In the March 2011 issue of Massage Today, I wrote about the importance of desexualizing the touch experience and the proactive measures to help prevent clients from crossing your boundaries. I focused on the steps you can take to project a non-sexual image in your marketing materials (business name, email address, brochures, business cards, website) and telephone conversations (creating scripts and handling inappropriate calls). In this article we explore ways to create a safe space and desexualize the massage experience with clients.
Your appearance is an outward representation of your professional standards. Make sure that your image projects competence and doesn't sexualize you. Dress appropriately to the working environment, maintain good hygiene, keep jewelry to a minimum, don't wear heavy perfume or cologne, and avoid provocative or revealing attire. Some examples of inappropriate clothing are: tank tops (especially for women); short shorts; shirts that show cleavage; shirts that expose the midriff; shirts that have questionable statements or provocative images; tight pants. Remember, your attire isn't meant to be a distraction or a loud statement.
Office space varies from a room in a professional complex, a free-standing building, a clinic, a spa, to a home office and mobile on-site locations. Many practitioners work in several types of office spaces.
Practitioners often choose an office location based on what's close to where they live or where they can find a good deal. From a marketing perspective, choose a location that's convenient to the majority of your target markets. Most importantly, choose a location where you and your clients feel safe. Check out the location at different times of the day. This is particularly crucial if you plan on being open in the evenings or weekends. For instance, let's say you are considering renting space in a large complex. During the days there is a constant flow of people in and out of the building. This feels really good to you. You drive by at night and you only see one light shining in a window and a single car in the parking lot. That sight most likely doesn't elicit feelings of safety or comfort.
Establish a professional space. Sight, sound, smell, touch and imagination all have the potential to arouse. Often times practitioners attempt to set up a very relaxing space with dim lights, candles and soft music. These can be wonderful, but they can also send confusing messages-particularly to new clients or people who are in a vulnerable state in terms of their romantic relationships. Ideally, start with the room fairly well-lit and ask clients if they want the light dimmed. You can also offer them an eye pillow. Choose music that is soothing, without being sensual or romantic. You can never know what scent might trigger a sexual response in clients, but in general, avoid heady aromatherapy scents such as rose, musk and patchouli. In general, it's wise to be judicious with scents, as many people have allergies and sensitivities to fragrances.
Create a comfortable, yet professional treatment room. Use high-quality equipment and supplies. Keep extra linens handy for additional draping needs. Consider hanging anatomical charts and other posters that are health related. Limit your displays of personal photos and keepsakes.
When doing outcalls, set up a space that feels like an office. I recommend that you have a hard case on rollers that holds your supplies. When you set up the table, also arrange your supplies on top of the case. This helps to make the space look a bit more office-like. Avoid setting up your treatment table in a bedroom unless you are working with an injured or ill client.
If you feel threatened, leave the room and call the appropriate authorities. If you are in a spa or clinic, go directly to the front desk. If you are in a private office, leave the building. If you are doing an outcall session, leave the premises—you can return later, accompanied by someone, for your equipment and supplies. (See the September 2010 Issue of Massage Today, When a Client Crosses the Line, for detailed information on these safety precautions.)
The manner in which practitioners interact with clients holds many potential cues. Depending on the actual type of hands-on treatment, the specific factors that could allude to sex include: degrees of nudity; the manner of draping; the positioning of the client; the type of touch; and lubricants such as oils and creams.
Many factors effect how a client reacts. Set the tone for professionalism from the outset. Greet clients with a smile and a handshake. Use appropriate language. Make sure that your words can't be easily misconstrued as suggestive. Choose words carefully when describing a client's body and use proper terminology for anatomical structures. Also, be conscious of body language: sometimes just a smile can make a client feel aroused or even scared. Immediately take control of the situation if a client attempts to sexualize a session verbally or physically (see September 2010 Issue for tips); don't let it escalate.
Do thorough pre-treatment interviews on first visits. Discover clients' long-term goals as well goals for the current session. Work together to determine the course of treatment. Next, explain what is going to be done and why. Obtain written informed consent in the first session and additional consent when changing a treatment plan or working on or near sensitive areas. Keep accurate records and let clients see that you document your sessions.
Give explicit instructions regarding the articles of clothing to be removed and the draping procedures. Allow privacy for disrobing.
Express confidence in your work. A hesitant touch could be easily misinterpreted. Apply lubricants with a firm touch and avoid dribbling them. Also, be careful about body contact during sessions. Avoid stray touching or movements. Position yourself in a manner so that only your extremities come in contact with a client's body.
Massage therapists are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe environment for clients and themselves. This is done by proactively working to ensure that the touch experience is not sexualized. While the tips in this article can't guarantee that a client won't get sexually aroused or act inappropriately, they set a foundation for a professional, safe, desexualized environment.