Fortune’s favors have smiled upon me and organized their glory to make it such that I’ve had many massages in my life.
I. Love. Getting. Massages. The physical release of tension and the mind-body-breath connection are so precious to me that they trump even my severe body issues and potential difficulty in stripping naked and laying down in a dark room for a stranger.
I’ve had everything from bargain-basement massages in a tiny stall separated from the next one by a shower curtain in an unmarked storefront late at night to the two-hour deep-tissue treatment at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills.
I once worked the front desk at a high-end spa for a brief time between performance gigs. Not only were complimentary massages an accepted perk of the position, but the massage therapists knew that whoever worked the desk was in control of who got booked the most, so they were essentially competing for my goodwill with increasingly impressive displays of their therapeutic skills. Nice work if you can get it.
Between the fact that I had already had a ton of massages before working there and that I made sure to continue with as many as I could afford afterward, this body of mine has had more massages than I could ever count.
And only once have I ever gotten up from the table and walked out.
This was supposed to be relaxing.
It wasn’t at the spa where I worked; that facility was a temple of professionalism and protocol. This was a few years after I’d left there. I was headed home in downtown NYC and decided to stop for a spontaneous rubdown.
There was a spa that I had passed often that looked completely on the level, with proper signage and practitioners in uniforms who greeted me warmly when I popped in to take a look. I had shoulder tension that needed tending to and they had an open time slot, so within minutes I was face down on the table enjoying the semi-soothing sounds of birds cooing on a CD and the faint scent of lavender.
Daniel, the massage therapist who was available, had introduced himself when I first walked in. He was tall and muscular enough to probably be intimidating to many, but all I focused on was that his hands seemed strong because that’s what my sore muscles needed.
As I lay there on the table in the almost-dark and he did the courtesy knock before re-entering the room, I had the same thought I always have in the moments before a massage: Yippee! Let the relaxation begin!
This time, it didn’t. I felt something was off from the very start, but I chalked that up to guilt about my choice to drop a hundred bucks on the way home because I was feeling tense. I was between gigs at the time and as much as I value massage, I wondered if maybe a little alone time with a bottle of two-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s and a Sade playlist couldn’t have sufficiently gotten my shoulders to fall an inch from my ears instead. But I was there on the table, so I tried to relax.
Daniel talked a lot, and I didn’t respond much. I’d rather not be carrying on a conversation during a massage. It’s important to speak up if something is wrong, but I’m not so much about the chit-chat on current events and whatnot.
And it is definitely not OK with me for a massage therapist to go on and on about my body.
It was only a few minutes in when Daniel first felt compelled to comment on my “beautiful brown skin.”
Whoa, dude. Them’s wooing words.
My lower back is a little ticklish and when I jumped a bit at his touch there, he wouldn’t let up, even when I politely suggested he maybe focus on my shoulders more (the area I asked him to focus on when I first walked in). Instead he went into a whole spiel about how “He knew where my body needed his touch the most.” He added, “I know you feel that, ”and “Ssssshhhh, don’t fight it.”
He certainly wasn’t assaulting me. But what he was doing was in a gross gray area that left it to me to either go with my gut or conclude that I was imagining that tone in his voice. But it only got worse from there. His unwanted touch felt more like a skilled Casanova rounding second base on the proverbial third date than a masseur doing his job. And he would not shut up about my “soft skin,” my “chocolate skin.”
I had had enough. My heart was pounding and even though I had a bit of the ol’ self-doubt still telling me maybe I ought to stick it out, I had to end it. It’s not easy to be firm with a large man kneading you when you’re naked and face down and clutching a sheet to yourself, but my voice can project from a stage to the back wall of any theater and I sent that same voice shooting through that face cradle as he pressed on my back.
“STOP. I AM UNCOMFORTABLE AND I AM ENDING THIS MASSAGE. PLEASE LEAVE THE ROOM SO I CAN GET DRESSED.”
He objected, which is how I knew I was doing the right thing. The way he kept shushing me and telling me I was uncomfortable because I wasn’t “letting him in” and that he “could make me comfortable if I just gave him a chance” sickened me.
I just repeated “Please leave the room NOW” a few more times until he finally did. I got dressed, went out to the front (where he was nowhere to be found), told the staff quickly that I felt the massage was inappropriate and I wasn’t paying them anything, and I left.
I know from the many candid conversations I’ve had with the massage therapists I used to work with, the interactions with the many professionals who have massaged me, and from my bestie who is a newly minted CMT, that as a rule, in a professional setting, a professional massage therapist giving a professional massage IS NOT TRYING TO FUCK YOU.
There’s a step-by-step technique to proper draping with the sheets so that they don’t expose your genitals, there actually are areas of the body that are off-limits, even if you ask, such as abdomen, inner thighs, and breast tissue, and it is actually very insulting to someone who considers themselves a professional healer when someone treats them like a whore.
I have heard lots of stories from male practitioners who are upset at being propositioned in the room. The defeated look in their eyes as they relay experiences is real enough to knock out any sort of “Aha! How do YOU like it when it’s happening to YOU?” kneejerk reaction and cut clear to the truth that it just sucks if you are trying to do your job at your place of employment and the only other person in the room is sexualizing you and expecting to be serviced.
During my short time at the spa where I worked, there was one accusation of inappropriate conduct by a therapist. Upper management went ballistic questioning him, and it turns out the person getting the massage had made aggressive sexual advances and complained when they were rebuffed.
I watched a grown man, a consummate professional and highly skilled masseur, cry at the prospect of losing his job over the incident, which he ultimately did not. But his demeanor changed and his spark was gone and he left shortly thereafter.
Maybe having seen that man’s tears is what led me to leave Daniel’s massage without making a detailed complaint. Mostly, I just wanted to get out of there.
I was reminded then of having heard a gal I was once in a show with excitedly recount the story of how she had seduced a masseur during a massage. Other girls squealed with glee as she said she had done it before and likes a “REALLY happy ending”, etc.
I asked her about the facility -- did she tear out a number from the back pages of The Village Voice? Did she get a referral from a friend? Was sex an understood part of the deal at this establishment? No, she said. She just wanted to get off so why not?
No slut-shaming here. What two consenting adults do is their business and sometimes a gal just needs to get off. But as Carrie Bradshaw might say, “I couldn’t help but wonder…had Daniel encountered someone like this gal before? And how might that have informed the way he treated me?
When you sexualize a therapeutic service, whether as practitioner or recipient, you shatter the trust that is paramount to the experience.
I know people who cannot and would not ever get a professional massage. The very idea of being in that vulnerable a state with a stranger is impossible, and in many cases, it’s due to past trauma. As a rape survivor, I am grateful that even though my assault left footprints on my soul, I am able to separate that from consensual contact and especially massage.
And I take rape and accusations of rape so very seriously that I do not wish to equate Daniel the masseur calling me a “delicious chocolate bunny” to the attack that I had endured years earlier.
But every time I try to tell a scared friend that a professional spa is not a sexual atmosphere, I think of Daniel stroking my back after I said stop. I think of someone making a complaint and not being believed because of the person whose lie almost got my co-worker at the spa fired. I think of the salacious tale the gal from my show spun about how “It was happening, so [she] let it happen” and wonder who was really in control there. I think about my extreme guilt at not making a bigger stink and doing something to stop Daniel from behaving that way toward others.
I want these to be isolated incidents. I don’t think that the many people I’ve talked to about this who are as against it as I am can all be the exception to the rule. I think it is Daniel who is the anomaly. Or at least I hope so.