Massage Magazine Let's Talk About It May - June, 2005, page 76
It was not that long ago that the worlds of massage and prostitution were closely associated, at least in name. And while the last forty years have changed this perception, by legitimizing massage as a viable and honorable profession, there are still gray areas regarding the perceived relationship between massage and sexuality.
Having spoken to more than one hundred massage therapists in the last year, I was interested to discover that almost all of them had encountered clients who requested some form of sexual activity as part of their massage sessions. With experiences ranging from non-verbal pelvic motion to requests for “happy endings”, a small percentage of their clients had let them know that they would welcome sex if it were offered.
After hearing such a wide range of experiences, it occurred to me that there is a need for more discussion among massage therapists as to how to handle situations in which sex is brought up during a massage. The purpose of this article is to openly address these issues and offer creative alternatives to guarded responses.
A client may request sexual favors during a massage based on an unclear idea as to what is being offered. Perhaps one of the client’s friends told him/her that he had sex during his massage with someone else. Or perhaps the client had a massage in another country where sex was a normal part of the session. Perhaps a massage is done in such a loving or sensual way that the client misunderstands the therapist’s intentions.
There are many ways for a client to become confused as to the role of sexuality in a massage. That confusion, however, can be cleared up with a sign, a written disclosure statement or a verbal statement, such as, “Although massage is sensual, please do not confuse that for being sexual. In no way will I perform acts of sex with you during our session. I want to be clear so that you are not confused as to what is possible.” Setting things straight at the beginning of a massage can eliminate embarrassing requests based on false assumptions.
There are also ways to minimize bringing in clients who are unclear about the boundary between sexuality and massage. For instance you could only accept clients who are referred by people you know rather than taking those who call from a newspaper or Yellow Pages ad. If running a print ad is essential to your business, I would recommend that you place the ad in a healing journal rather than a regular newspaper. Regardless of how clients find you, it’s imperative that you make your boundaries clear before the session begins. Without clarity, neither party can fully relax.
Draping is another way to send messages to clients. If draping is done in a careless fashion, exposing the genitals during certain moves, clients could possibly read this as an invitation. If therapists take care to cover the genital area and avoid inadvertent contact with that are, they are sending a message that sex is not included in the massage. That being said, the clearer boundaries are to begin with, the less the therapist has to rely on draping as the sole indicator that the massage is not to be a sexual one. This can lead to a fixation on the draping that takes away from the flow and connection between the therapists and the client.
Staying in the room while a client undresses could also send a confusing message as to what is possible during the massage. Some clients have no problem with the therapist staying while they get undressed, but it is safer and more respectful to leave the room while clients ready themselves for their massage.
Many therapists conclude that in order to avoid confusion during massage sessions, they must change the way they really like to massage. They keep a distance between themselves and their clients, never contacting them with any part of their bodies besides their hands, avoiding the breasts and inner thighs, avoiding eye contact, fixating on the draping and making sure the massage does not feel too sensual – all in order to eliminate any chance for inducing sexual requests. This concern is what keeps thousands of clients from receiving the depth of touch they seek but can rarely find. If therapists were to provide clear boundaries both before and during sessions, they would be able to be less defensive during the massage and work more intimately with their clients.
A client of mine says, “What I find different about Leslie’s touch is that she is not afraid to really make contact. She ‘makes love’ to my being with out ever being slightly sexual. Because she is so clear with her boundaries, I can completely relax and not have to wonder if she is inviting sex. So many of us crave to be touched like this.”
I learned the importance of having clear boundaries long ago when I was just beginning my career. A young man came to me for a massage. He appeared to be very nervous. I was too shy to state my boundaries, so I just began the session, hoping for the best. At one point, my hands and arms were completely under his back and for a short moment my face was right over his. He opened his eyes and said very shyly, “Excuse me, but am I supposed ti kiss you now?” “No!” I exclaimed. “Oh good!” he replied, and we both broke into laughter because the unspoken “secret” had finally been exposed. He did not want to have sex but was confused as to what was expected of him. If, on the other hand, this client did want sex and I had not previously stated clear boundaries, he would not necessarily be wrong for enquiring. If this were to happen, I could apologize for not having made my position clear before I started, and then state my boundaries.
It’s the therapist’s job to remove nay confusion. Just because we therapists know the rules, we should not assume that clients share or know them as well. Once the confusion has been cleared up, however, should a client persist in requesting that a therapist perform a sexual act, the situation has progressed from client confusion to client violation.
If a massage therapist has made it clear to a client, whether through verbal or written explanation, that sexual acts will not be performed, and the client still chooses to ask the therapist to be sexual, the therapist should restate the boundaries or ask the client to leave. It is important to make a statement such as “Sex is not included in my massage, so please do not ask me again or you will be asked to leave” should the therapist decide to continue the session.
If the client apologizes and desists, and the therapist feels comfortable and safe, the session can be completed. If, however, the therapist does not feel safe or feels too angry to continue working, or if the client repeats his/her request for sex, the therapist has both the right and the obligation to end the session. After the request for the client to leave has been made, the therapist should leave the room and no longer engage in further conversation with the client, if possible. This is one reason why it is a good idea for therapists to have new clients pay for their sessions before they begin.
There are less-extreme ways, however, that clients can violate the therapeutic relationship. For example, a client can ask the therapist for sex in an indirect fashion with a phrase such as “It’s OK with me if you touch me anywhere.” It’s important when responding to this kind of a comment that therapists take into account their personal preference, as well as the law. Simply stating, “Genital contact is against the regulations” still leaves room for the client to say, “But no one would have to know.” Whereas including a phrase such as, “Besides, it’s not okay with me to touch you anywhere” leaves little room for debate and would be empowering for the therapist as well. It is an art for therapists to balance caring for themselves with being understanding of clients who push the limits.
There will be times when clients become inadvertently aroused. If massage therapists mistake an inadvertent arousal for an intentional invitation for sex and admonish their clients by prematurely ending a session or getting angry, they risk adding more embarrassment to that which may already exist for the clients. It is completely normal to become aroused by caring touch. This arousal should not be mistaken as a violation. Only if clients demand that therapists do something about it does it become a violation of boundaries.
A woman may get excited during a massage, but it is much easier for her to hide this than it is for a man. When a man gets aroused on my massage table, assuming that I have made my boundaries clear, I will let him know that there is nothing to worry about, as it can be a normal reaction to a massage. If he does not seem bothered by his arousal and say something such as, “No worries” or “Thanks for letting me know” or “ I hope it’s not bothering you,” I will just keep massaging and do nothing more. If, however, it seems that he is uncomfortable, I might choose to work farther away form the genital region, moving gracefully to the feet, hands or head to help diffuse the energy. When a client is really open about his arousal and asks for help in dealing with it, I work with him to channel that energy to other parts of his body.
Another client of mine says, “I came to Leslie for massage, needing some touch in my life. I was in a serious marriage for 15 years. In the process of being touched I felt myself becoming aroused. At first I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do about all this locked-up sexual energy. Leslie invited me to envision that my genitals were the center of the sun and the energy coming out of that region was the rays. She had me send the rays of energy throughout my entire body, and when I did I felt the sexual energy move to my heart and I began to cry. This was an amazing healing experience. After working with my sexual energy like this, I learned to trust that experiencing an arousal did not mean that I had to act on it.”
When clear boundaries are set and honored, working with arousal ina safe, loving and creative fashion can shift a situation with the potential for violation into a transformational experience. It is an opportunity for therapists to deepen the relationship with their clients. But boundaries alone are not enough. Therapists must hole very clear intentions of not being sexual with their clients and not send mixed messages through their hands. Therapists who are clear about their intentions and limits are able to work more closely with their clients without risking misinterpretations.
An experienced massage therapist shares, “I work very intimately with my clients, allowing my body and eyes to make contact with theirs, and yet never have any of my clients interpreted my close contact as permission or an invitation to be sexual with me. This has much to do with the intention I hold of sacred space. It is so clear and strong within me that it leaves no room for confusion. My clients and I both enjoy a deep connection without being concerned that it will lead to anything but what it is, a therapeutic massage.”
As professional massage therapists, we need to abide by the laws and guidelines of our profession, understanding that these laws were made for the protection of both the clients and the therapists. A law stating that “no sexual behavior will ensue during the massage” not only protects the therapist forma client’s advances, but protects a client from himself. By refraining from sexual behavior, a therapist protects the client, who may think in the heat of the moment that sex is OK. It is as much our professional duty to protect our clients from their momentary inclinations as it is to protect us from them.
Engaging in sexual behavior with a client is an obvious no-no, but responsible behavior does not stop there. Massage therapists must also be careful not to cross their client’s boundaries in more subtle ways.
If a therapist is attracted to a client, she/he may drape loosely or unwittingly lean parts of his/her body against the client in a way that violates the client’s need for space. Therapists must be careful not to assume that their boundaries, or lack of them, necessarily match those if their clients. It is common for clients to accommodate therapists’ sloppy boundaries out of shyness, only to never return again. It’s helpful for therapists to check in with their clients’ comfort level, not only through words but also through their facial expressions and body language.
On the other hand, it is completely human and natural to cross boundaries inadvertently – and if that is the case it is important to remedy the situation and move on.
“There have been times when by accident my hand swept across a client’s nipple, or the sheet became undraped over the client’s genital region, or I moved the client’s hand against my body without meaning to,” a massage therapist shares. “I just gently pulled the sheet back where it belonged and moved my hand away from the area I did not mean to touch. If it seemed necessary I would say, ‘Sorry,’ but most times I just continued on, and the client knew by my energy and further actions that it was a mistake and not a come-on.”
Because sensuality and sexuality walk side by side, it is understandable that the two can become intertwined in the minds of many. Massage therapists have the honorable task of holding the two separate while joining the body and heart. With integrity, boundaries and clear intentions, a massage can be more intimate than sex while respecting the client’s deeper need to be held and touched in a safe and connected way.
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