Clear Communication and Self-Protection

By Nina McIntosh
[Heart of Bodywork]

I’m a newly graduated massage therapist who would appreciate some tips on how to avoid being mistaken for someone who is offering sexual services. I put an ad on a local Internet service and have already gotten calls from men who want more than a therapeutic massage. As a relatively small female, I’m also afraid of not being able to deal with a client who makes a pass at me.

N.M., Raleigh, North Carolina

Dear N.M.,

Your concerns are valid. We live in a culture in which massage therapy is still associated with sex. Many people are uneducated about our work and do not appreciate that we are professionals who work with therapeutic intention. It’s distressing but understandable that some of the public might still think that all massage practitioners offer sexual services. How often have we seen massage therapists portrayed in television sitcoms or movies as crossing the line? How often have new acquaintances made sexual innuendos and jokes about our work? To complicate matters, those who do offer sexual services often bill themselves as practicing massage. Moreover, the intimacy of our work leaves us open to misunderstandings and false accusations.


First, you need to create a professional image with everything related to your work. You have to assume that you’re representing the profession every minute. If you have a private practice, take care with your phone message, your website, even your e-mail address. You don’t want to sexualize your work in any way: no sexy music on your answering machine, no double entendre for an e-mail address. There’s nothing remotely funny about playing into the idea that our work is sexual. Promoting a sexual image of massage denigrates the profession and may put you and other massage therapists in danger; it will not be appreciated by those who have worked to combat the massage parlor stereotype.

Whether you are self-employed or work for someone else, pay attention to how you dress and your language and tone. This is just common sense—no tank tops, shorts, or cleavage when you’re working. And no giggling, wink-wink, or flirting when you talk about your work with clients or in public. Take yourself seriously as a professional and others will follow.

Make sure your business card doesn’t send a mixed message. Cards that give no last name, that simply say, “Massage by Bill” or “Relaxing Massage by Jennifer” are less professional and may give clients the impression you have something to hide. Since sex workers usually don’t give their last names when they advertise, it’s important that you provide your full name and credentials (professional association membership, state license number, and so forth) to establish that you’re a legitimate massage therapist. Using the term therapeutic massage and naming your particular technique, such as sports massage, is also helpful. To ensure your privacy and professionalism, list your business phone number, not your personal one.

Mistaken Identity

If you advertise your massage or bodywork practice publicly, you may not be able to avoid the occasional low moment of someone assuming that you are offering sexual services. Even if you choose your clientele carefully, you have to be prepared for the occasional inappropriate or offensive questions on the phone and perhaps even in your office. Here’s an example:

A colleague was befuddled when a first-time client asked if she provided a “happy ending.” Not having heard this euphemism for sexual release, she said, “Oh, yes, I like my clients to enjoy their massages.” When he then described what he wanted in plainer language, she was quick to tell him she didn’t offer sexual services and that she wouldn’t work with him if that was what he wanted.

Although fielding such questions on the phone can be uncomfortable, dealing in person with a client who expects sex can be annoying and even frightening. Though it’s only a remote possibility, such a situation could also be dangerous.

Some female practitioners avoid these problems altogether by limiting their practice to female clients. But, of course, that can limit their potential client base. (Women clients are generally less sexually aggressive than men. They can be seductive, for instance, but aren’t as likely either to expect sexual services or ask for them.) Some practitioners don’t work with anyone who hasn’t been referred by someone they trust. Regardless of your gender, if you advertise or post your business card in a public place, there may be no foolproof way to avoid such interactions, but there are ways you can lessen their frequency and protect yourself.

 For one, be careful when you advertise in a publication. Find out where your ad will be placed. Will it run next to the ads in which massage is a code word for sex for places with dubious names such as Buffy’s Massage and Pleasure Spa? If so, you might want to reconsider advertising in that publication or see if you can specify a different location for your ad.

It’s also helpful to consider the nature of a publication’s readership. If you live in a big city, running an ad in a smaller, weekly, and more trendy newspaper is usually safer than using the daily newspaper or the Yellow Pages. Readers of papers that feature community news or that are written with a focus on well-being are often more attuned to alternative health practices.

Wherever you advertise, it’s also a good idea to avoid the words release, total relaxation, and full-body massage. These phrases can sound like veiled sexual references. (Avoid them, too, when you’re on the phone with prospective clients.) When you advertise to the public—whether it’s in a newspaper or on—it’s a good idea to specify “nonsexual massage.”

Screening Clients by Phone

Clients who are looking for more than just a massage may not always say so in the first phone call. However, there are red flags that signal the kind of call it really is. Someone calling on Friday around 5 p.m. may be more likely to be facing a weekend alone and looking for “companionship.” Such callers often don’t want to make an appointment unless you can see them immediately, within an hour or two. Also, look out for callers who initially don’t give their full name or who give no name at all.

Following are some other ways to screen clients who are calling for the wrong reason.

Ask for Information

Ask for a caller’s full name and a callback number. If they refuse, don’t make the appointment. Also, you can ask about their previous experience with massage. If the client has been to a massage therapist you know is legitimate or if they seem to be familiar with professional bodywork, that’s a good sign.

Clarify Your Boundaries

When in doubt, you can say, “I’d like to make it clear to all new clients that I offer only a nonsexual, therapeutic massage.” This is not always convincing, however, because sex workers who call themselves masseuses will say the same thing in case the caller is from the vice squad.

Trust Your Intuition

If you have an uneasy feeling about someone, don’t make the appointment. It is better to lose a session fee than to put yourself in danger. (For more information on telephone screening tactics, read “Screening New Clients” by MiMi Zannino on page 46.)

Staying Safe During the Session

Usually, the worst a client interested in sexual services does is injure your professional dignity and pride. In rare cases, however, massage therapists have been assaulted by such clients. As long as there’s even a slight danger, there’s no need to take risks. Here are some ways to stay safe.

Work in a Safe Setting

Working in an office building is usually safer and appears more professional to prospective clients than working out of your home. Leading a client through your home to where the bedrooms are (and your office is) can be suggestive to new clients.

Even in an office building, don’t work in an isolated space with clients you don’t know. Don’t schedule new clients late in the day or at times when no one else is around.

Be Especially Careful About Outcalls

Outcalls require you to go into someone else’s home where you might be at the mercy of any hidden agendas the client might have. Screen such calls carefully or only do outcalls with regular clients or with people who have been referred by someone you trust.

One male massage therapist related a story of being “set up” by a woman who wanted to make her boyfriend jealous. During the outcall, the client threw the draping off her chest just as her boyfriend burst through the door. The boyfriend made angry accusations, and the massage therapist fled, unharmed but wiser.

Spell Out Your Policies in Writing

As part of their intake process, some massage therapists in private practice ask new clients to sign an agreement showing they understand financial and other policies, including the statement that the practitioner has the right to terminate a session if the client speaks or acts inappropriately. The clearer you can make it from the beginning that this is a nonsexual massage, the easier it will be for you to avoid inappropriate requests.

Post Your Code of Ethics

Whether one you agreed to when you joined a professional association or one that identifies your personal parameters, a code of ethics specifies your professional boundaries. Post it where clients can read the details and understand how it helps define your professional relationships.

Choose Your Employers Well

Before taking a job at a spa, make sure your employer will back you up if you choose to end a session or choose not to work with a client who has made sexual requests.

Educating Clients

There is no set way to respond when a client on the table asks you for something that is inappropriate. It depends on your own comfort level, how safe the setting is, and your history with the client. Some clients are simply misinformed; sometimes all you have to do is educate them and set limits.

If a client makes an inappropriate sexual suggestion during the session, don’t ignore it; to do so may be seen as encouragement. Instead, respond immediately:

• Stop the massage.

• Take your hands off the client’s body.

• Address the situation.

• Define your boundaries.

For example, you can say, “I want to make it clear that this is a nonsexual, nonsensual massage and I won’t work with anyone who is acting inappropriately.” Many practitioners would simply end the massage then and leave the room, regardless of what the client says. Others, depending on their comfort level, might give a client who has made an inappropriate remark or a physical pass a chance to improve his behavior. Sometimes a client doesn’t intend to be offensive.

If you’re not sure what the client’s intentions are but still feel uncomfortable or threatened by his comments or behavior, trust your feelings and end the session. You can say, “Perhaps you don’t mean any harm, but I’m not comfortable working with you any more. I’ll wait outside while you get dressed.”

If a client is physically stimulating himself, then certainly, you’d want to tell him to get dressed and get out. You would then leave the room and find someone to wait with you until he is gone.

As for receiving payment, some massage therapists are so grateful when such clients leave that they don’t ask for payment. (Others get payment at the start of a session.) Technically, clients may owe the fee for a massage or half a massage, but it’s up to you whether to make an issue of it.

Perhaps the day will come when the idea of massage will carry only its many health benefits and the boost it gives to both physical and emotional well-being. Until that time, clear communication in all stages of our contacts with clients can help educate those who need it and protect us from misunderstandings.

 Nina McIntosh combines more than 20 years of experience as a bodyworker with her previous years as a psychiatric social worker. She is the author of The Educated Heart: Professional Boundaries for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers, and Movement Teachers (Lippincott Williams &
Wilkins, 2005). To learn more about professional boundaries and ethics, visit

  To learn more about illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, visit