By Angela Adams
It has happened to all of us at one point or another. If you are one of the lucky few who this hasn’t happened too, then prepare yourself….for the inappropriate client. On occasion as a massage therapist you will come across a client who will push those boundaries, or completely cross those boundaries, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. Let’s clarify those boundaries for you so that you may make a well informed decision when this situation does arise.
How Do I Know?
Boundaries can change depending on the situation. Behavior that is looked on as appropriate at one time may be highly inappropriate in another setting. The definition of boundaries is: unofficial rules about what should not be done, limits that define acceptable behavior. Anything opposing these rules or limits would be considered a boundary crossing. Usually there is a small difference that makes an action shift from being considered a boundary crossing to a boundary violation. What you feel is barely a boundary crossing, to someone else could be a major violation. Determining a boundary crossing from a boundary violation needs to be done on a case-by-case basis taking into account the context and facts of the situation.
For instance, just because a male client has a reaction does not mean that he has any intention of sexual misconduct. Men can have a reaction even when they are not emotionally desirous of sex. The difficulty lies in that many therapists (both men and women) are uncomfortable or fearful and either ignore or overreact to an erectile response. Do not become passive or aggressive with the client in discussing the condition. Each of these responses puts the therapist in a vulnerable position.
With a sexually inappropriate client the behavior usually escalates quickly. What starts out as “innocent” boundary crossings can easily become boundary violations. A client may tell a sexual joke, ask overly personal questions, talk about their other massage experiences (with innuendos of sexual interactions), discuss their sexuality, or repeatedly expose themselves. One or two episodes may be an accident, poor boundaries, or a lapse in judgement. Or this could be the beginning to a boundary violation. Although there is a possibility that the client is not trying to be inappropriate, none of them should be ignored. It is even more important to address the situation, when the behavior is combined with additional verbal or nonverbal requests or suggestions.
What to Do?
The first thing to do when a client crosses the line is to break physical contact. If possible make eye contact. Make sure the client is properly covered. Stand in a relaxed but grounded position and use a firm voice (this does not mean yell at your client). Maintain safety. If you feel intimidated do not stay too close to the table and position yourself so that you have easy access to your exit door. Leave immediately if the client actively threatens you.
Once you feel safe, talk with the client. Describe the inappropriate behavior, ask the client for feedback (this helps to clarify the client’s intent), and set (or reset) your boundaries and requirements. The steps taken totally depend on the client’s responses. If the client agrees to your boundaries, then it is appropriate to continue the massage. If not, the session should be terminated. Sometimes after going through all the above steps, a client’s intent is still unclear. If that’s the case, tell the client that you will continue this session but will stop if he or she behaves in any way that violates your boundaries.
Keep in mind that your safety is of primary importance. Sometimes the most appropriate action to take is to end the session immediately without going through the above steps. If you feel threatened, leave the room and call the appropriate authorities. If you are in a spa or clinic, then go directly to management. If you are in a private offices, 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.
Always document incidents of sexual boundary crossings and violations, even if the incident was resolved through conversation. Describe what happened, what you did to address the matter, and the client’s response. This is for your protection just in case the client decides to lodge a complaint against you. This might seem strange, but consider that if a client is willing to cross sexual boundaries, who knows what else that person might do. In my own spa, massage therapists have been accused of sexual misconduct when in reality it was the client that acted inappropriately. The therapist refused to provide the requested sexual services and the client complained to management that the therapist made a sexual proposition in a vain attempt to protect their standing at the spa. Your job as therapist is to care for your clients while protecting your body, soul, and reputation!
So, next time you come across one of “those” clients, remember what you have read today and protect yourself!
If you have any other ideas about how to deal with these types of issues, or have any questions, we would love to hear from you! Please tell us how you would PROFESSIONALLY handle an inappropriate client.