Did My Massage Therapist Go Too Far?

When I hear the words sexual assault I have images of dark, deserted alleys, drunken advances, and violence. But what about those instances where things are much more subtle? Is it still assault?

A few years ago I started to treat myself to a full-body massage once per month. 

It was part of a self-care practice that included meditation, walks in nature, and exercise. 

I have two bonafide spas that I love to go to that really offer that lux day spa experience, but of course they come with a hefty price tag. This is not something I can realistically splurge on every month. I had to find more affordable alternatives.

Luckily, there are several companies out there that offer deals on activities and services–everything from trapeze school to hair extensions. I turned to one such company to get myself awesome deals on massages. The plan was to find a nice affordable spot with a great therapist, that was close to my home. 

I thought I hit the jackpot when I found a wellness center not too far from me that offered massages, chiropractic work, acupuncture and herbal medicines. This could be a wonderful one-stop-shop!

I called in, told them about my voucher, and made a reservation. 

The day of my appointment I signed in, filled out paperwork, and waited for my therapist. 

I had had massages at a handful of other places and had a general idea about what to expect. 

I entered the sparse room, set my purse down on a nearby chair, let my hair down, and removed my shoes and clothes leaving only my underwear. I slid face down underneath the crisp white sheets and squirmed and wriggled on the table until I got myself into a comfortable position. The door creaked, and he walked in.

His greeting was casual, almost too casual. He sounded young. Latin. We engaged in some small talk and then he rubbed my back down with oil, asked me about the desired pressure and began working my shoulders. The massage was feeling good. I remember thinking that this could really be my new regular spot. 

He asked me to turn over. This is always my least favorite part. I somehow have to gracefully turn onto my back while gingerly holding the stiff sheet without exposing my naked body or falling off the narrow table. It was an awkward undertaking, but I somehow managed to get myself into position.

I was right about my masseuse. He was young and Latin. With a massive amount of jet black hair. His white scrubs looked stiff like they had been bleached one too many times. I thought, ‘what an impractical color choice.' Oh well. I closed my eyes again.

He massaged my scalp, my temples, my earlobes; he made his way down my shoulders, and lowered the sheet, exposing my breasts. I held my breath. The sheet must have slipped… But he wasn't putting it back. I could feel my nipples reacting to the air conditioned room. Why wasn't he putting the sheet back? For several seconds nothing happened. I didn't dare open my eyes. And then his hands were on my breasts. Not squeezing, not groping, but cupping and massaging the outer edges. I was so confused. Is this normal? Had this happened at other places and I had just forgotten? Is that even possible? Would I forget something like this? I was momentarily distracted by the smell of egg and sausage on his breath. It was revolting. I was so uncomfortable. I just wanted this part to be over. Just when I knew I couldn't take anymore, the sheet was on me again, and his hands stopped. I exhaled. 

I never did go back there, but I also never said anything. What would I have said? In my mind I questioned myself. Did anything improper even happen? Would I come off as uptight and showing my backwoods ways if I spoke up? I didn't want to look stupid like I'd never gotten a massage before. And it wasn't even that big a deal, right? Right??

Without knowing all of the legal definitions and classifications, I could probably safely say that I was assaulted. I now know that sexual assault doesn't have to be threatening, violent, or coercive–it only needs to be unwanted. 

Percentage of men and women in the U.S. who in 2018 reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
Source: https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics

As uncomfortable as this incident made me, the sad truth is that this wasn't the first or the last time something like this happened. It made me reflect on how women just like me are probably out there tolerating and minimizing these encounters day in and day out. I imagine one of the reasons the therapist was so brazen is because he had done it before and gotten away with it. The girl before me had said nothing. And I had said nothing. We're all just staying silent. I do feel bad that I didn't say anything, but I just wasn't ready.

At the time of this incident I was unsure of myself, wrapped up in my own head, and very eager to minimize my feelings. That is the complete opposite of where I am now. Now I understand that my feelings are valid and highly credible. If something or someone makes me uncomfortable I don't need “proof” that I'm right. My feelings are my proof. I don't need to stick around to see if things will escalate or hold out to see if the unpleasantness will pass. I'd like to think I'd handle things differently now. Actually, I know I would.

About a year after this incident, something similar happened somewhere else. This time I spoke up. 

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Karina Gómez studied Communications and Psychology at the University of Southern California. She has primarily worked on research studies in cognitive psychology, and loves learning about human behavior.

She is a crème brûlée enthusiast, book lover, a Libra, and a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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