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Massage Today
March, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 03 >> Patient Education

Desexualizing the Touch Experience: A Proactive Approach

By Cherie Sohnen-Moe

Sexuality is a natural part of the human experience. We are born as sexual beings with a need for touch and intimacy. We require a healthy environment that supports our natural development in these areas to thrive as organisms.

By definition, sex, touch and intimacy are three distinct behaviors and experiences. The fact that they overlap at times is what creates confusion.

In the September issue of Massage Today, I wrote about what to do when a client crosses the line. The focus of that article was on the specific steps to take when your boundaries are ignored. This is the first part of a two-part series where we explore the importance of desexualizing the touch experience and steps you can take to help prevent clients from crossing your boundaries.

Sexuality and the Touch Experience

The general public, clients and practitioners all share in the confusion about how massage therapy and sexuality are inter-related. The intentional misuse of language (e.g., massage as a euphemism for prostitution) has had a profound impact on the public's understanding of massage therapy. The misuse of words is not just a semantic problem; it is a personal and cultural issue about how people relate to certain parts of the body and human experience.

lady getting massage - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Unfortunately, we have been forced to spend the past three decades defending our profession and proving to the world that massage therapists are not prostitutes. One of the repercussions of this has been a dissociation with the sensual aspect of our work. Too many people attempt to ignore the elephant in the corner. This denial can lead to problems. Pretending that something doesn't exist is generally ineffective. Every client and every practitioner brings their sexual nature and background with them into the therapeutic setting. The key is to create an environment that demonstrates professionalism, sets healthy boundaries, and allows sexuality while desexualizing the touch experience.

The term desexualize is best defined by examining its opposite: sexualize. In the book, Behind Closed Doors: Gender, Sexuality & Touch in the Doctor/Patient Relationship by Angelica Redleaf, DC, she defines sexualizing as: "Making an event, procedure, conversation, or experience into something that is sexual or could be interpreted as sexual." Desexualizing, then, means ensuring that the treatment is not in any way turned into a sexual experience for either the massage therapist or the client. Keep in mind that while correct intentions and acting professionally does not guarantee the absence of inappropriate expressions of sexuality in treatment sessions, they can mitigate those expressions.

Proactive Steps to Desexualize Massage

You set the tone for professionalism by your marketing materials, how you answer the telephone, your personal appearance, your office location and ambience, treatment interactions, communications, and documentation. The first part of this series covers how to desexualize your marketing materials and to screen telephone calls--steps to take before someone becomes your client.

Marketing Materials

Marketing materials (e.g., brochures, business cards, Web site, business name, e-mail address) need to be professional and project the desired image. Use appropriate language and terminology. Avoid phrases like "full-body massage". Even words such as "release" can be taken out of context. Be sure your photos and artwork are not provocative: view pictures from all angles because sometimes images look fine from one direction, but suggestive from others. Ideally, have your picture taken by a professional photographer, but refrain from using "glamour" shots.

Business Name

Now let's discuss your business name. Many massage therapists use their personal name as their company name. This is a fine option; although, if you go this route, I suggest you use your full name and include a title. For instance a business name that says "Terry Smith, LMT" sounds much more professional than "Massage by Terry." Use caution if you decide to have a separate business identity: avoid anything gimmicky or that could have a double meaning. Also, verify that your business name doesn't mean something derogatory in another language.

E-mail Address

Set up a separate business e-mail account from your personal account. Either use your name, company name, or the type of work you do as the first part of your e-mail address. I have seen way too many examples of therapists with business e-mails like or . I'm a rock-and-roll gal who has a healing touch, but I wouldn't use either of the above examples as my business e-mail address.

Recently, I discussed this topic in a marketing class that I teach and had people critique each other's e-mail addresses. One woman's e-mail was . As soon as she said it out loud there was a lot of snickering in the room. She didn't get it; the year 1969 was very important to her. She failed to realize how the number 69 has a sexual connotation and that using that e-mail address for business could send the wrong message. Ideally, you would have a business Web site and your e-mail address would reflect that (e.g., ).

Brochures and Business Cards

The main ethical concerns are that the language and images convey professionalism (as described in the section on Marketing Materials). Before choosing images for your brochures or business cards, have other people look at them and tell you what they think they are. I've seen many photos that I've had to turn sideways or read through several paragraphs of accompanying information before I could figure out what the photo was depicting.

Web Site

In addition to the cautions covered in the above section regarding professional images, you need to be careful with the links you include on your site. Besides the links no longer being active, sometimes a link that originally went to one site, all of a sudden takes you to a totally different site. This can be a purposeful act of misdirection by an outside source or I suppose something just went haywire (to use a technical term). For instance, there was a legitimate massage school that we had been dealing with for years, and one day while looking up their site, my staff noticed it linked to a porn site. We contacted the school and they were horrified! They fixed the problem, but were left uneasy not knowing how long it was linking to that site. So, in addition to periodically checking the links you list on your site, make sure that you check your own internal links.

Telephone Impression

Every time you answer the telephone, you create an impression. The question remains what that impression will be. Within the first few seconds of a conversation you convey how you feel about yourself, your practice and the caller. Just because the caller can't see you doesn't mean that s/he can't sense the attitudes you convey through the tone of your voice and the words you use.

Develop a script for how you answer your phone so that you always portray professionalism. Avoid fumbling. During an initial conversation with a potential client, you have an opportunity to gather essential information that can save a lot of time and trouble down the road. Always ask about their massage history, and briefly describe your protocol, the type of benefits they can expect, and a bit about your education, experience and/or philosophy. Know how to concisely describe what you do and your policies in a professional tone.

Handling Inappropriate Calls

Receiving inappropriate calls can be a source of immense discomfort. Unfortunately, many massage therapists still get calls from people who are ill-informed about the nature and scope of this work. Sometimes people are indirect about wanting sexual services. You can often determine inappropriate callers by their tone of voice, awkward periods of silence, calls placed late at night and if they request late-night appointments (unless it's a situation such as you are providing after-performance massage for a dance troupe). A common tip-off for massage therapists is when a caller requests "full-body massage" or the direct request for a "happy ending." Beware of callers that are reluctant to give their full names or phone numbers.

You have three main options of how to respond when someone calls requesting sexual services: you can get upset and hang up the phone; you can calmly state that you do not provide sexual services and end the call; or you can use it as an opportunity to educate the caller. Trust your instinct as to which option to choose, as it might vary with each caller.

If you receive this type of call, it works well to stay centered in your professionalism. If people want sexual services, that's their prerogative, but they don't have the right to expect it from you or any other massage therapist. Tell them that isn't what you do, give a brief description of the services you do provide, and let them know that a legitimate massage therapist does not perform that kind of work. This type of statement usually results in the caller hanging up if they are truly interested in sexual services or simply get their kicks from making the equivalent of prank phone calls.

You might want to develop an additional script for how you handle these inquiries, thus avoiding any misunderstandings or unwanted clients appearing at your doorstep.

For instance, if you feel that they might not be a true sexual predator, you could suggest they visit your Web site for more information and then if they want a non-sexual massage they can call back. This gives the callers the opportunity to learn more about massage or gracefully remove themselves from the conversation. Who knows--just because they want something you don't offer doesn't mean they might not want a legitimate massage in the future or don't have friends who want a professional massage. Remember, these are the people we really need to educate. They are the ones perpetuating the myths about massage and the entire healing arts field.

You can transform a potentially negative experience into a positive one by responding professionally and keeping perspective. Still, you must put your safety first. It's best NOT to set up an appointment with this type of caller if you are the only person in your office or do outcalls.

Closing Thoughts

The information I shared in this article sets the foundation for understanding the concept of desexualizing massage and steps you can take to project a non-sexual image in your marketing materials and telephone conversations. Part two explores the steps you can take to create a safe space and desexualize the massage experience with clients. This includes topics such as personal appearance, your office location and ambience, treatment interactions, communications, and documentation. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments please contact me at

Click here for previous articles by Cherie Sohnen-Moe.


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