Handling Challenging Situations & Misunderstandings as a Massage Therapist -- Part 1

I once had an unusual case occur in my treatment room. A very nice professional gentleman, whom I will refer to as R for this post, had called me one evening after I had finished up my last client, said that his former therapist had moved away and that he was looking for a new one, and asked if I had availability for one more client. After I told him that I could accommodate him, he informed me that he was a cyclist and proceeded to give me very specific details for what he liked in a massage – preferences accumulated over seventeen or eighteen years of receiving professional work from other licensed therapists. Fortunately for me, I was able to fulfill most of his requests, as they were already part of my usual technique or not too far from it. We agreed to start with a 30-minute session to see if he was satisfied with my work, and we would go from there if he wanted more time.

Because R was a cyclist, he needed work in the area of his groin, which is very common and something that I have done with other clients who are cyclists or who sit for long periods of time. Therefore, I didn’t think anything of it, when he asked me to work in very close to the genitals, as I figured I could drape in such a way that they would be out of the way of my hands. (I had also confirmed with him ahead of time that I could not and would not touch his genitals, since that would be illegal, to which he had firmly agreed.) However he also asked, as I started to drape him, that I not tuck the sheet, as it was uncomfortable for him. This put me in a bit of a quandary, as work that close into the groin generally requires the genitals to be tucked away in some fashion. (I should also note, before I continue, that the state of Texas legally allows a therapist to forego use of a drape, as long as the therapist and client have both agreed in writing that they are fine with not using one. I, however, do not offer such an option in my practice, as I prefer my clients remain draped.) I agreed to lightly tuck, figuring that while he was on his stomach, it wasn’t as big of a deal, since gravity would help keep things out of my way.

Being Unsure of A Client’s Motives

However, it quickly became evident that R engaged in a much more active style of massage than I had ever before experienced. He would move his hips to help me better access the areas on which he wanted work, and the drape quickly became useless, as it would shift and slide off no matter how I tried to arrange it. Also, I became disconcerted to see that as he moved his hips, he appeared to be thrusting his genitals into the table. Now, I’m not one to lose my cool or my temper over a male client getting an erection while I’m working on them. It’s a natural bodily response that occurs when the nerves in that area are stimulated, and may or may not go away on its own. As long as the client doesn’t proceed to fiddle with it, I usually ignore it and just tuck it out of the way with the sheet. Since I assumed that R understood that receiving sexual pleasure from my services was not something that I was comfortable with, given his indications earlier that he agreed with the fact that I would not stimulate his genitals, I hinted that he needed to stop moving his hips, since it made it harder for me to work on him and still control my movements. He replied that he was doing it simply because it felt good and he was enjoying my massage so much, so I let it slide for that session.

I can picture any therapists cringing as they read the above sentence, but this was (fortunately enough) my first real experience with having someone on the table who might be taking sexual pleasure in my services, and I wasn’t 100% sure that that was actually what was going on. After all, he had not indicated to me that he expected sexual services from me, and his hip movements did give me better access to some of the areas that he said were tight and needed work. I did email back and forth with R a few times following the first session to try and establish whether he was looking for something “extra” from me; but English was not his first language, though he spoke it rather well, and he admitted that he had trouble expressing himself via written forms of communication. So, during the next session, I brought up the hip movements again, mentioning how, to me, it appeared as though he were thrusting into the table. Surprised that I was still in the dark after our written communication, he explained that he was, in fact, thrusting into the table and that he had assumed that it was patently obvious to me what he was doing and that I was fine with it because I hadn’t thrown a fit!

A Difference of Understanding and Culture

Whoops! I guess both of us were assuming the wrong things! I, for my part, had assumed that anyone who came to get a massage knew that receiving sexual satisfaction in any form was a big no-no in the industry and that no one would expect a therapist to be okay with it; and he, for his part, assumed that he was making it blatantly apparent that part of his enjoyment of my work was his ability to please himself while on the table and that I was okay with it because I didn’t kick him out right away. Fortunately, we came to the realization that we had had a significant miscommunication and were able to sort things out. I told him my conditions for him remaining a client were that he refrain from such actions while on my table. He said that he understood my request, but that that was a very significant portion of his enjoyment of a massage and that he did not want to give it up, if possible. We therefore parted ways rather amicably, considering the circumstances, neither angry at the other.

Now, I know that some therapists would have been disgusted with his behavior and are wondering why in the world I did not file a complaint with the police department for sexual harassment or assault. (Incidentally, the poor man expressed that he was worried I was going to do just that.) For one thing, I realized that in R’s home country, culturally, such a massage is not out of the question for men to receive, and that may have influenced why he felt it was fine to act in such a way while on my table. For another thing, he never once asked me to touch his genitals. In fact, he made it clear that he expected nothing of the sort and understood that I could not and would not touch them. He merely wanted to experience some sexual gratification from work in the general area, again possibly influenced by his cultural perceptions of massage. Had he tried to trick me into giving him a sexual massage, that would have been different; but as it stood, I had no reason to report him over an unfortunate misunderstanding. Added to that is the fact that he assured me that he had been seeing only licensed massage therapists since he had begun receiving massage many years ago. If they allowed him to get away with such behavior while on their tables, then the fault was really theirs for not discouraging him from doing it. Perhaps they figured that as long as he wasn’t asking them to pleasure him, his behavior was perfectly fine or tolerable, but they were most certainly setting up future therapists for a potentially unwelcome surprise.

All in all, the incident was an excellent, if somewhat uncomfortable learning experience. I hope that by writing it down, I will help other therapists from encountering similar situations (or at least give them the tools and insight needed to deal with it effectively should they encounter it), and help clients to better understand proper massage etiquette and behavior. The best thing, whether you are a therapist or a client, is clear communication. If you think something is being missed, it is okay to stop the session or take time before or after it to really straighten out each party’s understanding. It will save a lot of trouble and discomfort in future sessions!