By J. Terrence Dermott
There is no avoiding this simple fact about massage therapy: Providing or receiving the healing power of touch is intimate. And intimacy, even in the most professional settings, can expose vulnerabilities and lead to uncomfortable and even awkward situations.
It is the responsibility of the massage therapist to create an environment that is conducive to a healthy, relaxing and satisfying experience for the client. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the client to communicate with the massage therapist in a manner that allows the therapist to provide the service in a manner that puts the client at ease.
An experienced massage therapist will be able to guide the recipient through the massage process so that there is little confusion about some of the basic areas that cause embarrassment or confusion.
Take It All Off?
The amount of clothing worn during a massage is dependant on the type of massage being administered. It is normal to be completely undressed during a full body Swedish massage but is not absolutely necessary. If a client prefers to wear panties or briefs during the massage that is fine. Frankly, the client should be able to wear whatever makes them most comfortable. Regardless, the therapist will appropriately drape the client so that only the areas of the body being massaged are exposed.
The therapist will usually instruct the client about what to expect before they begin undressing. The therapist will then leave the room and allow the client to undress and get comfortable on the massage table under a sheet or towel. The massage therapist will then uncover only the area of the body being massaged.
There are a variety of reasons that an individual may want a massage: stress relief, relaxation, general wellness, enhance circulation, improved flexibility, etc. No matter what the reason for the massage the therapist is always under the obligation to respect the boundaries set by the client and to establish his or her own boundaries.
Therapeutic massage is, by nature, a sensual experience. However, it is not intended to be a sexual experience. If a client, male or female, makes any overtly sexual requests or suggestions then the therapist is obligated to professionally and forcefully identify the inappropriateness of these comments. Conversely, no therapist should take liberties or make assumptions relative to what parts of the body can be touched.
In general, it is never appropriate to touch the genitals during a massage session. The client cannot expect to be touched sexually and the therapist cannot touch a client in a sexual manner. Either case will betray the trust in the relationship between the two parties…to say nothing of the potential for legal and ethical issues.
And let’s be clear. While there are documented benefits of breast massage, it is not, and should not be, included in a total body massage. Breasts are off limits unless a very special request is made of a qualified therapist. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork includes a specific policy in its Standards of Practice. The Board states that therapists may “only provide therapeutic breast massage as indicated in the plan of care, and only after receiving informed voluntary consent from the client.” That being said, breast massage is legally restricted in some states.
An experienced massage therapist, male or female, will know how to deflect sexual advances by a client. If a subtle response does not do the job then a forceful statement or ending the session will be the correct response. Any client who feels that they are being touched inappropriately should feel confident in their right to speak up. If it is incidental contact or just an accident the therapist will apologize and continue with the client’s discomfort noted accordingly.
As stated earlier, touch is intimate. Permission for such intimacy is accorded based on the massage therapist’s professionalism and the trust of the client. At the same time, a relationship is established…a professional relationship but a relationship nonetheless. Understanding and honoring the boundaries of that relationship will allow both parties to fill their roles appropriately.
It is generally accepted that there ought not to be any personal relationship between the therapist and a paying client. Allowing the relationship to expand beyond the massage table to a social or even romantic connection is to invite a host of ethical dilemmas. A therapist could be perceived as taking advantage of a client who might be in a vulnerable state due to stress or physical ailment. In the state of Washington it is illegal to date a client within two years of the last session. That is strict stuff and is as likely to protect a therapist from misunderstandings as it is to protect a client.
Borders and Boundaries
Providing the healing power of touch is an honorable and ancient profession. The benefits of massage therapy are numerous and continue to gain acceptance as a mainstream health practice. No one should ever have to feel uncomfortable about getting a massage and they won’t if they are in the hands of a well-trained and ethically centered massage professional.
J. Terrence McDermott is the administrator of Massage Schools Guide athttp://www.massageschoolsguide.com, a website offering resources for prospective massage therapists. He specializes in online continuing education resources.