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 Two, “Guidelines for Schools, Spas and Therapists.”
If you are a school owner, education director, or supervisor of therapists, be sure you have processes in place to:
1. Screen out inappropriate candidates from entering your program—as either students or staff members.
This, of course, is very difficult to do in an interview. You may not be able to identify sexual predators who give you all the answers you want to hear.
However, it’s easier to detect individuals who are simply immature or have poor boundaries. I recommend asking any prospective student questions about boundary-related issues.
For instance, “How are you at saying no to things you don’t want to do?” and “Do you understand the concept of keeping good boundaries? What does that mean to you?” and “What would you do if a client asked you out for coffee?”
2. Effectively train students in ethical touch and communication; and
3. Detect warning signs that a student or staff member may be acting inappropriately. Be alert for any evidence of poor physical, emotional, or verbal boundaries. If guidelines for ethical boundaries are clearly and explicitly taught, other students will help keep their peers accountable.
Encourage all students to come forward and speak to a faculty or staff member if they feel violated or intimidated in any way, and thoroughly investigate any complaints.
If you don’t take these responsibilities seriously, you run the risk of putting clients, students and other therapists in danger, sullying our profession, and destroying the reputation of your school.
Spa Owners & Managers
If you are a spa owner, manager or supervisor, please carefully consider all the risks outlined in this article. Help prevent abuses in your spa by adhering to the following guidelines:
- Run a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check on your prospective employee, if your local or state agency has not done one recently.
Relying on a background check performed in the course of licensing makes sense for a practitioner who was licensed a few months ago, but is inadequate for someone who has been practicing for several years.
- Screen your therapists carefully before you hire them, including performing a thorough check of their references, a Google search and a social media search.
In several cases that I worked on, a simple Google search on the defendant revealed incidences of criminal sexual misconduct that happened out of state or in another country.
It’s fine for an administrator to receive a session as well, but highly skilled therapists are much more likely to detect inappropriate actions.
- Periodically send in a mystery shopper to ensure your therapists are behaving appropriately.
You can contact a mystery shopper service to hire a person to visit your facility, receive a session with one or more of your therapists, and report back to you about the quality of their work, their level of professionalism, and any boundary violations that occurred.
Alternatively, you can independently hire a person who has been in the field for a long time—especially as an instructor of massage, communication skills, or ethics at a local massage therapy school—to perform this service.
- Take all client complaints seriously, and meet personally or by phone with any client who lodges a complaint of a sexual nature.
Some clients understandably do not feel comfortable returning to the facility where an incident of sexual abuse occurred and instead prefer to talk by phone or at another location.
Be aware that clients are usually in shock right after an abusive experience and may not be able to give you a full and accurate account of what occurred right away. Give clients the benefit of the doubt whenever they lodge a complaint, especially a complaint of a sexual nature.
It is often difficult and uncomfortable for clients to speak about sexually inappropriate contact.
Complaints of clear sexual misconduct (such as, touching the breasts or genitals, making sexual comments) call for immediate suspension and investigation, followed—if the allegations prove to be true—by termination of employment and a report of the incident to the police and state massage board.
More ambiguous complaints, such as a vague sense of discomfort with a therapist’s draping or quality of touch, may be investigated by using a mystery shopper or anonymous surveys, and may warrant conversations with or training of the therapist.
If your spa receives more than one such complaint about a therapist, consider it a pattern. Do not delay in investigating and taking appropriate action.
- Provide professional supervision by a qualified supervisor and ongoing training in ethics and boundaries.
Following these guidelines can prevent a great deal of pain and suffering. Only by being proactive and establishing clear boundaries can you fulfill your ethical, moral and legal obligations to your clients.
If you are a therapist, I hope this article has reinforced what you already know about safe and ethical practice.
All of us in this profession have a responsibility not just to avoid intentional misconduct, but also to take care to avoid even accidental boundary violations. We are responsible for addressing any violations that come to our attention.
If we see, hear, or experience troubling behavior from other therapists we encounter in our work or training, we need to speak up.
Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to check in directly with the person you’re concerned about, or to speak to the leaders of the school, spa, or other environment where the incident occurred.
In regulated jurisdictions, you may also have an obligation to report to the regulatory body.
“Protect Your Massage Business From Misconduct Allegations [Part Three: Guidelines for Clients”] will be published on massagemag.com on Jan. 25.
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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