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NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson met with at least 66 massage therapists from late 2019 to early 2021. In June of 2022, 24 of those women filed lawsuits against Watson that contained accusations that ranged from sexual misconduct to sexual assault.

During an interview on a prominent Houston radio station, Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin claimed “Doing something or saying something that makes someone uncomfortable” is not a crime. Hardin also maintains that receiving a “happy ending” during a massage session is not illegal unless you pay extra for it.

As of August 1, 2022, the Cleveland Browns quarterback was issued a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. (As of press time, the NFL was appealing the decision, which could result in a harsher penalty for Watson.)

I fear the semantics used by Watson’s lawyer will embolden those seeking inappropriate services from massage therapists and only further jeopardize the safety of those working in an already stigmatized industry.

A study published by the University of Toronto Press discovered that out of 143 massage therapists surveyed, 107 experienced sexual harassment from clients, with 38 experiencing harassment on more than three occasions. Furthermore, of the surveyed population, only one therapist reported the incident to the police.

Harassment and Solicitation are Illegal

Throughout the U.S., with the exception of 10 counties in Nevada, prostitution and solicitation are illegal. The request for sexual or lewd acts in exchange for compensation is considered a solicitation for prostitution. This request can be in the form of a suggestion, coercion or command. If a client or potential client requests a “happy ending” during a massage session in exchange for payment, they are soliciting prostitution.

Sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcomed requests, advances, commentary and other physical or verbal harassment of a sexual nature. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment is illegal when it creates an offensive or hostile working environment. The EEOC further states that the definition of an offender is not limited to just supervisors or co-workers. Clients and customers may also be found guilty of harassment.

As massage therapists, it is important that we understand the laws surrounding harassment and solicitation.

Schedule time to meet with your local police department to educate yourself on what they can and cannot do to help us combat solicitation.

• Ask for advice on how to prevent potential incidents and what steps to take when they occur.

• It is helpful to build professional relationships with your community’s first responders.

Report Every Incident

When incidents of solicitation, harassment, or assault occur, do not hesitate to file a report with your local police department. Reporting harassment from clients is as important as engaging in discourse on the topic with other therapists.

When we bring awareness to this disruptive behavior, we can reduce the stigma surrounding the events and encourage cultural changes in the industry. If we normalize filing police reports against sexual solicitors, we deter solicitation as a whole while validating and empowering the victim.

• Generally, to file a police report you can call your local police department’s non-emergency number and an officer will be dispatched to your location.

• You can also visit the nearest police department or precinct.

• In some jurisdictions, you may even be able to file a report online.

• Once a report has been made, an investigation will be launched into the claim. To assist in the investigation, prepare as much information regarding the incident as possible.

• Create a typed or written document of all relevant information pertaining to the event and keep a copy in the client’s file. The copy issued to the police should include the names and contact information of all individuals who may have been involved or witnessed the event. This will assist law enforcement in interviewing the relevant parties.

Reporting an incident is important even if charges are not filed. By building a file against the offender, we can see if the behavior is an established pattern. When the full police report becomes available, get a copy for your records.

Client Confidentiality

Whether you are a covered entity bound by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or simply bound by your state’s ethical guidelines, you absolutely have the right to disclose a client’s information to law enforcement when filing a police report for harassment or solicitation. This includes protected health information, such as name, phone number, and address.

To appropriately inform your clients, consider adding a law enforcement disclosure clause to your informed consent form. This will help set the expectation that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, and a potential consequence could result in police involvement.

Raise Awareness

Together, we can bring awareness to the sexual solicitation that plagues our industry and change the stigma that discredits our profession. Awareness begins with education:

• Create educational pamphlets or documentation to hand out to your community as a great way to promote awareness and support.

• Use your website, blog or social media outlets to enlighten your followers on what massage therapy is and is not.

• Inform the public on licensing and certification, education and insurance requirements needed to become a massage therapist.

• Explain the benefits of massage and why we are considered health care professionals to help build credibility within your community.

Stay Safe

One of the ways we can keep ourselves safe from solicitation and harassment is to have very clear and defined policies during the screening processes. Posted policies will help establish you as a legitimate and professional business.

Policies also work to set the expectations regarding the client-therapist relationship.

Having a screening process in place will allow us to recognize the red flags of sexual solicitors and establish an environment that is less permissible for this behavior.

The Deshaun Watson Problem: A Call to Action for Massage Therapists

Deshaun Watson’s behavior toward more than five dozen massage therapists illustrates the potential danger of a client who does not understand what massage therapy is and is not.

Massage therapists should seize this moment as an opportunity to connect with local law enforcement, educate clients and potential clients, and ensure that they have such safety protocols in place as a robust screening process, the ability to recognize the signs of sexual solicitors, and the confidence to decline clients and terminate the massage session and the therapist-client relationship when uncomfortable, and to physically protect yourself when needed.

About the Author

Priscilla Fleming, LMBT, NMT, APCE is an educator, author and massage therapist practicing in North Carolina. Her ethics course Safety and Solicitation – Gaslighting & Power Dynamics was created after her own experiences with sexual harassment in the industry. This National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork-approved course is designed to give therapists the tools to confidently screen new clients, recognize the signs of sexual solicitors, and professionally decline clients or terminate the relationship with a client that makes you uncomfortable.