A woman holds her hand out in front of her in a gesture of "stay away" to illustrate the concept of personal safety.

Working in a stigmatized industry means having to traverse solicitation, innuendos and generally inappropriate behaviors on a regular basis. There are, however, specific things a massage therapist can do to increase and ensure, as best as possible, their personal safety.

Traumatic Encounters

I was not prepared for the amount of sexual harassment or solicitation I would receive after becoming a licensed massage therapist.

Throughout the massage program I attended, my instructors would frequently discuss harassment or inappropriate behavior throughout our ethics training or in regard to their own personal experiences. In practice, however, no amount of training fully prepared me for how to respond to predatory behavior when I came face to face with it.

Each encounter was traumatic for me. As a newly licensed therapist, I had a difficult time navigating a brand-new industry while also attempting to process these distressing occurrences.

I went on to experience various levels of harassment at every location I worked, including private practices, franchises, health care facilities and chiropractic offices. I considered leaving the industry altogether when I realized there was not a lot of resources available for massage therapists with respect to our personal safety.

Survey Says

As a new massage therapist, I began to seek advice from other therapists and learned that most of us were having similar experiences. In fact, we were not alone.

In August 2020, a study published by the University of Toronto Press discovered that out of the massage therapists surveyed, 74.8% experienced sexual harassment from clients, with 26.5% experiencing harassment on more than three occasions. Furthermore, of the surveyed population, only one therapist reported the incident to the police.

That November, the Association of New Brunswick Massage Therapists conducted an online survey and found similar results. Among the respondents of the survey, 75% of massage therapists experienced sexual harassment or assault at least once, with 27% claiming multiple encounters.

Research with other groups has made it clear that there are many forms of physical and psychological consequences of sexual harassment and assault including anxiety, depression and trauma.

Stigma in the Massage Field

Massage related to sexuality has been around for centuries; in fact, ancient Greek doctors used to prescribe it as part of health care. Erotic massage has since moved away from the realm of health care and is illegal in most places. (It is legal only where prostitution is legal, such as in certain areas within Nevada in the U.S.) The term “happy ending” was born in 1999 when a Weekend Australian article described massage parlors as giving “guaranteed happy endings,” in reference to orgasm.

That happy-ending stigma is alive today in our pop culture. We often see the trope associated with massage therapists in movies, TV shows and other forms of media. As a society, when we discuss massage therapy we often hear jokes about happy endings; however, these jokes are not harmless.

Establishments that engage in illicit sexual services and offer happy endings (i.e., prostitution) are often engaging in human trafficking. These jokes, and the frequenting of these institutions, contribute to modern-day slavery and put a lot of lives—both the people trafficked and legitimate massage therapists—in danger. Human trafficking is usually an aspect of organized crime syndicates, according to the International Criminal Police Organization.

According to the Polaris Project, a social justice movement fighting sex and labor tracking, illicit fronts claiming to be massage businesses are among the most common venues for sex trafficking. In the U.S., sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry. There are estimated 9,000 active trafficking organizations disguised as massage parlors today, according to the Polaris Project.

Take Charge of Your Personal Safety

These illegitimate businesses and happy-ending tropes create a public misconception of the massage therapy industry. This fallacy leaves us vulnerable and more susceptible to solicitation and sexual violence.

To better protect ourselves, we need to prevent sexual solicitors from entering our space in the first place. Taking charge of our safety by being proactive can be an effective strategy. Being proactive in order to protect our personal safety will not only help us avoid dangerous situations, but it will also allow us to have more control over our circumstances.

To become more proactive, we need to understand the importance of planning ahead. Planning ahead will help ensure we do not become overwhelmed or frantic when facing problematic clients. Developing the organizational skills to plan ahead may not be as hard as you think. Taking such simple steps as outlining your boundaries and becoming familiar with your company’s policies will help you become more organized.

Recognize the Signs of a Solicitor

Sexual solicitors often must be creative and tactful when seeking illegal services.

Some signs of a solicitor:

Power dynamic negotiations: Predators will attempt to gain control over the therapeutic relationship to coerce their therapist. This may look like haggling over the drape. A common red flag we may see is when a client or potential client requests a hand towel or no drape at all for various reasons. Regardless of the reasoning behind their request, this may be a warning sign of someone seeking inappropriate services.

Gaslighting: This is a form is emotional manipulation that undermines the victim’s perceived reality. A gaslighter will attempt to convince their target that they are overreacting or misunderstanding the situation. These behaviors sow doubt into our confidence and ability to make decisions concerning the therapeutic relationship. We may even begin to feel guilty for speaking out against their behavior in the first place.

Boundary pushing: Offenders will attempt to gauge their subject’s acceptance of predatory behavior by slowly pushing into their boundaries to determine how they may react to further manipulation or maltreatment. It is important that we have clearly defined boundaries to protect our physical and mental health.

Requesting photos: Allowing customers to select their practitioner through a lineup of photos is a common practice in illegal brothels or trafficking fronts. If a client requests a photo of their therapist while scheduling an appointment, it is likely they have ill intentions.

Trying to figure out if you are a victim of sexual solicitation or predatory behavior can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there a few simple practices you can put in place to help protect your personal safety. Having clearly defined policies and screening processes in place can help establish an environment that is less permissible for predatory behavior.

Screening Process

Screening clients allows us the opportunity to recognize the red flags of sexual solicitors before they get onto our table. By vetting potential clients, we can determine if their intentions are legitimate or if they are seeking illegal services.

There are three things we should ask every client before scheduling an appointment with them:

1. “How did you come across my information, specifically?”

Were they searching for deep tissue massage or for a nuru massage, an erotic massage that includes full body, skin-to-skin contact?

2. “What are your treatment goals?”

Are they seeking pain relief and stress management or a “full-body release”? The latter is a common phrase used when searching for a “happy ending.”

3. “Have you ever had a professional massage before? If so, where?”

We want to determine what their previous experiences with massage therapy have been and establish expectations. While the term “massage parlor” may be used innocently, the term is often associated with illegal practices. Depending on their answer to question 3, some follow-up questions may be warranted.

Clearly Post Your Policies

One of the ways to establish yourself as a professional and legitimate business is to have clearly posted policies.

Policies set transparent standards while creating accountability and establishing expectations within the client-therapist relationship. If there were ever a policy violation, terminating the therapeutic relationship or refusing service would be made with ease by have communicated reasonable cause.

If you are an employee, it’s a good idea to determine whether your workplace has a sexual harassment policy in place. The good news is that many companies have policies in place to help keep their employees safe from sexual predators.

If you experience predatory behavior by a client, end the session immediately. If you work in a multi-massage therapist practice, reach out to your leadership immediately so this person can’t book with one of your colleagues.

Destigmatizing the Industry

Many massage therapists are dealing with sexual harassment. However, the stories of the victims are not being valued.

My hope is that through the power of education and awareness, we can begin to destigmatize the massage industry. It is important that we educate the public on what massage therapy and is not; that we call out these problematic clichés that endanger the vulnerable public as well as massage therapists; and that we allow therapists the space needed to speak out against harassment they may experience, while supporting them as best we can.

Massage therapy has become a multimillion-dollar industry and often a source of relief for physically deprived, lonely individuals. It is important that we have a clear distinction between massage and prostitution. However, not everyone is aware of this difference.

Join the Community

Join the Facebook communityLMTs For Zero Tolerance. This group was created to be a safe space for massage therapists to speak out against or seek advice pertaining to harassment. The intention is to share resources and support to assist each other in navigating the dangers that are associated with sexual solicitation.

Together, we can build each other up, create higher industry standards and reduce the stigma that plagues our industry.

Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles in a series, by Priscilla Fleming, that will address safety issues in the massage therapy industry. Part Two will run on Feb. 1 and Part Three will run on March 1.

Priscilla Fleming

About the Author

Priscilla Fleming, LMBT, NMT, APCE, is an educator, author and massage therapist practicing in North Carolina. Her ethics course Safety and Solicitation – Gaslighting & Power Dynamics was created after her own experiences with sexual harassment in the industry. This National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork-approved course is designed to give therapists the tools to confidently screen new clients, recognize the signs of sexual solicitors, and professionally decline clients or terminate the relationship with a client that makes you uncomfortable.