This three-part report on sexual misconduct—and preventing it in one’s spa, clinic, practice or school—is authored by educator and author Ben E. Benjamin, PhD. Benjamin has worked as an expert witness in cases involving sexual abuse, and co-authored the book The Ethics of Touch. He has taught courses in ethics, boundaries and communication for more than 30 years. This is Part Three, “Guidelines for Clients.”
I’ll conclude this series of articles with guidelines that should be made available for all clients to educate them about the warning signs of predatory therapists.
If you are a massage therapy or bodywork client, or potential client, please know that almost all massage therapists are honest, professional people who wish to provide the best care possible.
Also be aware that there are some unscrupulous, predatory, unhealthy people who slip into the profession and can harm you.
Warning Signs of Predators
It’s important to be aware of the warning signs of inappropriate behavior. All of the following are red flags:
- Making any contact with the genital region.
- Making contact with the breast without a good reason, prior discussion and consent.
- Working on the upper inner thigh without explicit permission.
- Making sexual comments or jokes.
- Making a pass at you.
- Making inappropriate comments about your body.
- Offering to give you a session at your home.
- Offering to massage you for free.
- Not asking, prior to the session, which areas you want the therapist to focus on or to avoid working on.
- Requiring or pressuring you to be nude in your massage session.
- Not leaving the room while you are undressing or dressing prior to and after the session.
- Touching any part of your body with the front of their pelvis.
- Trying to convince you to let them perform a technique you are uncomfortable with.
- Using poor or loose draping or holding the drape too high when you turn over, leaving you feeling exposed.
- Using touch that feels more sexual than therapeutic (such as brushing with the fingertips).
- Volunteering excessive or unnecessary information about their personal life.
In addition to these specific inappropriate behaviors, another warning sign is feeling uncomfortable in a session, without knowing why.
If something is happening that you haven’t agreed to, if you are unsure what is happening, or if you begin to feel uncomfortable, trust your instinct.
Many abuse scenarios begin with minor violations that clients notice but do not directly address, thinking they may be imagining something or overreacting.
Heeding the Signs
What can you do if one of these warning signs occurs? The guidelines that follow outline what I recommend doing—if you’re able. (As I’ll discuss, this is a big if; usually the freeze response makes it extremely difficult to take action.)
As soon as you feel, observe or sense any of the warning signs described here, stop the session immediately.
If in doubt, don’t remain silent.
You can simply say, “Stop!” Then sit up, keeping your body covered by holding the drape.
As the client, you are always entitled to ask a therapist to stop what they’re doing, and end the session—at any time, for any reason.
Speaking up right away will greatly increase your ability to protect yourself. In most cases of therapist sexual abuse, the client goes into a physiological freeze response. It is extremely difficult to speak up while being sexually mistreated. If you can, stop the session as soon as you feel even mildly uncomfortable.
If you suspect that the therapist made an honest mistake and there’s a chance you’d want to continue the session, you can talk with him or her directly about what happened. For instance, you might tell the therapist that his or her touch felt too light and ask for their agreement to use a firmer touch from this point on.
If you’re not fully comfortable continuing with the massage, tell the therapist you want to end the session, ask the therapist to leave the room, and get dressed.
If you suspect an honest mistake and feel comfortable talking to the therapist about what happened, that’s a good place to start.
If you suspect intentional inappropriate behavior, report the incident immediately to the management, the police, and your state’s board of massage.
If you give a verbal report of the abuse to the massage business management, ask to see how they have documented it in writing to make sure that it’s accurate and nothing has been left out or changed.
Following the guidelines above is the best way I know to respond to a sexual boundary violation in a massage or bodywork session.
The more you can recognize the early signs of trouble, trust your gut when something doesn’t feel right, and take action, the better your chances of keeping yourself safe.
As mentioned earlier, however, the most common reaction in these situations is a freeze response.
The shock reaction, frequently coupled with feelings of shame and other strong emotions, may last for some time. Should you freeze and find yourself unable to do anything right at the moment, focus on moving toward action as soon as you can, in whatever way feels safe.
You might call someone you trust and ask them to meet you and provide support as you file a police report. And whatever degree of boundary violation occurred, I strongly recommend you consult a therapist or seek other forms of support.
There are many qualified professionals with experience counseling individuals who’ve experienced this type of incident.
Most massage therapists trained in the U.S. do not learn enough in massage school to be qualified to perform breast massage (treatment under or near breast tissue), but some have had good-quality training or postgraduate education.
There are several reasons a woman may want to have breast massage or injury treatment near or under the breast tissue, including a painful, clogged milk duct for a mother who is breast feeding, a painful post-mastectomy scar, a strained lower pectoral muscle which goes under the breast or strained intercostal muscles (breathing muscles between the ribs) that are near, at the side or under the lower breast tissue.
Two factors are essential for the client in need of breast treatment or treatment near breast tissue: therapist education and trustworthiness.
Before seeking out or agreeing to breast massage or treatment near or beneath breast tissue, question the therapist carefully about the education and experience he or she has received. It is also quite appropriate to ask for contact information for one or more clients who have received this work from the therapist.
Take your time to decide and never let yourself be pressured into saying yes. A trustworthy professional will offer information, answer all questions, and expect the client to take some time to think it through.
It is also always appropriate to stop and think about whether you feel you can trust a therapist with this more sensitive type of treatment, even if you are comfortable receiving other types of work from the person.
You may personally prefer to receive breast treatment from a female massage therapist. It’s perfectly OK to make this choice. A principled therapist will always respect it and probably have referrals to offer.
On the Side of Caution
Every time I hear of new cases of sexual abuse, I feel angry and deeply saddened, both for the clients and for the therapists; these perpetrators are unhealthy and disturbed individuals. I’m also frustrated to see many missed opportunities for prevention.
Quite a few cases have involved clear management negligence, where massage business owners, managers, or supervisors failed to do simple background checks or to take complaints seriously and investigate them.
To some of you working in the field, the precautions I advocate might sound a bit extreme. I assure you they are not.
Erring on the side of caution protects not only our clients and our individual massage business, but also the reputation of our profession as a whole. Massage therapy has been shown to have tremendous value in promoting health and well-being. Everyone has a right to enjoy these benefits without fear of sexual, physical or emotional harm.
About the Author
Since 2004, Ben E. Benjamin, PhD, has worked as an expert witness in cases involving sexual abuse by massage therapists and bodyworkers. He has authored many articles on professional ethics and co-authored the Ethics of Touch with Cherie Sohnen-Moe (Sohnen-Moe Associates, 2013). Benjamin has taught courses in ethics, boundaries and communication to somatic therapists for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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