Let's Talk About Sex

By Laura Allen
[Heart of Bodywork]

Ethics education often focuses on clients who sexualize the massage session, but massage therapists are sometimes guilty of the same thing, as evidenced by the number of lawsuits and disciplinary actions against therapists. Sometimes, there is unfortunate actual intent on the part of the therapist to commit a sexual offense. When there is no intent, carelessness is a culprit that can make a client feel threatened. Careless draping, careless comments, careless touching, even carelessness with the way we dress and present ourselves, can all lead to clients feeling threatened.
Draping is for the safety, modesty, and comfort of the client. It is also a way to protect yourself from misunderstandings. Even if you are in a state where draping is not the law, it should be your personal policy. Expose only the area you are working on at the time. For example, don’t pull the entire sheet down to work one glute. If you accidentally expose someone, cover them quickly and apologize immediately.
Avoid careless comments that could be misconstrued for flirting or sexual innuendo. Making a comment on someone’s six-pack abs could be taken the wrong way. Because of the power differential and the client’s vulnerability, any flirting could be seen as intrusive or harassing—no matter how innocent you think it is. Flirting sexualizes the situation and is unethical.
Be careful with your touch when working in sensitive areas, such as near the breasts, groin, upper leg attachments, and glutes. It’s a good idea to have a muscle chart in your treatment room, or a phone app, so you can show the client the muscle attachments (for example, if you are working on the inner thigh). Educating the client in a professional manner can set them at ease.
Some lawsuits involving massage therapists include accusations such as, “The therapist touched my labia. The first time, I thought it was accidental, but after it happened more than once, I knew it was intentional.” If you accidentally touch someone, apologize immediately and be more diligent about hand placement.
You can never go wrong dressing modestly for work. When I was in massage school, I was massaging a male student when he said, “Nice boobs!” I jumped back and went off on him about the inappropriate comment and he said, “I know it was inappropriate. I said it to call attention to the fact that when you’re bent over me, I have a clear view. I’d rather you hear it from me than a real client.” I started checking myself in the mirror every morning, bending over to make sure I wasn’t exposing myself to clients. It’s a good daily practice to check yourself.

Laura Allen has been a licensed massage therapist since 1999 and a provider of continuing education classes since 2000. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including the fifth edition of The Educated Heart, which Nina McIntosh entrusted to her before her passing. Allen resides in Western North Carolina with her husband, James, and her two rescue dogs, Fido and Queenie.