The news this week sent shockwaves through the country—and through the massage therapy industry: 24-year-old massage practitioner Kayla Ann Denham was beaten and strangled to death on June 5—allegedly by a client she had scheduled with for an on-site outcall massage session in Denham Springs, Louisiana.
According to the arrest affidavit as reported by WWL-TV, Denham had a “bad feeling” about the session, and had sent a text to her boyfriend asking him to keep his phone on just in case she needed him.
When he didn’t hear from Denham again and his calls to her went unanswered, her boyfriend called the police. Christopher Landry, 25, was arrested on suspicion of murder after Denham’s body was found on his property.
Massage therapists sometimes put themselves in a vulnerable position whenever they meet a stranger—a first-time client—for an outcall session.
According to the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy, Denham did not possess a license to practice massage, which is required by the state, WWL-TV reported, but those who knew her said she practiced massage.
Denham’s story is not the only one of an attack against a massage practitioner. However, there are steps any mobile massage therapist can take to help ensure a safe outcome.
Here, massage therapists share their stories of danger averted during outcalls and how to create a massage practice rooted in security.
Stop Outcall Massage Immediately
New massage therapist Heather McAllister was working on a client in a Las Vegas, Nevada, hotel room several years ago when the man solicited her for sexual intercourse.
“Being that I was pretty fresh out of school, I didn’t know how to deal with the situation—so I started crying,” she recalled, “which naturally made him uncomfortable and caused him to apologize.”
McAllister ended the session immediately and left, although in retrospect she wishes she’d been more assertive earlier in the session, when the man asked her to use just a washcloth as draping
“I should have told him that sheets are customary, and if he had intentions of anything other than therapeutic massage, I should take my leave now,” she said.
“I did take it as a good experience, though, because I viewed it as training in how to deal with unwanted situations, even though my reaction wasn’t what I would do next time.”
McAllister, whose Heather’s Mobile Massage now offers massage in and around North Canton, Ohio, is one of the many massage therapists who offer out-call massage to homes, hotels and businesses, either as a sole practice model or to augment massage provided in a spa, franchise or private office.
Like McAllister, Heather Browns, who runs Just Jenn Outcall Massage throughout Los Angeles and San Bernardino, California, has had to end sessions abruptly due to a client’s inappropriate behavior.
“I have been asked a couple of times to do some unprofessional acts,” she said. “My response is [to] remove my hands immediately and let them firmly know that I do not do what [they’re] asking about—and that they have the wrong therapist.”
Ending a massage can be an effective way of stopping inappropriate behavior; however, there are other protocols an outcall massage therapist can put in place up-front to help prevent having to face rude—or unsafe—clients. (Statistics for the number of massage therapists who deal with such problems do not exist.)
If you can’t meet a potential client face to face before scheduling a session, then use time on the telephone to pre-screen the person.
Letson runs through a list of questions that paint her a picture of the person, including first and last name; address and phone number; place of employment; how he or she heard about Letson; if there will be a pet at the session location, or another person on-site; and if the prospective client has ever received a professional massage before, and if so, how often.
“You would be amazed how much of a read you can get from a person in one conversation,” she said, adding that after she hangs up the phone she goes online and runs the person’s name through a search engine like Google. “Also amazing how much you can discover about a person through the internet,” she said.
Letson oftentimes lines up outcall clients via free chair massage. She said she’s had some interactions with potential clients while offering chair massages that made her feel uneasy—nothing serious, “but enough to make me jot down their name so that if they call to schedule an appointment, I will know who they are,” she said.
“That is the nice thing about using chair massage as a way to get clients. This way, I am able to meet them in a public setting before deciding to take them on as a client in a private setting.”
Trust your gut
Established outcall massage therapists rely on intuition if something about a client or situation feels weird or wrong.
“Even as a male therapist with 13 years of martial arts training before becoming a massage therapist, I’ve turned down requests for massage at homes and offices if something felt off—especially if I can’t identify really why,” said Jason Nadeau, who takes massage to businesses and homes in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
In addition to intuition, or gut feeling, practicing awareness of one’s surroundings and using common sense are essential to protect oneself, said McAllister.
“Have confidence in who you are, know your limitations and be firm about them,” she said. “Don’t let money drive you to put yourself in harm’s way, [and] if something smells fishy, it’s not worth the money you could make if you go.”
According to Peter Cahill, CEO of LifeLine Response, which sells a personal protection cellphone app, there are certain warning signs that could indicate a client has nefarious plans or ideas.
These include placement of any obstacle in front of an exit, body language, over-excitement, and questions by the client intended to understand the therapist’s emergency-response process.
“Excessive nervousness is another sign that a customer could be thinking about what is known as violence of action, [meaning] the unrestricted use of speed, strength, surprise and aggression to achieve total dominance against a victim,” Cahill added.
You don’t have to wait until something dangerous begins to occur. “If you feel uncomfortable at any time, you are allowed to terminate the session,” said Sara Coady, who owns Mind Over Matter Massage Therapy Services in Rapid City, South Dakota. “Don’t be afraid of losing clientele because they made you feel uncomfortable,” she said.
Put it in writing
Sending a potential client your oucall policies and ethical boundaries in writing leaves no room for misinterpretation, said Letson. She created an Outcall Massage Policies document that she emails to every potential client.
It states, “The massage I provide is strictly a therapeutic, nonsexual massage. The session will be terminated immediately following any inappropriate or sexually suggestive remarks or advances. A refund will not be issued, and further action may be taken.”
Weave a safety net
Letting a friend or colleague know where you will be during an outcall massage and checking in with that person when the session concludes are both basic yet necessary elements of an outcall therapist’s safety plan, according to therapists who offer on-site massage.
“Make sure someone knows who the client is and where you’re meeting them and from what time to what time,” said Nadeau. “If [the client extends] the appointment then call—not text—your contact with the new timeline.”
“Note I said call—anyone can send a text claiming to be you, [while a] call gives verification [of who you are],” he added.
Physical strength and confidence contribute greatly to outcall therapist safety, therapists say. Brown greets each outcall client with a firm handshake and eye contact, and then takes control of the communication with a client intake conversation.
“I feel you need to own the room when you walk in the place you are performing the massage,” she said.
“Confidence and common sense play a big part I think as a therapist,” she added. “I try to carry myself in a professional manner at all times.”
Several therapists interviewed for this article said they have taken self-defense or martial arts classes and recommend such training to any outcall massage therapist.
“Now if my intuition fails me I feel confident that I could protect myself,” said Letson, who has studied self-defense.
According to Jill Turner, P.R. Director for Robocopp, which sells personal alarm products, a person’s use of his or her body and voice is the best way to project confidence.
“Aggressors use physical cues to assess their victims, and physical presence is the number-one indicator of someone’s overall confidence and situational awareness,” she explained.
A powerful response to aggression, such as simply holding your hand out and saying, â€œback off,â€ can be enough to deter an attack, Turner added.
“While your confident presence is your number-one tool against an attack, you may feel even more confident with another form of personal protection,” she said. “A personal alarm is an amazing deterrent, and is a great alternative for individuals who may not feel comfortable carrying a [licensed] weapon.”
As an increasing number of massage-on-demand companies arise, the opportunity for massage therapists to build an outcall massage practice is rising as well.
Put commonsense policies into place, trust your intuition, be able to defend yourself, and project confidence to stay and secure.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. Her recent articles for the magazine include “Cultural Competence: Why Getting to the Heart of Biases Matters in Health Care” and “[The Opioid Epidemic] This is How Massage Might Provide Relief from the Despair of Drug Abuse.”