlors that offer so-called “happy endings.”

“There may be other things going on … that we could prosecute, but the evidence we’re turning up is that many [parlors] are existing solely for the purposes of those types of massages,” he said.

State law makes it illegal for someone to offer money in exchange for sex or oral sex, but does not mention masturbation.

Olsen said the Sheriff’s Office identified the illicit parlors through “surveillance of the establishments,” but declined to elaborate. A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said the information came from residents and websites that “promote massage parlors offering these activities.”

A website that offers information and reviews about “erotic massage parlors” identified at least 11 such businesses in the county, most of them in strip shopping centers in North Stafford.

The Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to combating human trafficking, stated in a report this year that the illicit massage business is booming, with more than 9,000 such parlors countrywide.

The businesses bring in an estimated $2.5 billion annually and represent the second-largest U.S. human trafficking industry, behind only escort services. Most trafficking victims come from China or South Korea.

None of Stafford’s massage parlors are suspected of sex trafficking, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The Polaris report stated that law enforcement agencies rarely target customers of those parlors. “It is very likely that without the availability of such businesses, this particular subset of risk-averse commercial sex buyers would remove themselves from the commercial sex marketplace,” the report stated.

Virginia does have another law against maintaining or visiting a bawdy place used for “lewdness, assignation or prostitution.” Thomas Soldan, a Leesburg defense attorney, said Stafford could charge illicit parlors with that offense because the definition of a bawdy house is broader.

“The vast majority of solicitation prosecutions have to do with undercover or coordinated sting activities,” Soldan said. “And law enforcement’s knowledgeable of what the code requires.”

Amanda Vicinanzo, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said in an email that none of the massage parlors have been charged with keeping a bawdy place because the questionable activity will not technically be illegal until the county passes the ordinance.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County also have several “erotic massage parlors,” according to the website devoted to those businesses. Neither locality has an ordinance defining prostitution.

Soldan said judges have upheld the right of localities to establish criminal ordinances that go beyond state law. Loudoun County, for instance, won a legal battle over an ordinance stating that residents cannot “hinder” a deputy, a rule that is much broader than Virginia’s obstruction of justice law, he said.

The proposal in Stafford is not the first time a local law enforcement agency has attempted to crack down on illicit massage parlors.

In 2006, the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office made national headlines after detectives received sexual services from a massage parlor to gather evidence against the business. Then-Sheriff Howard Smith said at the time that sexual contact was necessary to prosecute the parlor because most prostitutes are careful not to say anything incriminating.

He rescinded the policy after an outcry.

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com