A couple of years ago, some friends and I discussed bad massages. “The massage therapist kept checking her phone,” one huffed, while another spoke about how a therapist’s bad breath had made her nauseous. I shared a story about a massage therapist that skated her fingertips across my shoulders for 30 minutes while she hummed to herself. We laughed at the ridiculousness of these events as we tossed back white wine. Back then, It seemed like a bad massage was, at worst, a waste of time and money.
Then, last spring, I woke up with a kink in my neck. Linking it to the long run I did the previous day, I decided that I needed a massage, and I needed it now. After browsing online for availability, I opened the Groupon app to find a screaming deal on massages at a local business. The place had positive reviews in the app and on Yelp. After purchasing the special, I called up the business and the receptionist raved about a massage therapist who had an opening that afternoon. I booked the appointment with him.
After entering the little massage room, the massage therapist asked me if I wanted to target any area in particular. I told him I was sore in my neck, hips, and back. He left the room and I got undressed down to my bikini brief cut underwear. I lay down on the heated massage table face down, my body covered with a white sheet, and tried to relax. After he knocked, he entered the room. We made small talk for a bit, and when he made a joke and I didn’t laugh, he put extreme pressure in the center of my back. He then spat out, “That was supposed to be funny.”
The massage continued, and anger seeped out of him with every touch. At first, I was in shock, but it felt like every manipulation was about aggression, rather than relaxation and release of tension. It was overwhelming. I told him the pressure was too much, but he continued to dig his fingers and knuckles into my body with vehemence. At one point he positioned my hipster cut underwear into a thong and massaged my buttocks for what felt like 15 minutes. He then proceeded to rub my chest hard, in close proximity to my nipples.
I lay there with tears in my eyes, unable to find my voice. It was like there was a clamp on my voice box. I wanted to kick him in the groin and scream, but it felt like there was an invisible force pinning me to the table. I couldn’t move. As the massage continued, I dissociated from my body. Short films of my past experiences with sexual assault flooded my mind and I watched each one, petrified and in disbelief.
After the massage, I felt defeated and ashamed. My brain kicked into overdrive with questions that I couldn’t answer. Did I experience sexual assault? Should I report him to the manager? I had always considered myself a feminist, but does a feminist allow themselves to be violated in the #MeToo era?
Clinical psychologist and author of The Complex PTSD Workbook Arielle Schwartz tells Allure via email, “Too often, victims get blamed in our culture. That translates into unrealistic expectations toward ourselves. Self-compassion is so very, very important.”
The same evening of my appointment, I called the massage business and spoke to the receptionist. I explained what happened during my appointment, how it made me feel, and requested to speak to the manager. Two days later, after the manager had still not returned my call, I left another message. At the time of writing this, a year and a half after the incident, I still haven’t received a response. I developed insomnia and spent nights on my computer searching Google for information on the massage therapist, something to justify that he was capable of what happened. I was also anxious, unable to feel at ease.
According to Schwartz, “trauma takes a toll on our physiology and we experience many of the symptoms of PTSD within the body. She explains how this is one example of the ways trauma is stored in the body: “You might remain alert and unable to relax. This can get in the way of your ability to feel grounded or can lead to sleep problems because you are too vigilant to let your guard down.”
Two weeks later, I was still looking up Yelp reviews of places he had previously worked to see if there were any reviews about someone else feeling violated. During my sleepless nights, I became obsessed with figuring out the difference between a bad massage and sexual assault. I researched news stories about women who’d had similar experiences on the massage table. I continued to replay what happened in that room over and over again, stopping the tape in my head at the point when I should have said something.
I also spent a fair bit of time going back and forth in my head about whether to report the incident to the police. Did I want to subject myself to intense questioning and an investigation? Would anyone believe me, since it was just the two of us in the room? Will I be known in town as a liar? Would people hate me for pointing an accusatory finger at a local business?
A massage is one of the most intimate services someone can give you and a client is vulnerable on the massage table, barely clothed under a sheet. In 2017, BuzzFeed News found that more than 180 people had reported being sexually assaulted at Massage Envy spas, a wellness franchise that provides massages and facials across the U.S. (At the time of the article’s publication, Massage Envy told BuzzFeed News that it couldn’t respond to specific details because of confidentiality and “pending litigation,” and in an emailed statement said, “We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it.”).
Ben Benjamin, massage therapist and co-author of The Ethics of Touch, recommends that a prospective client contact their local state licensing board to confirm a therapist is licensed. He also suggests prospective clients ask to speak to three to five clients, though this may be a bit tricky — it’s possible they may only give you the names of clients that would give them good review, if they can give you referrals at all, due to privacy concerns. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, 46 states and the District of Columbia currently regulate massage therapists or provide voluntary state certification. If you are a prospective massage therapy client and sexual assault survivor, licensed professional counselor Alissa Everett, who specializes in sexual trauma therapy, recommends finding a trauma-informed massage therapist who works with clients to make them feel comfortable.
Trauma-informed bodyworker Sage Hayes, LMT, SEP, emphasizes the importance of the massage therapist’s initial conversation with the client. “It’s important that the take is very explicit and the therapist is very clear about what's going to happen in the massage,” they say.
A client should always undress to their level of comfort. Hayes emphasizes that removing clothes is not necessary for a massage. The therapist should leave when clothes are removed and the client should go underneath the sheet either on their back or their stomach before the therapist re-enters the room. When working on the body, Benjamin stresses that the therapist should check in three to four times to make sure the pressure is OK. Hayes says, “a therapist should be having a collaborative invitation for a client to participate in and creating an opportunity for consent.”
If the client is undressed, when it is time to turn over during the massage, Benjamin emphasizes, “[The massage therapist] should be holding the sheet up turning the head away and the client should be totally covered while the client rolls over.”
Predatory massage therapists may slowly try to cross boundaries during the massage to see if the client is going to respond negatively. Examples of crossing boundaries include inappropriate jokes, comments about the body, rubbing high on the inner thighs, touching underwear with their hands, or making contact with the genital region. The sheet should cover at least three to four inches below the pelvis, resting on the upper thigh.
This year, many states and cities have enacted restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals has aggregated state-specific information about these recommended guidelines and restrictions. However, even with these new advisories, Benjamin says, “Predator therapists will still be out there, so I don’t think it’s any safer as far as inappropriate touch.”
Although I’ve tried to deal with all my issues through therapy, meditation, and exercise, at times, I still wonder if I’ve made the massage up in my head. “Times of extreme stress such as traumatic events can impair how memory is stored and subsequently recalled,” says Schwartz. “High arousal emotional and somatic experience disrupts the functioning of parts of the brain involved in sequential thought and language. It is common to question yourself, or for the event to feel surreal.”
After months of therapy, I have slowly stopped blaming myself for the incident. The interrogating tone in my head has softened into a compassionate one. I have tried to let go of the traumatic massage, but I still feel triggered at times. I still have a lot of self-doubts. My thoughts about the incident are like a pendulum that swings from questioning whether I should have reported it to the police to wondering if I made up some of the things that happened in the room.
Everett says that this feeling is part of the acceptance process. “There’s so much shame wrapped up in it and once you admit it [that you were sexually assaulted] and see the truth in it, it’s a hard thing to heal from and a hard thing to accept,” she says.
According to Schwartz, scheduling a therapy session is a good choice. She explains, “Healing environments require that we feel safe so find a [talk] therapist that you can trust. It is important that you can tell your therapist if anything they say or do doesn't feel good or right to you.” It’s what she says next that gives me hope. “It is also important to know that it is possible to reclaim a feeling of empowerment in your body and choice about how you think about traumatic events.”
I am slowly healing, but it’s two steps forward, one step back sort of progress. In our weekly sessions, my therapist helps me unpack what happened, which makes me feel a little better.
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Originally Appeared on Allure