Some friends and colleagues have shared their stories with me that, at the very least, have prompted me to take action to re-evaluate the manner in which I do business and create a program to help other practitioners feel safer in their day-to-day operations and protect yourself if you don't.

Massage therapists are the most loving, caring and giving individuals I know.

They want to help people from all walks of life enjoy the benefits of bodywork. Usually, the last thing most practitioners consider is the possibility that their client may have a different—perhaps nefarious—intention. What if they do? What would you do in such a situation?

Massage therapists offer their services in a wide variety of settings. Some operate their own establishments; some do exclusively out-call sessions; some work as employees and others as independent contractors.

Regardless of the environment, our collective intention is to provide a safe, comfortable and therapeutic venue for our clients and ourselves. We have complete control over what we offer, but limited control of how it is perceived. So too, we know what we wish to do but do not know what the client wishes to do.

According to numerous national surveys, at least 85 percent of the massage practitioner population in the U.S. is female. It is likely that some of us, male therapists included, may have encountered a situation in a massage environment that makes us feel uneasy or perhaps even threatened.

Some friends and colleagues have shared their stories with me that, at the very least, have prompted me to take action to re-evaluate the manner in which I do business and create a program to help other practitioners feel safer in their day-to-day operations.

Real-World Examples

Consider these real-world events, as told by actual massage therapists:

Real World Event #1:

An experienced female colleague, who is also a school owner, accepted an out-call appointment with a male client. As she was setting up her table in the living room of the home, the client approached her from behind and bear-hugged her, lifting her up from her feet and carried her into the bedroom. Fortunately, she had presence of mind and a skill set that allowed her to defend herself, escape from the situation, and not be victimized. Just think about this for a minute. What would you have done?

Real World Event #2:

A male therapist, a former Recon Army Soldier who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 285 pounds, had a male client on his table in a medical facility. The client, while prone, reached up and groped the therapist’s inner thigh moving upward. The practitioner immediately moved away from the table, ended the session, and exited the treatment room. Later, he educated the client on boundaries and defined a therapeutic relationship. Would that have been your choice of how to handle the situation?

Real World Event #3:

The same massage therapist mentioned in event #2 above also described an episode in which a female client made caressing contact with his forearm while he was ending a two-hour deep tissue session with a cranial hold. Though not physically threatened, he was emotionally unsettled by the unsolicited and unwanted touch from the client. (Despite his 15 years of experience in a clinical setting, he remains disturbed by both incidents.)

Real World Event #4:

A female therapist, new to the profession, revealed to me she has a client who routinely touches her thigh as she massages him. When asked how that made her feel, she said, “extremely uncomfortable.” When asked what she did about it, she reluctantly admitted she did nothing because she did not know what to do.

The above real-world events are actual stories. All of them are disturbing for me to hear, both as a practitioner and a self-defense expert. If anything similar has been your experience, know that this is completely unacceptable. In order for you to do your best work, you need to feel completely safe and secure in your therapeutic environment.

Do you? If not, what do you plan to do about it?

Acknowledge the Risk

Our profession is defined by offering what could only be called an intimate experience based in thoughtful, intentional touch for therapeutic purposes. What happens when a client misunderstands our intentions and acts inappropriately is the sole responsibility of the practitioner. Are you prepared for the possibilities?

The opportunity to teach CE classes across the country and interact with so many of the most accomplished practitioners in service today has me thoroughly convinced that, as a population, we are unfailingly caring and concerned for our clients’ safety and comfort. Unfortunately, those we serve do not always reciprocate this mentality.

This is difficult territory. While we only wish to think the best of our clients, there are instances, many unreported, when that has not truly been the case. As I have suggested, the challenge may be physical, emotional or likely both. It seems clear that the need to protect ourselves must be part of our initial and ongoing professional education.

Learn the Skills to Protect Yourself

My 20-plus years of experience as a board certified and licensed massage therapist comes with me into my practice settings, along with my training in martial arts—in which I hold a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. In all cases, it is not just the kinesthetic skills I have acquired over time but also the intuitional abilities I have developed that provide me the situational awareness to keep me safe from harm. With the proper training, you can learn similar skills, too.

Realizing there is a serious need to engage our profession in not just the ethical considerations, but also the practical and tactical means to ensure our collective safety, my son (a police officer who is a defensive tactics instructor) and I created a course entitled “Protecting Your Assets: Self-Defense for the Healthcare Professional.” During this hands-on course, therapists are shown and practice how to be aware and protect themselves, along with how to avoid uncomfortable situations.

As stressed throughout the course, we can only further support and educate one another by having conversations about these challenging circumstances. Furthermore, by developing solutions and making a commitment to practice the skills that will help us recognize and deal with threatening or uncomfortable situations, will we be able to better focus on the tasks at hand.

Those skills have fortunately kept me away from harm. When in a massage room with a client, who you may or may not know, your safety is number one.

Being aware and able to actively respond in a difficult situation is one of our intended outcomes of the Protecting Your Assets: Self Defense for the Healthcare Professional course. Perhaps a meaningful dialog about having confidence and becoming proactive will yield consequences that gain us the advantages of the true power differential we have in the therapeutic relationship. Having that awareness and how to react to it is what self-defense teaches you.

Be Confident

As the saying goes, “One must care for oneself before attempting to care for another.” Let’s take self-care to the logical next level. Get the training, have the tough talks, practice the tested skills that will allow us, once again, to return to the comfort of thinking only the best of the clients we lovingly serve.

There are training tools to keep you safe and allow you to return home to your loved ones. Knowing how to react in a situation in what we do daily is absolutely priceless.

About the Author

Teresa M. Matthews, LMT, CPT, BCTMB, is president of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBMTB). She is a certified personal fitness trainer, world-champion athlete and third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. She has owned and operated a massage school in Jacksonville, Florida, for 18 years and is an NCBMTB-approved continuing education provider. Matthews and her son, a police officer, created the course Protecting Your Assets: Self Defense for the Healthcare Professional.

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