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An Open Letter to the Massage Therapy Profession: Massage Envy is Our Fault

December 27, 20175 min read

If “one incident is too many,” then what exactly is 200? That’s my question to Massage Envy and every coworker, manager and teacher who met the therapists responsible for these sexual assaults and/or dismissed the complaints of the victims with some formulaic “we take your concerns seriously,” script of inaction. Nobody was taking it too seriously if it took Buzzfeed to elicit even the anemic statement that has been issued.

My rage however, is best directed not at Massage Envy, but at my own industry. And if you’re reading this as a consumer of massage, we owe it to you to hold ourselves accountable. This is our fault.  These incidents don’t happen in a vacuum. The Buzzfeed article was not news to many who’ve worked at Massage Envy or who have been a customer there.  In fact, a survey of the media coverage about the situation reveals that, just like the sex scandals in the Catholic Church and recent accusations against politicians and filmmakers, these assaults have a history and one that was well-known within Massage Envy. This is the fact that I find even more troubling than the sheer volume of incidents.

The even more widespread phenomenon that made it all possible is complacency.

In most states you have to show that you have completed a few hundred hours of massage therapy training, ostensibly under relatively direct supervision, before you can apply for a license to practice.  These Massage Envy therapists were licensed.  Lots of educators and other people observed them before they ever became licensed practitioners.  It’s highly likely that the therapists who perpetrated these crimes displayed questionable choices and behaviors in massage school. In fact, if you were to ask some of their fellow students, I bet they’d tell you they avoided partnering with these guys. They knew something was off.

We can hope that these instructors did what they could to limit the effect of these behaviors on the classroom and students, but even if they did, they didn’t do enough. They didn’t contain the problem. They didn’t have the tough conversation. They didn’t stop to think about how this behavior would play out in the harm of unwitting clients who would become their victims.

We have got to start taking the responsibility of people’s trust seriously.

Are we going to be a low-class trade or do we have the discipline and the self-respect to be a profession?  We have got to set a higher bar and hold ourselves to it.

You and I, average people who are amazing at being appalled and heartbroken,-- but not so great at spotting our role in the slow-building avalanche --  will have to own our responsibility in this mess.  If you’re a massage instructor, it’s your job to make it clear, in your words and in your actions,  that you stand fully behind the zero-tolerance policy regarding “sexually inappropriate behavior.” Harder still, you may have to write or initiate the writing of said policy at your school because it doesn’t currently exist.  If you are a manager at a franchise and you find that the franchise’s policy is that all complaints of sexual harassment will be "handled internally", listen to the voice inside you that knows that a massage franchise is not equipped to do that in a meaningful way.  Walk away from that job and be clear that you’re walking away because sexual harassment is something that needs to be taken seriously.  If you own a clinic or spa, take a serious look at your policies and strengthen them so they can be used to create an environment where there is zero tolerance for sexually inappropriate behavior and where your therapists, managers and clients all have clear and meaningful recourse in the event of an incident.  If you work at a place where other therapists are talking or joking about sexually inappropriate behavior, say something.

Be. That. Guy.

We’ll never stop these things from happening, but we can make a massive dent in their incidence. It’s simple, but it won’t be easy.  The space between today and the day when massage therapy and sexual assault are distant acquaintances will be riddled with lots of good people taking risks.  People who are more interested in safety and trust than in making money or building brands.  That world will not be delivered to us by anyone but ourselves.

I know plenty of massage therapists who are constitutionally averse to “rocking the boat.”  And few people would willingly risk making unpopular observations that could lead to other types of harassment, loss of income or loss of other possible gains and comforts, but I can guarantee that none of us wants to be a victim of sexual harassment.

I’m not interested in the math that suggests that “180 assaults isn’t that many when you consider the 30 million massages Massage Envy provides in a year.”

Tell that to the victims and tell it to all of the victims of the incidents that weren’t and never will be reported.  I’d wager that most of us feel largely unprepared to create policies and procedures that snuff out this behavior before it’s allowed to become a pattern, but, to my mind, that’s just one layer of the solution to this problem.

The rubber has officially met the road. You either condemn or condone.  There’s no middle ground.  If you see something, say something -- and then do something.

The job of a massage therapist involves touching the bodies of naked strangers every day.  That means that we enter into a sacred trust every time we go to work.

Let’s start acting like that’s a thing.

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Cal Cates

Cal is one of Healwell’s founders and its Executive Director. Cal speaks around the world on a variety of topics related to integrative medicine, emotional self-care for practitioners and the mechanics and politics of introducing massage therapy into clinical settings. They have been participating in research, teaching and developing curriculum for massage therapy courses focused on hospital-based practice, oncology massage and end of life care since 2007. Cal is passionate about elevating the profession of massage therapy and also about broader and more seamless integration of massage therapists into mainstream healthcare.

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