Rubbed the Wrong Way: Sexual Assault and Massage - a site for people who have experienced rape, sexual assault and other inappropriate behaviour in the course of massage
Safe Massage: What to Expect
On this page, we'll look at appropriate boundaries, touching and safety in massage.
 
Discussions of ways to avoid being sexually assaulted can be problematic in that there are no guarantees - for example somebody may seem safe, but we don't know if they'll remain that way. As well, it can be hurtful to survivors of sexual assault to have it suggested that they "should have known" this that or the other fact and thus prevented it from happening. Nevertheless, in some cases knowledge is power and can help us to know when something isn't right. So I hope this page will provide some good tips to you on what to expect from a massage therapist - or anybody who gives you a rub.
 
About the information on this page: A note of thanks
The information on this page was gained from seeking advice from Kellum Johnson LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) and Soleil, CMP (Certified Massage Practitioner). I gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Kellum and Soleil in taking the time to informatively answer my questions. I must also thank Kellum for permitting me use of information from articles he has authored (see below). There were issues that I was quite ignorant about and I wanted my visitors to have the right information, not a lot of half-baked twaddle. Also, If you are confused about whether touch was appropriate or abusive, you may find you are less so after reading this page. I reproduce below my questions and the responses of Kellum and Soleil.
 
Q. Outside of "erotic" massage, is genital touching or internal touching ever appropriate in massage? If so, under what circumstances is it appropriate?

Kellum says: "Well, my answer would be no. There are a few, extremely esoteric massage practices which purport to massage the area near the genitals, and in some cultures (such as some parts of India) it is not uncommon to massage across the genital area. But I would say that is nearly never appropriate, necessary, nor in fact useful (except if someone were, in fact, doing some form of erotic practice) to touch the genitals on male or female clients."
 
Soleil says: "NO. There are areas when massaging that are considered normal, however, I always ask permission first. This includes massaging the stomach, over the sternum, the buttocks area, and the inside of the thighs. There is always proper coverage for the areas not being massaged."
 
Summary: Outside of erotic massage, genital, anal or internal touching is never appropriate. Therefore "clinical" explanations for sexually abusive touching are BS.
 
Q.What should somebody look for in an ethical or "safe" massage therapist, and are there any indicators that should get alarm bells going - for example, the MT doesn't allow you privacy in undressing and dressing?
 
Kellum says: "Looking for nice, established clinics is a way of assuring (or nearly so) that the therapists will be qualified and appropriate. I work for myself 2 days out of the week, but the rest of the time I am at a clinic, because I know that people feel more comfortable getting a massage at that sort of facility, rather than in their home. The therapist should ALWAYS leave the room while you are dressing/undressing (there are exceptions, I have an old friend who bids me turn around, gets under the covers and 30 seconds later is unclothed, but these are exceptional sorts of cases). Also, the therapist should never make any sort of sexual comments. As I said in my massage ethics article, if a client makes a dirty joke, I will laugh. But in six years I've never commented on a client's body or made any kind of comments of that nature. It just isn't appropriate."
 
Soleil says: "I think a referral from someone you trust is best. When you go in for the massage, look around. Does this look an feel like a safe space? Does the MT do an intake? This intake is not just for the MT. You get to ask questions and get a feel for the MT. This is also a good place to talk about comfort levels, what to expect from the massage, and open a line of communication (If you don't feel safe, a good MT will work with your comfort level, and you always have the right to leave). You do NOT have to completely undress. Many women I see will keep their panties on the first session. Some will remain completely dressed. When you are getting ready for the massage, you should have privacy to get undressed to your comfort level and get covered up on the massage table. An alarm bell should go off if the MT does not allow for privacy, communication, or dignity."

Summary: Referrals to trusted or established clinics is a good idea. Lack of privacy, dignity or sexual talk are inappropriate. (Note: My bad masseur did not make with sexual talk or dirty jokes but I think that presenting himself as decent was part of the ensnarement and a way of deliberately confusing me.) At all times, YOU have the right to be in control, and to stop the procedure at any time. You must be allowed to be adequately covered.
 
Q. In some massage, going near a client's privates, breasts, or backside is unavoidable or even part and parcel (isn't it?). Can you tell me what the accepted parameters in the industry are, and how far is "too far"? Are most good MTs trained to avoid "accidents" but do they still happen? When can a person be confident that "sexual" touching was neither accidental or incidental?"
 
Kellum says: "This is a tough one. A lot (if not most) low back massage involves touching the rear end (I am careful to keep the genitals draped, but honest slips can occur). With shoulder problems, a therapist works very close to the breasts, and hip problems put our hands very close to the genitals. Myself I am incredibly cautious to determine boundaries and discuss with a client (I say something like "I'm not trying to be intimate here") that I may be going close to forbidden areas. I also am extraordinarily careful with the sheet used to drape these areas. Honest slips occur, and the therapist should apologize quickly and without making a big show. I recently was working on a woman's arm and my hand brushed across her breast. I said "Sorry!" and she said "Oh, that's no problem." and I was more careful after that. There's a whole procedure for ending a massage session with which a person feels uncomfortable. Maybe it is someone being inappropriate, maybe it is just a 'vibe'. A client should be able to say "I'd like to end this session." with no argument from a therapist. Some clients will also use the "I need to go use the bathroom, may I put my clothes on?" line. That works in more extreme circumstances. In some places, it is legal and legitimate to undrape a woman's breasts (with her permission and signoff, of course). I've actually got an article on E2 about breast massage. it is not for everyone, but it is a legitimate form of massage. That said, it should never be performed without the proper signatures and okays! (Please see Kellum's article on breast massage)

Soleil says: "As I said before, there are some strokes that get into sensitive areas. The MT should always ask for permission before going into those regions. Good communication is essential in a good massage. There are definitely better strokes for certain areas that feel non-invasive and safe. In my experience both on and off the table, "accidents" do happen, but very rarely. These for me have only ever consisted of the outer edge of pubic hair. Apologies are a must, and make sure it is OK to go on with the massage. A person can be confident that the touching was inappropriate if the MT does not ask for permission to massage an area and/or proceeds to massage when told no. If someone is going in for their fifth massage, there will be a more abbreviated form of communication, but no still means no."
 
Summary: A safe massage therapist asks permission before going near sensitive areas (not the private parts, but near them). Touch in these areas is inappropriate if permission is not sought, or if it is conducted after you've said no. Breast or buttock massage may be an appropriate part of treatment but only with express, and in the case of breast massage, signed, consent. Accidents do happen but are rare - massage therapists are trained to know where they can and can't go - and apologies for "slips" are a necessity.
 
Q.Should the Massage Therapist ideally be licensed or a member of a national association of MT's?
 
Kellum says: "Where I live, only licensed MTs are allowed to practice massage therapy for pay. In some places, there are no such strictures. There are a number of independent licensing bodies (such as the American Massage Therapy Association in USA), which do some good, but most of us support such licensure, it just makes us all look better. Of course, letters after your name (LMT in my case) don't guarantee propriety, but they go a long way to helping. Recommendations from friends, spa/shop owners and professional reputation go a long way as well. Here in Texas, it's "One strike and you are out," ie, one serious complaint against a therapist and the state will pull his/her license pending investigation. So we must be very careful to assure our clients' safety, privacy, and comfort."

Soleil says: "Ideally, yes. Some states and/or cities do not require a license or training. Anyone can access the laws for their area through the state website. Where massage laws are in effect, massage practitioners must register with the proper authorities and satisfy certain requirements to obtain a license to practice. Being licensed in one state does not guarantee the license will be valid in another locale. On the flip side, I happen to live in a state where anyone can hang a shingle on their door, regardless of qualifications. However, I have met some amazingly gifted healers that had little or no training. So keep in mind that someone with all the training available may have no innate sense of good touch. Get referrals from people you trust."
 
Summary: A qualification is a good thing because it suggests a higher level of prefessionalism, and it means the massage practitioner is bound to certain principles. However, it logically does not guard against unethical or criminal behaviour. A qualification may be less important than what the MT does or says. Again, referrals are a good idea. Regardless of qualification or lack thereof, all appropriate behaviours must be observed.
 
From my own experience:
The masseur who sexually assaulted me and five other women seemed to me to be a kind, caring and sensitive person who was approachable about a range of topics. I considered him a friend. As I said above, there were no indicators of indecency until I had his hand wedged where it shouldn't have been. I would thus caution that no matter how nice or new-agey somebody seems, they can be perpetrators of rape and sexual assault too - there isn't a stereotype - indeed, a perpetrator may use a "carey-sharey" facade to get you to accept their criminal behaviour. Again, how they present is not as important as what they say or do, and what your instincts tell you. We must never be afraid of listening to our instincts when something doesn't feel right.

A Note to Survivors
If you are contemplating having another massage, you may want to look for a massage therapist the opposite gender to the one who abused you and that's fair enough but I will say this: I had another one with a man and he was great- I particularly appreciated having everything explained.
 
Many massage therapists are sensitive to issues survivors of sexual assault have around touching. It may be especially difficult for you to even contemplate having a massage if you were assaulted by a masseur/masseuse, and you never need to do it again of you don't want to. However, there may come a time in your life when you would benefit from massage for a medical issue. As well, some survivors of sexual assault do contemplate massage as a part of exploring safe touch after sexual assault. An important factor will be telling the MT about your experiences and fears. I hope that you get a caring response and a positive experience. It's a fact that many survivors have positive, supportive relationships with their massage therapists, and I think it bears repeating that most massage practitioners are ethical and safe. Take care, okay?
 
Further reading for you
Read the articles Massage Ethics and 3-part How to Receive a Professional Massage by Kellum Johnson LMT
Copyright 2007