Sexual Misconduct in the Massage Room: Learn to Protect Yourself

Massage safety and ethics

There has been a lot of coverage on sexual misconduct in the media lately with the #metoo movement and the Massage Envy scandal. I feel it’s important that we’re bringing to light how much sexual abuse goes on in the world so that we can hopefully reduce its occurence. I too have been a victim of sexual misconduct. I feel like this wouldn’t have happened to me had I known the laws and ethics of massage therapy. That is why I’m sharing this with you today. I want you to read this, become familiar with it, and pass it along so that others are able to better identify when they are being taken advantage of and/or abused by their massage therapist. 

There are laws regarding ethical boundaries that massage therapists are required to obey. These laws vary from state to state, but many are very similar. We study them to get our license and in Washington State, we have to include these classes in our license renewal every two years in order to keep the rules fresh in our minds as we continue in our healing profession. Because of my experience with abuse, I realize that sometimes the client is not aware of what is right and what is wrong in the massage room. These guidelines and laws are taught to massage therapists, but they’re not usually posted for the clients to see. This is one of the reasons why it’s such a gross abuse of power when a therapist enters into a sexual relationship with a client. The therapist absolutely knows better, but the client might not. I have decided to take my negative experience and turn it into something positive by giving you an example of what can happen and what you can do if it does.  
It doesn’t always start out as some obscene sexual assault as reported in many of the accounts made by clients of James Deiter of Massage Envy. Sometimes it starts off as something that seems sweet and loving. My offender was a 41 year old massage therapist that had been in practice for many years. I was 22 and well-versed in abuse. My youth, naivety, and behavioral patterns made me especially vulnerable to predators. 

During our first session he began to ask me questions about my personal life. I openly answered them, thinking nothing of it. He started telling me how beautiful I was and that I was a goddess and should be treated with respect. I was so flattered. I thought, “Wow! Here’s someone being so nice to me. I really like this!” I didn’t realize he was baiting me.

I went back for more sessions. Each session got more personal. He would “accidentally” undrape my breasts or my butt, he continued to inflate my ego, etc. When I told him I had feelings for him, he said he wasn’t really supposed to date clients but could make an exception. I still remember the sentence he said to me when he was trying to make sure I wouldn’t tell anyone about the relationship: “Everyone wants to be the victim, Rhonda.” I assured him that I didn’t and that I wasn’t a victim, and we soon entered into a sexual relationship. But I was the victim and he knew it. He knew exactly what he was doing and it was completely unethical. He asked me very personal questions, flirted with me, and once I developed feelings for him (which is what he wanted), he allowed the relationship to go further instead of terminating it.

I started massage school shortly after I began seeing him, so he offered to mentor me and have me work for him, which I also now know is wrong. You’re not suppose to date your clients or your employees. I didn’t understand that power differential then, so I was excited. I kept thinking how lucky I was. It wasn’t until I got to the ethics part of my massage program that I became absolutely horrified. It was like a shock to my system. I suddenly realized how wrong everything he had done really was. I was embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated. I couldn’t even talk to him. I left a message on his voicemail saying that I’d made other plans for a mentor and that I wouldn’t be stopping by anymore. I never addressed the sexual abuse with him. I just ran away. I felt like such a fool. To make matters even worse, I later found out that he was married and had children. No wonder he would only see me at his office. I felt like an even bigger idiot. This all happened almost 17 years ago, and it’s still embarrassing to me.

I’ve been working in the massage field for about 15 years now, and every two years I have to take an ethics refresher, and every two years I get angry all over again. Mostly I get angry at myself for never coming forward and reporting him. I often wonder how many other women he did the same thing to. It wasn’t until this year that I was ready to pursue filing a complaint that might get his license revoked, but when I looked him up I found that he was not in practice anymore. This was such a relief for me on so many levels. I understand the shame involved in sexual abuse and why it’s so hard for people to talk about it. Until now, I had only shared this with a few friends, a couple relatives, and my counselor. 

I hope that sharing my experience will help prevent you or your loved ones from having the same thing happen. Some predators are not outlandish; some are very manipulative and patient. The psychological trauma that comes from dealing with someone like that can run deep.  Here are some less obvious unethical things that you really need to watch out for. Had I known these things, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into that uncomfortable situation.

It is not okay for your massage therapist to:
-Make statements regarding your body, appearance, sexual history, or sexual orientation other than for legitimate health care purposes.
-Terminate a professional relationship for the purpose of dating or pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship.
-Solicit a date with a client.
-Kiss a client.
-Hug, touch, fondle or caress a client in a romantic or sexual nature.
-Demonstrate behaviors, gestures, or expressions that may reasonably be interpreted as seductive or sexual.
-Photograph or film the body or any body part or pose of a client other than for health care purposes.

All of the above guidelines are listed under the sexual misconduct section of WAC 246-16-100. The more obvious ones are also listed, such as no sexual intercourse, no sexual favors in exchange for services, etc. If your massage therapist demonstrates any of these behaviors, you have the right to terminate the session and report the therapist for unethical behavior and/or contact the police.

Massage therapists also have limitations in our practice that you need to know about. It is not in our standards of practice to touch the gluteal cleft below the coccyx, anus, rectum, genitals, breasts, or inside the mouth. However, there are some massage therapists that have received specialized training and can perform breast massage, and/or touch the inside of the mouth. You need to make sure your therapist has taken the appropriate courses and has the additional certifications before you receive treatment in these special circumstances. For example, I can work inside the mouth because I have taken 16 additional hours of intra-oral massage classes and added this certification to my massage license. 

There are also specific coverage and draping rules we must adhere to. When I first opened practice in WA State I had a client ask me if it was okay for a massage therapist to undrape her butt. She had gone to a male massage therapist that had completely undraped her butt while he was working on her, exposing her gluteal cleft. That is not okay. That is considered sexual misconduct. A client must be allowed privacy to dress and undress and be provided draping. The drape must cover the genitals, gluteal cleft distal to the coccyx, anus, rectum, and breasts. Only with prior written, verbal, and signed informed consent of the client, may the gluteal and breast drapes be temporarily moved in order to perform therapeutic treatment of the area. Let me repeat that: Only with prior written, verbal, and signed consent, meaning you have to give permission in three different ways before you ever even get on the table for such treatment. One of the reasons we have this rule is because being on the table puts people in a more vulnerable position and may make them more likely to agree to something they may have otherwise said no to. The therapist must also maintain evidence of training in the specific modalities that would require such variations in draping. 

A Massage therapist is the client’s caregiver when that person is on the table. There is an imbalance of power in this situation. The therapist is usually standing up, fully dressed, while the client is lying down, fully or partially undressed and covered by only a sheet, towel, and/or blanket. This puts the client in a vulnerable position. Every licensed massage therapist has received training on respecting this dynamic, having healthy boundaries, and providing a safe and relaxing atmosphere for healing to take place. Unfortunately, some therapists do not take this training seriously. It is time to weed them out. I am so grateful for the women that have had the courage to step forward and make the effort to stop this abuse of power.

It is heartbreaking to me every time I hear a story of another person who was sexually abused by a massage therapist. I think about what I went through. I think about how I wish I would have said something, reported him. Who knows how many other women he harassed. What I can do with my experience now is educate you so that you are prepared should anything like that ever come up for you or someone you know. 

If something does occur, I hope you have the courage to file a complaint and/or contact your local police department. Sharing your story can make difference. This is how we stop the abuse. Thank you for taking the time to read about my experience and educate yourself on the ethical side of things regarding massage therapy. I hope that the information provided here helps make your journey in life a safer one.

Rhonda HancockComment