Clients Crossing Boundaries

TASA ID: 4192

Thanks to the women of the #MeToo movement, who have courageously exposed rampant sexual harassment and assault, our society is being forced to confront this upsetting reality and change it for future generations. The massage treatment room is a microcosm of the greater society, so we sadly find the same types of issues there. Much like in the greater community, more attention needs to be paid to this phenomenon in the field of massage.

We typically focus on bad-apple therapists abusing clients, but it happens in reverse quite frequently. Almost every massage therapist, including myself, has at least one story of such harassment. Typically, the offenders are male clients who feel entitled to be abusive by saying inappropriate things, touching their therapist, or breaching social and physical boundaries in myriad other ways. While rarer, sometimes female clients also behave inappropriately and ask for sexual acts from their therapist. Predatory sexual behavior by the client is a serious issue and not something you should ignore or try to manage on your own.

You are entitled to work in an environment free of sexual abuse. If violations happen, you have the right to make yourself safe, remove yourself from the situation, and take all available steps to have the abuser reported and made responsible for their actions. You are not alone, and you are not powerless. It is the responsibility of clinic and spa owners, industry leaders, and educators to expose these issues and devise ways to protect massage therapists from this mistreatment. One of the principle challenges to reaching this goal is that many people in power across our country are condoning and/or committing sexual harassment and assault. So it becomes particularly challenging to avoid replicating this in a given field, like massage therapy. This means it is all the more important for us to set clear boundaries in our field and support all our practitioners.

For you to be empowered when addressing any level of sexual harassment, you need an understanding of how you can respond. Here is a compilation of personal accounts shared by currently practicing massage therapists that demonstrate different types of boundary crossings or sexual assault in the treatment room, followed by a brief discussion of potential effects, interventions, and prevention techniques.

Arousal in the Treatment Setting

While an erection is one of the most obvious indicators of physiological arousal, it doesn’t necessarily mean emotional or sexual desire is also present. Touch itself on any part of the body can stimulate a physiological response that results in a partial or complete erection. Not all forms of (accidental) arousal or discussion of sexual anatomy are inappropriate. Practitioners need to immediately clarify with their client when instances of erections or other forms of arousal occur, especially to rule out whether the behavior was inadvertent and without sexual intent. Once one party is uncomfortable, the session isn’t going to be truly beneficial because attention is diverted. It is also important to be aware of clients who repeatedly expose themselves during the treatment. One or two episodes may be accidental, poor boundaries, or a lapse in judgment. Regardless of the reason, the practitioner needs to verbalize the physical boundary of draping at the first instance of self-exposure.

Boundary Crossings and Sexual Harassment/Assault

Below are a few specific therapist accounts of what they’ve experienced in the treatment room, followed by a list of more general examples.

To read more, download PDF below.

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Tasa ID4192

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