Massage therapists in Sri Lanka not 'banned from taking clients of opposite sex'

Social media users in Sri Lanka have shared a misleading claim that massage therapists in the crisis-hit island nation have been banned from taking clients of the opposite sex. It circulated after a local newspaper reported the government was drafting regulations to allow only same-sex massages to minimise "the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases". A government minister told parliament there is no truth to the claim and, as of January 26, Sri Lanka has not imposed any such ban.

"Women banned from massaging men? From here on, only same-sex massages will be allowed," reads Sinhala-language text superimposed on an image of people receiving massages shared on Facebook here on January 16, 2023.

The post's caption -- also written in Sinhala -- begins by saying reports claim "women have been banned from massaging men" before also saying a ban is forthcoming.

"Ayurveda Commissioner Dhammika Abeygunawardena says steps are underway to amend regulations that will prohibit providing massages to customers who are of the opposite sex of the massage therapist. This measure will be implemented due to the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS," it reads.

Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine with origins in India that uses natural and holistic remedies to treat physical and mental health conditions.

In Sri Lanka, the Department of Ayurveda, which comes under the Ministry of Health, administers and regulates the use of traditional and indigenous medicine.

Screenshot of the misleading Facebook post, captured on January 19, 2023

The claim circulated after local newspaper Aruna published a Sinhala-language article here on January 16, headlined "Women banned from massaging men".

The article says the decision was announced by the Ayurveda Commissioner Dhammika Abeygunawardena.

"The commissioner notes the laws were being drafted as a measure aimed at minimising the risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS spreading at spas and massage centres."

The same claim was repeated in multiple Facebook posts, including here and here.

Comments left by some users suggested they believed a ban had already been imposed.

"Priorities in Sri Lanka. Never mind those suffering in hunger, moral policing of massage parlours take priority," read one comment, appearing to reference the country's unprecedented economic crisis.

Another comment said: "What kind of idiots are making these decisions? What kind of absurdity is this? Sri Lanka is turning into an Afghanistan."

The claim, however, is misleading; Sri Lanka has not instituted a ban on massage therapists accepting clients of the opposite sex as of January 26.

Commissioner disputes report

Abeygunawardena, the commissioner of Sri Lanka's Ayurveda Department, told AFP in a phone call on January 19 that the claim was "false and completely fabricated", despite the Aruna newspaper's insistence that he had indicated the ban was being proposed.

"I had never spoken to the reporter who wrote the story on this topic and no such decision has been made," he said.

A spokesperson for the newspaper told AFP in a phone call on January 20 that it stood by the content it published.

"We have the recording of our journalist's conversation with the commissioner. We stand by the article we published on January 16," the spokesperson said.

The State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Sisira Jayakody also said there was no truth to the claim in the Aruna news article in parliament on January 17.

Jayakody's remarks can be seen at the one-hour, 52-minute and 59-second mark of this recording of the January 17 session of parliament, uploaded to the body's official YouTube channel.

"Please refrain from spreading false claims such as this," he says during his speech.

The statement was reported by Aruna here in an article that reads: "State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Sisira Jayakody making a statement in parliament on January 17 said the newspaper report in Aruna which claims that women will be banned from massaging men is false."

As of January 26, there was no law in Sri Lanka that banned women from providing massages to men or vice versa, and the government gazette for the week of January 20 made no mention of a proposed law on the issue.