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Reiki masters flex muscle on Beacon Hill

A practitioner performed reiki.
Mark Wilson/Globe Staff
A practitioner performed reiki.

Think of a powerful political lobbying organization, and the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma might come to mind — probably not “Big Reiki.”

But the peaceful, unorganized practitioners of reiki have been the only ones opposing a bill presented as a common-sense way to curb sex trafficking. Three years running, they have successfully fought such legislation on Beacon Hill because it would require them to be licensed by the state.

Now, they are formalizing their efforts, creating the Massachusetts Coalition for Holistic Health Care Practitioners to combat the latest version of the bill, which has gained urgency due to the sex trafficking sting operation at illicit massage businesses in Florida. The sponsors, state Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, and Attorney General Maura T. Healey, say that the bill would give the state the authority to oversee and inspect so-called bodyworks businesses that are now totally unregulated and that have been used by illicit business owners as fronts for prostitution and sex trafficking.

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Just this month, the operators of a bodyworks spa in Norwell were charged with human trafficking after an undercover operation and surveillance by police. Though the owner had a massage license, she instead opened the business as a bodyworks spa, the police report said. Unlike massage businesses, the report noted, spas that say they provide bodywork are not regulated by the state.

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Although some spas say they provide bodywork, the term is also used to refer to an array of holistic practices, including reiki, which were exempted from state licensing for massage therapists.

The bodyworks loophole “creates an environment that allows human traffickers to operate under the guise of these unlicensed businesses,” Healey spokeswoman Emalie Gainey said in a statement. Licensing “will help to legitimize law-abiding healing practitioners, while at the same time, allow the state to shut down fronts and illicit actors in this industry.”

The healers think that’s hogwash.

“We don’t think licensing is going to strengthen the efforts against human trafficking. That’s at the crux of it,” said Kathy Madison, a reiki practitioner and public relations specialist.

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She and others note that licensing requirements have not eradicated prostitution and sex trafficking at illicit massage parlors. Massachusetts’ Board of Registration of Massage Therapy has just two investigators assigned to inspect the state’s 1,882 licensed massage therapy establishments. All 10 Florida spas raided in a sex trafficking investigation that led to solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had valid massage licenses with the Department of Health, according to the state agency’s website.

“Massachusetts doesn’t enforce the laws that are already on the books,” said Rita Glassman, a reiki master who formed the coalition. “There’s great discrimination against women.” She noted that prostitutes are more regularly arrested than the “johns” who hire them for illegal sexual acts. And, as several practitioners noted, police haven’t been called to illicit shiatsu or acupressure businesses, so why target them?

Reiki is a healing practice based on energy fields and used for stress reduction, pain reduction, and cancer treatment. It’s the epitome of gentle : It involves light touch or no touch at all, with hands positioned a few inches over the body.

But this “community of healers,” as practitioners call themselves, has proved to be a noisy political force. Last year, they stormed the State House to make their voices heard, overwhelming legislative staffers with their numbers and their opposition.

Their new change.org petition has attracted more than 12,000 signatures condemning Montigny’s bill as “a clear and present threat to energy work” and warning that its language could be a slippery slope because it governs those who use “touch, words, or directed movement to deepen awareness of patterns of movement in the body.” Could guided meditation be next?

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On this point, Montigny said, a group that he describes as “the most liberal people on earth” sounds a lot like libertarians: Get the government out of our business.

Montigny said he doesn’t “have it out for reiki,” as has been suggested to him. He merely believes that people who present themselves as healers should care about impersonators who “exploit vulnerable women and children.”

“It’s really stunning to me that people can claim to have a profession and yet not want the distinction of being treated as a professional and the ability to distinguish themselves from those monsters,” said Montigny.

The reiki masters are unmoved.

Their ranks have not been exploited in the same way that Asian bodyworks spas have, they note. And they question how a state-appointed board could create curriculum and education standards for some 100 different forms of treatment that the state exempted from massage licensing requirements under the umbrella term “bodywork.” Reiki alone has 40 or 50 different lineages, some from China, some Tibet, Glassman said.

Massachusetts first crafted licensing requirements for massage therapists in 2006, and practitioners bought in, eager to gain professional recognition and standardized requirements across city and state lines.

“We initiated it,” said Ron Precht, senior manager of communications for the American Massage Therapy Association. “We were very active in trying to get states to have consistent licensing.”

But bodyworkers and other alternative health specialists resisted licensing, he noted, and the state’s legislation ultimately left them out. A clause of the law, similar to one used in other states that were beginning to regulate massage therapy, lists a whole array of holistic practices that are exempt from licensing, from reflexology — the application of pressure to points, often to the feet — to qi gong, an ancient Chinese energy mind-body-spirit practice more akin to tai chi.

Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, continues to resist licensing these groups, opposing the “overbroad definition of bodywork and the idea that a single board of registration could appropriately or even should undertake to license all of these.”

“They have nothing to do with each other conceptually or in their methods,” she said. “Plus, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that practitioners . . . are serving as either fronts for prostitution or fronts for human trafficking.”

But Representative Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who sponsored the original massage licensing bill 13 years ago, is among the cosponsors who want to close the loophole.

“You’re going to get this kind of pushback,” he said. “At some point, we have to draw the line and come up with definitions of what it is, what it means to practice that. . . . It’s upon the state to get this done.”

Others in the field support greater oversight and licensing, noting the recent news about women held against their will as sex slaves.

“I think it’s really shameful that it’s bringing down the industry. I’m in favor of legislation that will help us eliminate this from our field,” said Ali Bourgault, a massage therapist in Westford who also practices reiki.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert