Being Safe

Precautions and Tips for MTs

By Kathy Gruver

Clients must feel safe within our professional care for them to ever consider returning. Diligently, we work hard to make sure this is the case for everyone who comes to our table. Yet, taking a step back reminds us that we are the ones who often leave our safety to the whims of chance.

It’s difficult to think of other legitimate professions where your customers are not only naked, but paying you to touch them. Within our traditional, therapeutic scope, these unusual conditions are overlooked as the norm. But when a client tries to change the balance of the therapeutic scale and take the work in a direction that is harmful to the therapist, we must be prepared to protect ourselves. 

I’ve been practicing massage for more than 20 years, and during that time—though I’ve never been attacked by a client who was on the table—I have had stalkers, harassing phone calls, people who have grabbed my hand, and clients who have driven by my office multiple times to see if I was there. As a result of what I’ve learned, I wanted to share some of my personal experiences with you and offer tips for staying safe in your treatment room.

For Starters

Let’s start with the most basic, proactive tool you can use when it comes to your safety—marketing. In all your marketing efforts, make sure you present as professional an image as possible. Don’t use a glamorous, sexy headshot; people may get the wrong idea and come to you thinking they are getting a service that is sexy and glamorous. Using technical terms in your marketing materials, like therapeutic, deep tissue, and professional, will set you apart from ads for illegal services. 

Also, make the initial phone call with potential clients a screening process (see Outcall Screening Checklist and Protocols, page 77). Even if they have booked your services from an online source, call them. Find out how they heard about you and what their reasons for seeking massage are. If you don’t like the answers, you don’t have to see them. 

The intake process is your best opportunity to identify potential problems. But it doesn’t mean you need to be afraid with every phone call. In fact, by being proactive, listening well, and being alert to the answers you’re receiving, you become an effective gatekeeper for new clients entering your practice. When done correctly, the intake process sets the stage for a healthy client-therapist relationship and informs clients of the therapeutic value of the work you offer.

Harassing Phone Calls

I got a call one day from someone speaking Spanish. I informed him, “No habla español,” but he kept talking and finally said the word masaje (which means massage in Spanish). I said, “Yes, yes masaje.” He responded, “Sexy, yes? Sexy masaje.” I told him I didn’t do that and hung up the phone. Unfortunately, he was persistent—very persistent. His calls escalated in frequency to between 10 and 15 per day. I couldn’t change my phone number; I had just started my practice, and all my advertising materials had the number on it. And it was also a time in my business where I felt I needed to answer every call to build my practice. I know consumers are all too ready to call the next number on the list if the first one doesn’t answer. 

I told the man to stop calling. I told him I didn’t do sex. But the calls didn’t stop. I finally got the police involved. He had been mainly calling from blocked or unavailable numbers. We caught our break when he called from an unblocked phone number one day. I called the officer on my case, and he confronted the man and told him that he was no longer to call me. He also told him that my phone now had a tracking device that could find him wherever he was calling from. The calls stopped. 

The protocol for getting the authorities involved starts with saying very clearly to the caller, “I do not wish to receive your calls anymore. Stop calling me or I will call the police.” At that point, you’ve informed the caller that these are unwanted phone calls. If the calls persist after that, you have every right to call the police. Do not engage with the caller again, do not argue with him or her, and do not tell him or her to stop calling again. Just hang up. If other people are around, put the call on speakerphone so there are witnesses. Note when and how often the person has been calling, and note the phone number if there is one. Let the police know as many details as possible. Often, you can fill out a form on your local police website rather than going down to the station to file a report. 

Outcall Safety

After some unusual early outcall experiences, and at the urging of my concerned husband, I decided to implement some basic protocols when it came to offering massage off-site.

My new rules included leaving a note at my house saying where I was going and who I was seeing, complete with addresses, phone numbers, and times. I would check in throughout the day, especially if I was going someplace new. 

A client who used to teach self-defense classes gave me some additional advice about how to be aware during my outcall services. Paul Bowen of Santa Barbara, California recommends: Survey your surroundings to know where the nearest exit is. Find a secondary exit plan as well. Is your cell phone within reach, in addition to your car keys? If you need to leave suddenly, these two items are the only ones you should be worried about retrieving on your way out. If you are doing a new outcall, inform the client that you will receive a check-in call in 10 minutes as part of your outcall service protocol. A legitimate client will understand your need for the check-in. 

When I work at a hotel, the protocol is much the same. I stop at the front desk when I arrive, give the person on duty a business card, and tell him or her the name of the person I am there to see and the room number. I also tell this person that I will check back in when I am leaving. Then, before the massage, I casually mention to the client that I checked in at the front desk. Now, the client knows that someone else knows where I am. Plus, I make a connection with the hotel if someone needs a massage in the future!

Inappropriate Behavior

If clients get too personal or physical with you during a massage, end the massage immediately and tell them to leave. Period. If they won’t leave, then it’s time to get the authorities involved. Ensure your safety first, whether that means locking yourself in a secure room to call the police or leaving your office to make the call from a neighbor’s phone.

Getting the authorities involved is also important if you find you have someone who is physically stalking you. I had a client drive by my office one day to look in the window at me. I thought it was odd, but figured he was just heading to a neighboring business. Twenty minutes later, it happened again, and then again 15 minutes later. That is certainly a reason to get the authorities involved. Note the type of car and the license plate number, if you can. If the client is still driving around, just seeing the police might be cause enough to not return. If you feel threatened further, in any way, notify the authorities. 

If someone follows you from your office, do not go home or to a friend’s home. Call the police and stay in a busy area, like a gas station or shopping center. If you’re concerned when leaving your office, have someone walk you to your car. Let your neighbors know when you’re leaving so they can act as eyes and ears for you. And since stalkers will often use very manipulative ways to get information, don’t discuss other therapists with your clients. For example, if a client is obsessed with Jane, he may book a massage with Mary to learn more. “I see Jane all the time at the beach,” he might say, “she must walk there every day.” If Mary responds, “Yes, and she’s at the dog park every morning,” he now has information that he didn’t have before. 

If you ever feel uncomfortable with clients during a session, or feel that they crossed a boundary and behaved inappropriately, you’re not obligated to see them again. I know we all need to make a living, but we also need to stay safe, and a supervisor who doesn’t respect your need to not work on certain people is doing a very poor job. If someone does touch you in an inappropriate way, with criminal intent, document it and let the authorities know. If the situation ever progresses to a restraining order, having documentation helps. Also, if they end up assaulting someone else, it would be on record. 

Teri Coffee-McDuffie, an expert from Santa Barbara Women’s Self Defense in California, says to use your voice if someone is being inappropriate. Say in a strong voice, “You just grabbed me. I’m not OK with that.” Or, if the client says something inappropriate, repeat it back. “You think I look beautiful today and you want to kiss me? I’m not OK with that.” It sets a boundary, and if someone is in a treatment room nearby, they can possibly hear the exchange. 

Coffee-McDuffie also recommends knowing the signs of a dangerous person: sweating, staring a bit too long, and possessing a nervous energy. You must validate your own reaction, which is often a feeling of discomfort, goose pimples, or hair standing on end, and listen to the signs that something is wrong. I expect with every massage that I do that I’ll be safe and unharmed, but I’m prepared in the rare case that’s not true. And you should be as well. Take a self-defense class from a qualified trainer in your area, be aware, and listen to your instincts. 

Being a good therapist includes knowing how to set proper boundaries and how to practice good self-care, as well as how to keep yourself safe. Being prepared, being armed with the facts, and being proactive in your approach will help you keep safety priority number one. 

 Kathy Gruver, PhD, is the host of her own TV series, The Alternative Medicine Cabinet. She is an author, speaker, and practitioner with more than two decades of experience. For more information, visit 


Create a Phone Screening Checklist

It’s important to keep a screening checklist near your phone for the next time a new client calls. This will not only help you remember the important questions to ask to ensure this is a legitimate client, but to also see if you and this new client are a good fit for each other. Add to, or delete from, this list based on your needs.

• Were you referred to me? By whom?

• Are you redeeming a gift certificate?

• How did you hear about me?

• What are your expectations or goals for the session?

• Have you had therapeutic massage before? Where? When?

• Are there any specific health concerns we’ll be addressing? (At this point, determine if the client will benefit from your services or if you need to refer him or her to someone else.)


Outcall Screening Checklist and Protocols

In addition to the phone screening checklist you use for your office, add these questions and follow these tips for potential outcall services:

• Will anyone else be at the location (husband/wife/children, caretaker, friend, etc.)?

• Ask about directions, admission into gated communities or security buildings, stairs and elevators, and parking.

• Always call the client before arriving. This allows you to verify the phone number and name you were given.

• Make sure your cell phone is charged.

• Create a check-in system with family, friends, or colleagues. If working at a hotel, check in and out with the front desk, and verify the client’s room registration.

• Listen to your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, call the client and cancel.


It is physiologically normal—although rare and infrequent—for a man to find himself with an erection during a therapeutic massage. Simply the occurrence of a man having an erection does not mean he is being inappropriate or threatening to you. You will quickly know if this is the case or not. There must be evidence of criminal intent for something to be considered assault or battery or inappropriate touching. To learn more about this topic, check out “Let’s Talk About … Um … Erections,” Massage & Bodywork, March/April 2013, page 64.

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