The Parlor Problem
Heart of Bodywork

By Nina McIntosh

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, April/May 2004.
Copyright 2004. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Imagine this scenario: You've put your heart and soul (not to mention your savings) into becoming the most skilled, compassionate massage therapist you can be. You've proudly placed ads proclaiming the healing benefits of massage. You look forward to serving your community. And then you take your first call from a prospective client: He wants to know if you work in the nude.

Wince. If you advertise your massage or bodywork practice publicly, you may not be able to avoid the occasional low moment of being mistaken for someone who is offering sexual services. Perhaps because those who do sell sex sometimes advertise themselves as practicing massage, some people are still confused about the difference between people who work in "massage parlors" and legitimate massage therapists.

Unless you restrict your clientele to people you know personally, you have to be prepared for the occasional inappropriate or offensive questions from potential clients. A colleague of mine was befuddled when a first-time client asked if she provided "a happy ending." Not having heard this euphemism for sexual release, she said, "Oh, yes, I like for my clients to enjoy their massage." When he then described what he wanted in plainer language, she was quick to tell him she didn't offer sexual services, and if that was what he wanted, she wouldn't work with him. (Individual practitioners vary in how they handle this situation. Some might choose to end the session immediately.)

Fielding such questions on the phone can be uncomfortable; dealing in person with a client who expects sexual services is often annoying and may be frightening. Although it is only a remote possibility, this situation could also be dangerous.

Some female practitioners avoid these problems by limiting their practice to other women, and others won't work with anyone who hasn't been referred by a person they trust. Regardless of your gender, if you advertise or post your business card in a public place, there may not be a foolproof way to avoid such interactions. There are, however, precautions you can take to lessen their frequency and protect yourself.

Use Advertising and Business Cards Wisely
It's crucial that you carefully choose where you advertise your practice. Will your professional Yellow Page ad run next to another with a dubious name like Buffy's Pleasure Spa? If so, you might be better off using your advertising dollars elsewhere.

It's also helpful to consider the nature of a publication's readership. If you live in a big city, running an ad in the smaller, weekly newspaper is usually safer than using the daily newspaper or the Yellow Pages. Readers of these free papers are often more attuned to alternative health practices. Wherever you advertise, it's also a good idea to avoid the words "release," "total relaxation," and "full body massage," which can sound like veiled sexual references.

You'll also want to make sure your business card doesn't send mixed messages. Cards that give no last name, that simply say, "Massage by Bill" or "Relaxing Massage by Heidi," are less professional and may give clients the impression you have something to hide. Since sex workers generally don't give their last names when they advertise, it's important you provide your full name and credentials to establish that you're a legitimate massage therapist. Using the term "therapeutic massage" and naming your particular technique, such as sports massage, is also helpful. To ensure your privacy and professionalism, only offer a business voice mail number, and be careful about giving your home number to clients.

Screen Out Clients by Phone
Clients who are looking for more than just a massage may not always say so in the initial phone call. Before the prevalence of cell phones, it was easier to figure out which prospective clients wanted something else. When I first started out as a massage therapist, there was a type of call that I named "the dreaded phone booth call." When I received calls and I could hear the traffic in the background, I always told them Nina wasn't in. The traffic noise told me they were calling from a phone booth, and it seemed too likely they were doing so because they wanted to avoid calling from their office or home.

Although traffic noise in the background isn't unusual these days because almost everyone has a cell phone, there are still certain other red flags. If people call on Friday around 5 p.m., they may be more likely to be facing a weekend alone and looking for "companionship." More significantly, look out for callers who don't want to give their full name or who give no name at all.

Here are some additional techniques for screening out the wrong kinds of calls:

- Ask for their full names and a call-back number. If they refuse, don't make the appointment.

- Ask about their previous experience with massage. If they've been to a massage therapist you know is legitimate, or they seem to know about different types of bodywork, that's a good sign.

- Whenever in doubt, you can always say, "I like to make it clear to all new clients that I offer only a nonsexual, therapeutic massage." This may not always be a foolproof screening technique, though, since sex workers may also say this on the phone in case the caller is from the vice squad.

- Trust your intuition. If you have an uneasy feeling about someone, don't make the appointment. Just say you're booked up.

Protect Yourself During the Session
While a client interested in sexual services can injure our professional dignity and pride, I've never heard of anyone being physically harmed by such a client. However, as long as there's even a slight danger, there's no need to take risks. Here are some ways to stay safe when you work:

- If you can, work out of an office setting. It's usually safer and seems more professional to prospective clients than working at home. Be aware that leading a new client through your home to where the bedrooms are (and your office now is) can be suggestive.

- If you work at home, take extra care to screen your clients.

- Use common sense. Don't work in an isolated office with clients you don't know. Don't schedule new clients late in the day or at times when no one else is around.

- Be especially careful about outcalls. Going into someone else's home can put you at the mercy of any hidden agendas the client might have. A male massage therapist related a story of being set up by a female client who wanted to make her boyfriend jealous. During the outcall, the client threw the draping off her chest just as her boyfriend burst through the door. The boyfriend made angry accusations, and the massage therapist fled, unharmed but wiser. Make sure you screen your outcalls carefully or only do outcalls with people who've been referred by someone you trust.

- As part of their intake process, some massage therapists ask new clients to sign an agreement stating that the practitioner has the right to terminate a session if the client speaks or acts inappropriately. (It's a good idea for massage clinics or spas to do this.) The more you can make it clear from the beginning that this is a nonsexual massage, the easier it will be for you to avoid inappropriate requests.

- Before working at a spa, make sure your employer will back you up if you choose to end a session or choose not to work with a client, especially for sexual requests.

How to Say "No"
There's no set way to respond when a client on the table asks you for something that is inappropriate. It depends on your own comfort level, how safe the setting is, and your intuition. Some clients are simply misinformed and all you have to do is tell them that you're a professional massage therapist and that if they want sexual services, they can leave. Some practitioners report that with some clients, just setting them straight was all that was needed. After that, the clients settled down for that session and even became regulars who never got out of line again.

Use your own judgment and honor your own level of comfort when dealing with such clients. You have a right to end the session any time a client makes an improper sexual request. You don't have to waste energy on a fit of moral indignation. You can just say, "I'm not comfortable working with you anymore. I'll wait outside while you get dressed."

Most massage therapists are so grateful to get rid of such clients that they don't ask for payment (although getting payment at the start of a session can protect against this problem). Technically, clients may owe the fee for a massage or half a massage. It's up to you whether you feel best collecting the money or you prefer to simply get them out of your office as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the day will come when people think of massage, they think only of its wonderful health benefits and the boost it is to physical and emotional well-being. Until that time, clear communication in all stages of our contacts with clients can help educate those who need it and protect us from misunderstandings.

Nina McIntosh has 20 years experience as a bodyworker and is a Rosen Method Bodywork intern. For more information on her book, The Educated Heart: Professional Guidelines for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers and Movement Teachers, call toll-free 877/327-0600 or visit

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