Terminating a client for inappropriate and sexual behavior is never something we want to deal with, yet sometimes it is a necessary action we must take. Handling a situation like this can be very difficult, but knowing what to do and taking steps from the initial meeting with the client is important.
We must be well-educated and we must feel very comfortable doing so. Given its taboo nature, this may not be something that was taught to you in school or taught thoroughly.
I remember touching on this topic just briefly, and what I’ve learned has been from continuing education classes, trainings I’ve received in my past massage therapy positions and, unfortunately, experience.
Boundaries in the Client-Therapist Relationship
One of the things taught in school, however, was that you must establish your boundaries. Establishing a clear boundary in your treatment room is essential to your ethical, legal and professional responsibilities as a massage therapist. Clear boundaries make it obvious when you need to terminate a client-therapist relationship.
A boundary can also help eliminate any potential situations that a professional such as yourself may not want to encounter with a client. A boundary will help you clearly define what you will and will not do and what you will and will not accept in client behavior.
There are various ways to create that foundation of boundaries with a client and to prevent the crossing of a sexual boundary. One obvious way is through your draping techniques.
We must remember that massage creates a situation where the client relies on the therapist to provide a relaxing and pain-relieving environment, and because there is such close contact between therapist and client there will always be a certain level of intimacy, as that client is either fully or partially unclothed.
With that said, this level of intimacy needs to be matched with an equal amount of trust by the client and massage therapist both.
A simple way to let your client know that draping will be used throughout the entire session is to include this on the intake or client consent form. This informed consent will let the client know that you intend on keeping the client draped at all times and what will happen if the client requests or urges that draping not be used: You will terminate the session.
In addition to including this on the intake, be sure to mention it in your pre-consultation. Simply explaining how you will start the session, what you may do during the session and that the client will be draped at all times is sufficient to get your point across.
For example: “Katherine, I will start you face down, and will be sure to spend extra time on your shoulders per your request. You will also be draped the entire time and only the area I am working on will be undraped.”
You will want to describe exactly how you want the client on the table and what linen(s) you want him or her under. I often draw back the linens for the client in order to show which linens the client should be under. This ensures there is no miscommunication.
Once your session has started you may need to re-state your boundaries. When entering the treatment room and you notice that the client has not covered him- or herself entirely, feel free to reposition the linen and blanket for the coverage you desire.
If your client requests that you remove the drape because he or she is feeling warm, offer to turn the table warmer off or down. If the client expresses they are warm, and you are able to, offer to remove the very top blanket or quilt, but not the flat linen. In my experience even just uncovering the feet can help with an overheated client.
If the client begins to pull at the drape or exposes more of his or her body, he or she may be crossing your boundary. Verbalize your concern, restating that draping will always be used in your sessions and then physically re-secure the drape.
In some instances, the client may still insist on removing the drape even though you’ve done all you can to make him or her comfortable, or the client may simply remove the draping him- or herself.
If this type of behavior persists and begins to make you feel uncomfortable, it may not be an accident or a lapse in judgment, and you are well within your rights to terminate the session.
Sexual Comments, Remarks and Actions
One boundary that is easily and frequently crossed is that of a social nature. We are social creatures, so it is inherent that we will show interest in the lives of our clients, and it’s inevitable that most of them will discuss what is happening in their lives.
However, when a client becomes too comfortable with his or her massage therapist, it can open a door that can lead to comments or remarks that may not be appropriate in the treatment room.
Making sexual jokes, asking overly personal questions, discussing their sexuality or intimate or romantic relationships are all examples of clients potentially crossing your social boundary. When this happens, your goal should be to regain that client’s focus back on his or her massage session.
Some key things to keep in mind to avoid this type of situation are to first avoid gossip. Don’t discuss any personal information that does not relate to the session. If you notice that you have become too informal, apologize and let the client know that it’s time to relax and you will cease any unneeded conversation because you want the client to get the most benefit from the session.
Unfortunately, a client may take this a step further to initiate sexual intent.
If a client crosses that line and touches you or him- or herself in an inappropriate way or asks for you to partake in any inappropriate behaviors, or if you feel as if the client’s behavior has become in any way intimidating, break any physical contact you may have with the client, immediately step away from the table, and position yourself so that you can easily exit the room if needed.
If any of these situations occur, more than likely it is time for you to terminate the session.
Terminating the Session
Terminating a session can be a challenging task; however, for your own safety, the safety of other potential therapists, the massage establishment you may work for and our industry as a whole, it must be done.
After stepping away from the table, have a conversation directly discussing what occurred. Describe the inappropriate behavior experienced to the client and ask for the client’s feedback so he or she may have the opportunity to explain intent.
How you do this and what you say will often depend on whether you work for yourself or for someone else.
For example, in our Retreats, when a therapist needs to terminate a session, she or he is trained that all that’s needed to be said is, “Mr. Smith, I’m terminating the session because I am feeling uncomfortable. My Retreat Director (manager) will meet and assist you at the front desk.”
From there, the therapist will discuss with the manager what happened, and the Retreat Director will meet the client, take the client into the manager’s office, discuss what happened with the client and document the incident.
There may be a different process where you work, but you should be thoroughly educated on what that process is. If you work for yourself, be sure you have a consistent and well-practiced way of terminating a session, as this can be a terrifying situation and the more you practice, the easier it will be.
Always keep in mind that your safety is of the utmost importance and that based on the severity of the situation you may need to remove yourself immediately from the room and call the authorities.
We always want to do our best and give our clients a professional experience, and the majority of clients understand what our limitations are and will not cross those lines.
However, it is important to remember that part of our role as the professional in the room is to outline boundaries related to the client-therapist relationship, and uphold our professional ethics. Part of doing so is knowing what to do when faced with the types of situations described here.
If you haven’t experienced this, then I would highly recommend participating in a continuing education class that discusses boundaries in full. Talking to another trusted professional to discuss possible ways of handling such situations can also be helpful.
The worst thing you can do is wait until something happens, so take time to educate yourself.
About the Author
Nichole Velez, L.M.T., is training and development manager for Massage Heights. She has written articles for massagemag.com including “3 False Beliefs About Massage Sales Success,” “Master These 3 Steps to Please Even the Most Unhappy Customer,” “The Road to Leadership Success,” “Find the Right Job with a Topnotch Résumé” and “Do You Communicate to Build Long Term Clients?”