Historical associations between massage therapy and sex work result in the presence of harmful stereotypes that reinforce the sexualization of massage therapy. In addition, the private setting and partial or full nudity involved in massage therapy could be perceived as sexually inviting. However, almost nothing is known about sexual harassment of massage therapists by clients. The current exploratory study investigated massage therapists' reports of sexual harassment by clients. One hundred forty-three massage therapists completed a survey addressing the context and consequences of harassment experiences. The survey revealed that 74.8% of massage therapists surveyed experienced sexual harassment by clients, with 26.5% experiencing an incident on more than three occasions. Verbal forms of harassment were more common than were physical forms (55.0% and 6.0%), although 34.0% reported experiencing both verbal and physical forms. Incidents typically (87.9%) occurred during the treatment itself. Most therapists (79.4%) told someone about the incident. Only one therapist reported an incident to the police. A call for further research in this area as well as implications for increasing massage therapists' safety is discussed.
KEYWORDS: Massage therapists, massage therapy, sexual harassment, workplace harassment sexual violence
When we hear reports of sexual harassment in the context of massage therapy, often it is the client who has been targeted by their massage therapist (e.g., Laychuk, 2019). Little research attention has been given to exploring massage therapists' experiences of sexual harassment by their clients. Massage therapy has become a popular form of complementary and alternative medicine in Canada (Shroff & Sahota, 2012). Massage therapy is the purposeful manual massaging of the soft muscle of one individual by another for the promotion of positive health and relaxation (Walkley, 2004). Physical touch, partial or full nudity, and the private setting in which massage therapy takes place could be perceived as a viable context for pursuing sexual contact, particularly if the interaction is interpreted as intimate (Zamboni & Healey, 2016).
Sexual behaviour constitutes sexual harassment when the behaviour is invasive and unsought, and perceived to be threatening or insulting by the recipient (Wilson & Thompson, 2001). Sexual harassment involves unwanted behaviours or comments of a sexual or sexually suggestive nature that are perceived as offensive, threatening, or embarrassing (e.g., requesting sexual favors, unwanted touching, sexual jokes) (Viglianti, Oliverio, & Meeks, 2018). Experiences of sexual harassment are common, with 12% of Canadian men and 43% of Canadian women reporting an incident of sexual harassment in their lifetime (Angus Reid Institute, 2014). Despite decades of research, public health interventions, and increased public and professional awareness, there has been little change in these rates over the years. Of note, relatively few incidents are reported to anyone, including health care providers and legal authorities, and even fewer garner a conviction.
Sexual Harassment and the Workplace
The Canadian Human Rights Commission defines harassment in the workplace as a form of discrimination that "includes any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you." (Canadian Human Rights Commission, n.d.). We know that individuals who have experienced forms of sexual...
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