Identity

Female Massage Therapists Face Persistent Sexual Harassment

Many women who work as professional massage therapists say they face constant sexual harassment—inappropriate requests, heckling, and unwanted touching—from their male clients.

by Venessa Parekh
Jan 13 2016, 5:45pm

Illustration by Rose Wong

"Hey, darling, where are you today?" "Can you wear sexy lingerie this evening?" "How about dinner before our session today?" You could be forgiven for thinking that texts like these were exchanged between lovers, or even between a sex worker and her client. However, they're not; instead, these are real inquiries Sara*, a certified massage therapist, has received from prospective clients.

Like any other self-employed professional, Sara promotes her services on a variety of mediums: She works in a spa and advertises using Gumtree (a UK service similar to Craigslist) and massage and beauty agencies. She boasts a remarkable list of qualifications: manual lymphatic drainage, deep tissue massage, treatment for pregnant women experiencing discomfort. Yet she is overwhelmed with messages from men who want her to perform happy endings for them.

While massage therapy is recommended by the UK's National Health Service for various aches, injuries, and even as a part of cancer care, erotic massages are exactly what they sound like: a sexual service. (In October, when Taylor Swift's then-boyfriend Calvin Harris visited a massage parlor known for its happy endings, the internet was rife with rumors, eventually invalidated, that this counted as cheating and thus their relationship must have imploded.) Erotic massages are illegal in the US (except in licensed brothels in Nevada, where prostitution is legal as well). Masseuses who provide the service do it for the same expanse of reasons women get into sex work: They range from needing money to empowerment to coercion. And while stereotypes may paint a portrait of men as the exclusive recipients of happy endings, women seek out erotic massages, too, albeit less often than men. (In the early 1900s, doctors would prescribe erotic massages to women with "hysteria.")

The insults are regular, almost every day.

Yet conversations with massage therapists might easily create disillusionment with the term "happy ending." What for the longest time inspired images of an animated prince leaning forward to kiss a shy princess while cute animals frolic around them has now come to represent men who can't take no for an answer. As a therapist who won't provide a happy ending, Sara says she is inundated by sexual euphemisms, sleazy persuasion tactics, and insults every day.

A typical conversation between Sara and a prospective client: When Sara replied in the negative to a man requesting she wear "sexy lingerie" to their appointment, the client explained: "I am looking for a wife."

Screenshots from Sara's conversation with a potential client

Sara told him she wasn't looking for a boyfriend or husband—"if that's what you want, there is no point to this treatment"—but the client continued undeterred. "I was only hoping for some erotic feeling. I am looking for sex." Without waiting for a reply, he shot off his next message: "I want to feel the warmth of a woman. I miss it." Then, "since I spoke to you this morning, I really feel happy about meeting you."

Sara canceled the appointment, specifying that his approach was scaring her, but the messages continued. First, he reassured her that he wasn't a sexual predator; he was just feeling alone. Then, an hour later, he messaged to inform her that he had poured himself a glass of wine. The next day, he asked if she had changed her mind. She stopped replying.

To ward off clients looking for sex, Sara's Gumtree post states in capital letters: "I AM A PROFESSIONAL THERAPIST AND DO NOT OFFER SEXUAL SERVICES." There is no solid data for how often therapists who do not offer sex are harassed for it, so I decided to conduct my own little survey. I called up other therapists whose advertisements bear the same disclaimer as Sara's (about half the ads). The anecdotal evidence was pretty substantial.

Screenshots from Sara's conversation with a potential client

One therapist told me about a 70-year-old man who complained to the manager of the spa where she worked because she wouldn't allow him to lie on the massage table without a towel on his crotch. (In its "Code of Conduct and Professional Practice" the Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT), the largest professional association for therapists in the UK and Ireland, recommends the use of "modesty towels" covering "all areas of the client's body" not being treated.)

Another therapist, Kate, complained about a client who slid his hand under his body and fondled himself as she massaged his legs. "I ended the treatment immediately," she said, "but I still feel so dirty when I think of him."

Anna* is a physiotherapist from Romania who is employed as a massage therapist in a spa while she works towards getting her qualification recognized in the UK. "I had a client once who began building up to the handjob request from the minute I started the treatment. I made it very clear that I don't do that, and I stopped responding to him, so he called me a lesbian. Over and over, through to the end of the massage, he insisted that I must be gay for turning him down. When I angrily told him to stop, he sat up as if to hit me.

Screenshots from Sara's conversation with a potential client

"I punched him then," she ended, with a note of glee in her voice.

I asked if such escalation is common. "The insults are regular, almost every day," Anna said. "It is very disheartening. I can't see myself doing this work for much longer."

"'Won't you make an exception for me?' is one of the most common questions I'm asked," Sara said.

Over and over, through to the end of the massage, he insisted that I must be gay for turning him down.

Justine, a therapist with over a decade's experience, said she deals with clients who come onto her in person by threatening to call the police. "Often that's the only way to convince them that I'm not playing hard to get."

This corresponds with advice from Jennifer Wayte, president of the FHT. "If inappropriate client requests do occur, professional conduct by the therapist and the use of language that creates clear boundaries should ensure that the issue is nipped in the bud," Wayte told me. "In the event this doesn't work, and a client persists, therapists are advised to stop the treatment immediately and can contact the police to report the incident."

Screenshots from Sara's conversation with a potential client

But the therapists I surveyed offered a different reality; they all said they'd be run ragged if they actually filed harassment suits every time they were propositioned, though going to the police is more common in high-profile cases. In 2004, a therapist working at a hotel in Scotland accused actor Kevin Costner, who was honeymooning there, of touching himself during the massage and eventually performing a "solo sex act" in front of her. While the therapist didn't initiate proceedings against the star, she accused the hotel of unjustly firing her when she complained. In 2011, retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre was sued by two of his team's massage therapists, who claimed he sent them suggestive texts; the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. In 2010, Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore was accused of "unwanted sexual contact" by a massage therapist stemming from an alleged incident in 2006, but the case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. More recently, NFL player C.J. Spillman was accused of sexually assaulting a massage therapist in December 2013. In the police report, the therapist claimed Spillman grabbed the therapist's hand and attempted to force her to touch his penis. She also claimed he rubbed her breasts, nipples, and vagina, pinned her to the ground, and attempted to force his penis into her mouth while she tried to fight back.

It is very disheartening. I can't see myself doing this work for much longer.

Why is this behavior so common? According to Wayte, it's for the obvious reasons. "Unfortunately, cases of sexual harassment occur within the industry, in part due to the tactile nature of massage treatments and the necessity for partial disrobing by the client."

Therapists have different opinions. "They're spoiled, rich men," Anna said of her clients. "Lonely and emotionally starved," was Sara's estimation.

Stories of therapists touching clients inappropriately during massages tend to make the headlines, especially as these cases are usually reported to the police. In 2014 and 2015, for instance, multiple women across the United States complained that their therapists at a chain massage parlor called Massage Envy harassed or assaulted them in various ways during therapy. But the sexual comments, incessant badgering, and sexist insults faced by women who work as therapists are such a frequent occurrence, they're simply shrugged off as part of the job.

Over the years, Sara's reaction to this badgering has shifted from disgust and outrage to exasperation and acceptance. She sees no alternative to dealing with jerks to get to clients interested in her real skills. "All the therapists face it," she said.

*Names have been changed.