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We need to talk about massage and safety

We need to talk about massage and safety.

In 2017 there were several news stories about massage therapists who had done some pretty nasty things.  I’m going to call it how it is.  What they did was to sexually abuse another person.  They took advantage of the vulnerability of their clients and did bad things.  This is not ok.

Thankfully in those instances reported in the paper, we know about them because, people got angry, stood up for their rights and spoke out and the law got involved.  Prison terms etc.  However, as is so common regarding abuse, these are the cases that we know about.  We know that so many stay silent.

What you probably haven’t seen (unless you’re a part of our profession) is the uproar it has caused in the massage therapy community. Horror is a common emotion: who would do such a thing? Sadness: for the people who will be too fearful to receive the bodywork they need out of fear for their safety. And anger. Plenty of anger.

To be clear, this anger isn’t for the thousands of ethical massage therapists, managers, and support staff in the industry. Massage employees are out there doing their jobs, caring for clients, and earning a living, and they deserve our support. The anger is for perpetrators who violated the faith placed in them by trusting clients; the business owners, managers, and employees who allowed it to happen; and the organisation that provided neither sufficient guidance nor real consequences for the people they allow to work in their name.

We want you to know that we as a community of massage therapists are trying to do our best to hold ourselves and our organisations accountable to make sure this never happens again.

It may come as a bit of a surprise that massage in Australia is an unregistered (not unregulated) profession … we’re not the only health profession either.  There is no registration board.  The title of massage therapist is not protected.  Massage therapists can choose to be a member of a professional association.  That said, massage therapists are governed by Australian Laws … some 30 or more of them actually.  One of these is Health and Community Services Complaints Act 2004 which sets out a Code of Conduct for therapists and a complaints handling and escalation procedure.

It’s all well and good to have legislation, codes of practice and complaints procedures in place.  These are for when things go bad.  Prevention is better than cure.  We want you to know that we care about you. As a client and as an individual. Because you have a right to feel safe while getting a massage. And this goes whether you’re receiving a massage here or anywhere else.

So here are some promises to you:

OUR PROMISE

We will be vigilant in our hiring. This includes extensive reference checks as well as basics such as double checking claims regarding certifications and professional membership.

We will be proactive and regularly seek feedback from clients about their experience. Big or small, positive or negative, we want to know your experience so that we can do our best and stop major issues before they start.

We will have formal processes in place for handling ANY complaint of therapist misconduct, and share this process openly with you.

And as part of this, you have our word that:

  • We will investigate any report of misconduct.
  • We will not permit a massage therapist under investigation to work with clients until the investigation has concluded.
  • We will maintain written records of every report and investigation.
  • We will report the incident to the membership board, police, and other agencies as appropriate.
  • We will publicly post information on your rights and the procedures for reporting an incident.
  • We will support clients in whatever course of action they choose to take.

THE POWER IS YOURS

Receiving massage is a time of vulnerability.  The therapist is trained, familiar with the environment, standing up, and fully dressed, and the other is unclothed in an unfamiliar environment trusting in the skills of the therapist.  But it’s important to know that, no matter how much of an expert a person may be in massage, you are the expert on your experience.And as the expert on you:

  • You have the right to tell your massage therapist to change or stop what they are doing for any reason.
  • You have the right to end your massage session at any time for any reason.
  • You have the right to stop seeing your massage therapist, or to choose a new massage therapist, for any reason.
  • You have the right to report any misconduct to your massage therapist’s supervisor, to their professional association or to the police, or to all three.

Again, you have a right to feel safe while getting a massage.

And since we’re having an open conversation about safety, we also need to be clear about one more thing: massage therapists also have a right to feel safe while giving a massage.

Ensuring the safety of massage therapists from clients who would harass, assault, or otherwise harm them is another conversation that you might not always be privy to as a client, but is a major point of discourse in the massage therapy community. For whatever reason, there are still people out there who confuse (or choose to conflate) massage therapy with sex work, and feel free to act on that impulse regardless of the wishes of the therapist in question.

If this is obviously problematic to you, like it is to 99% of the people in the world, then you don’t really need the following reminder.

But if you’re in that 1% and believe you’re owed sexual favors by virtue of existing and rely on that sense of personal entitlement while preying on massage therapists, especially those who are inexperienced or economically disadvantaged, here’s a wake-up call for you:

YOUR MASSAGE THERAPIST ALSO HAS RIGHTS

  • Massage therapists have the right to refuse to provide any service they feel would be inappropriate, out of their scope of practice, uncomfortable, or unsafe.
  • Massage therapists have the right to end a session at any time if they feel unsafe with a client.
  • Massage therapists have the right to no longer see a client they feel unsafe with or unqualified to treat.
  • Massage therapists have the right to report a client’s inappropriate behavior to their supervisor and to law enforcement.
  • Massage therapy business owners have the right to stop scheduling a client for inappropriate behavior, to ban them from the premises, and to warn other local therapists about them. (And massage therapists do talk to one another. It’s a small profession.)

IN THE END, EVERYTHING IS BETTER OFF IN THE LIGHT.

It’s better to have a major exposé in the news than for abuse to go on unaccounted-for. It’s better to ask hard questions before choosing a new massage therapist than to go into a session anxious or afraid. And it’s definitely better for massage therapists to address the issue of safety head-on, rather than pretending the concern doesn’t exist.

We all have a right to feel safe.

Hopefully, if we continue to work together to shine light into the dark corners of the world, all of us will.

David Clayton is the Principal Remedial Therapist at Myomasters Massage and David Clayton Remedial Therapies located in the inner north and north east of Adelaide.  He has a passion for supporting humans to live the lives they were to born to live using massage and soft tissue therapies.  He has a particular interest in assisting people to recover from stress, anxiety and trauma using compassionate and nurturing touch.

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