6 MINUTE READ
I am disheartened this morning, as I’m sure much of the rest of the Fort Collins wellness community, about the local massage therapist who has been charged with sexually assaulting one of his clients. The purpose of this post is not to report on this case or offer my opinion on the charges or situation; I do not know the victim or the massage therapist in question. I do, however, feel that difficult stories like this present a unique and…yes, a somewhat uncomfortable opportunity to discuss and educate both massage therapists (if you happen to be reading this) as well as anyone who has or ever will receive a professional massage.
If you have received a fair amount of massage in your lifetime, you have probably encountered at least one massage therapist that you just didn’t “click” with. Maybe they gave too much pressure, or perhaps not enough. Maybe the therapist chewed gum, or talked too much, wore too much patchouli, or maybe they even shorted you a chunk of your massage time! Sounding familiar or ever happened to you? These offenses, or maybe I should call them “missteps”, are small things that a therapist might do that just aren’t conducive to building a professional, centered and present massage space. Being mindful of avoiding potential missteps and creating a practice that caters to the client is something we pride ourselves on at Amara.
Beyond simple missteps and blunders though, there is a thin line, one that as professional and licensed massage therapists is our job to not only NEVER cross ourselves but to also hold strong space for our clients. Should a client encounter, portray, allude, or try to act on inappropriate feelings (whether emotional, physical or otherwise) or if we perceive that they might be we must be ready to hold boundaries. Doing so protects both therapist and client, and no matter how difficult is absolutely necessary. Depending on the situation, holding the boundary could mean many different things. Holding the boundary could mean immediately terminating a session, being transparent that topics or conversation that is inappropriate is NOT OK during massage, or maybe it’s just as simple as making sure the drape is properly tucked and your client feels and KNOWS that they are safe and you are a professional. At Amara, just one of the ways we imply boundaries is with clear verbiage and communication in our intake and on our web site. We only offer professional massage, and any sexual innuendo or touch is absolutely forbidden by both practitioner and client, we put it out there right away to help avoid any misunderstanding and to be clear about what we do and don’t do.
Ultimately, the LMT is the one offering the service, and is responsible for the ethical handling of any situation that may arise in session. This is something I hope that all massage therapists have learned in school, but even so, no matter how long you have been practicing or how much you think you know about massage, boundaries are one of the most nuanced and challenging facets of this field. Ask any counselor, psychotherapist or mental health specialist about the implicit necessity of boundaries in order to maintain a professional atmosphere. They will tell you that transference and counter transference are common in any relationship where there is a power differential. Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another, in the case of massage it would be client to therapist. Counter-transference refers to transfer- ence of feelings from massage therapist to client. Now consider massage, one human being is naked on a table, and has trusted another human being to provide them therapy by way of hands on touch. Couple these complex dynamics of touch with each of our own individual stories and you can see how things might get complicated very quickly. Massage is an exercise in vulnerability, trust and openness on the part of the client and an exercise in professionalism, ethics, and kindness for the therapist.
Often, sexual transference isn’t the issue, transference comes up in many different ways. As massage therapists we sometimes have to remind a client that they cannot get undressed until we leave the room. We understand that the client likely isn’t trying to make a sexual connection they are just excited to get on the table and start the massage, but it’s important to be clear that it’s not OK for us to see you undressing, naked, etc and put’s us in a difficult and sometimes challenging position. Another example of inappropriate (but not sexual) behavior might be a massage therapist comparing their own story or injury to an injury or issue you have shared with them while receiving treatment. Instead of just stating that they had a similar injury and knew how to treat it they went on a 10-20 minute rant about their own injury, how it occurred and their “story”… that is also a form of boundary crossing and counter transference. It is taking precious time away from the client who paid for the session and it’s not helpful in terms of the client’s health, well being or enjoyment of the massage (yes, that particular scenario happened to me, and was a little frustrating).
So, with that said, I encourage you at your next massage experience, whether client or practitioner to be mindful of your actions, words, and even thoughts. Next time you’re receiving massage be curious about what comes up for you, check in with yourself about the work being done and see how you feel. Is there something the therapist could do to help you feel more comfortable? If so, speak up, make a request, any good/reputable therapist will not only welcome your request but be glad for the feedback. Maybe it’s as simple as telling your massage therapist you don’t like the essential oil they keep using and could they try something new or offer you options. It could also be telling your massage therapist that the spot they just worked on needs a little more attention, and could they revisit it before finishing the massage. I can remember one incident I experienced while in California at a very high end spa, the massage therapist was doing a body scrub and proceeded to begin scrubbing my breasts during one part of the treatment and I immediately had to tell her “No thank you, I do not want my breasts scrubbed.” She went on to tell me that that’s how they were trained, in the “European” tradition. I in no way got a sexual vibe from this female massage therapist, I knew that she was truly just doing her job and scrubbing my chest as part of the treatment, but that was part of the problem in my eyes. I’m sure all women can agree, not only is breast massage unnecessary (unless you are specifically indicated for breast/lymph massage as part of a greater health plan) but they certainly DON’T need to be scrubbed.
Boundaries are not often simple, and the over simplified anecdotes I offered above may be of little consolation in the moment you are confronted and need to express your boundaries. Just remember, words have great power, and they don’t have to be cruel or mean, “No” can be said with love and compassion. In fact, I think the mere act of loving oneself enough to both express boundaries and respect others is essential to true wellness and healthy living; this is true in all relationships in life, both professional and personal. If your voice is diminished or not being heard it’s time to be clear about what you need.
A quote that I feel expresses this so perfectly….
“*$*#@&-up people will try to tell you otherwise, but boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you and they teach you how to respect yourself.” -Cheryl Strayed
I would be quite remiss if I did not clearly state something to everyone reading this. If you ever encounter a massage therapist that crosses a line sexually I encourage you to report them immediately to DORA by filing a complaint and also filing a police report with FORT COLLINS POLICE. The best thing we can do is speak up so that individuals who might be hurting clients are no longer able to practice massage. I also encourage you to report facilities that you think or have heard might be offering inappropriate/sexual massage. Establishments offering prostitution and massage are illegal and are often staffed by human trafficking victims, not LMT’s. These things are real, and they are happening right here in Northern Colorado. The conversation has started, and I do hope that momentum and courage carry it forward. Thank you for taking the time to read this, I wish you all the best on your journey towards wholehearted living and hope this post has helped you in some way.