“ If you let me go and leave, I’ll pick up the phone and tell the police I accidentally hit the panic button with my leg.” This was me, negotiating my safety with a predator who was a regular patient of mine.
I was given the opportunity to pair up with theMTDC after reading posts that I feel are becoming more of an unfortunate regularity on Facebook. Those posts about therapists being subject to disgusting behavior or uncomfortable situations and I wanted to share my experience of being a female massage therapist, the situations I have had to deal with, and tactics you can use if (hopefully never) those times occur.
Before we jump into details, just want you the reader to be aware some of these experiences may deal with sexual content and nonconsensual/ forceful touching. Read at your own discretion.
The Protection Of School
When you are a fresh RMT, building a practice takes priority and when uncomfortable situations come up, it can be really hard to confront those patients. I know when I was a recent RMT, I didn’t want to lose out on a patient; I wanted people to like my treatments so I would get referrals.
A lot of the time when patients said off-color things, I would just awkwardly laugh and redirect the conversation. When I got asked out on dates, I would use the CMTBC by-laws or “I have a boyfriend, sorry,” as an excuse. I wasn’t well versed in establishing and maintaining my boundaries as a young therapist because school made me more fluent in muscular anatomy and postural dysfunction than it did with establishing boundaries. The tactics I remember vaguely were; redirect the conversation, get them to focus on their breathing, and if things were really bad, tell them the treatment is over and why, and leave. Instructors often shared their experiences, but unlike MTAR, there was no specific protocol if severe situations were to arise.
As a student, I had male patients rub my legs when I was treating, make lewd comments about happy endings, and in one case, I had a male patient grab my face and kiss me as I was trying to help him put his shirt on after the treatment was over.
My instructors were great, always there to jump in and deal with patients, but this didn’t set me up for practice when I would be by myself. I was met with remarks like “ This kind of stuff you’ll very rarely have to deal with in practice. The general public has a way better understanding now that massage therapy is health care and not something sexual.” Said from a male instructor. In his experience, I’m assuming, that is probably true. My experience speaks differently though.
When Real Life Hits
I have been in practice for 6 years now. I have dealt with the following; male patients ejaculating onto sheets, asking if I have ever had to deal with other men asking for happy endings, patients actually asking for a happy ending or if I knew a place nearby that would offer one, men calling in and asking for “ a petite or Asian female”, patients asking if I did house calls and saying “ don’t worry, I’ll change the sheets when we are done”, telling me “ If my wife ever saw what you really looked like, she would never let me come here again” or flat out asking me out on a date or if I had a boyfriend. I’ve had my butt grabbed and had a patient pull me into his lap during a seated shoulder technique I was performing.
Most of these uncomfortable conversations ended the same way; I would freeze, maybe let out an uncomfortable laugh or redirect conversation, get them to focus on their breathing and after they left, I would send them an email saying that they were being referred out to someone who could better help them focus on their treatment as we weren’t a good therapeutic fit or something along those lines. I would never see those patients again. If this sounds familiar to you, keep reading.
I had the terrible opportunity of dealing with a professional predator. A new patient to me who found me online and became a regular. At first, our interaction was normal and professional, but slowly conversations started to drift into his dating life. I would redirect when this would happen, but one day he asked for my advice on how he should approach women and I said that was out of my scope of practice and that I could refer him to a counselor if he wanted to discuss his frustrations.
Then he started talking about things that I was interested in, and I thought, “ Wow, what a small world. I never met anyone who liked a lot of the same stuff I do.” And treatment became comfortable with this patient again.
The night before I was attacked, I called my mom to catch up; I had moved out recently and hadn’t talked to my family in a while. My dad needed to use the phone because someone was parked outside (not in the driveway, but on the road) in front of their house and my dad thought it was a drug dealer and wanted to call non-emergency. (Classic Surrey)
I said good night to my mom and went to bed.
The next day, while I was wrapping up with my second to last patient, my last patient arrived earlier than usual. My colleague and patient were just leaving when she said:
“ Have a good night! Can I lock you in with your last one?”
My last, now knowing we were alone, probably thought this was his opportunity to attack. Now that I look back, he never did earlier because he never actually knew if I was alone because all the treatment room doors would always be shut if they weren’t in use and we had a central music system that would always be playing.
Treatment was typical, but this time he was asking me about hockey, and if I was a Montreal Canadiens fan. Surprised, I said I was, and he suggested, since he was my last, we should catch the game at the pub, he would even drive me home to grab my jersey.
I froze; I asked, “ How do you know where I live? And how do you know I have a jersey?”
He looked up at me and I’ll never forget the smirk, “ You tagged yourself in a picture of you and your dad watching the game. You should really talk to your family about their privacy settings on Facebook; Anyone can see everything.”
I told him the treatment was over and he grabbed my thigh, “ No no no, I’m just kidding, c’mon let’s go watch the game.” I stepped out of his grip and said, “ You’ve breached our therapeutic and professional contract, I’m going to step out and you can leave”
I run out of the room and the patient is quick to follow. (context here, I was treating his lower legs so he was fully clothed, probably now a thought out reason why he had me work on them, even with his shoes on), I just manage to press the panic button under the desk when he grabs my arm and pulls me in really close.
“ I’m taking you out for dinner and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
My mind, going a thousand miles an hour through the Rolodex of previous experiences or something, ANYTHING relatable to grab onto and use, goes blank.
The phone rings.
I look him in the eyes, “ That is the Police. If I do not take that call, they will be here in 3 minutes. If you let me go and leave, I’ll tell them that I accidentally pressed the panic button with my leg. But you HAVE to leave now.”
He lets me go, I pick up the phone and tell dispatch I accidentally pressed the button with my leg, and he smiles at me and leaves.
Knowing Your Rights
It’s easy now, even as I write this to go, “ Jocelyn, tell them this guy grabbed you!” But when you are in an enclosed space with a predator, 3 minutes is too long. I was too embarrassed after that to ever say anything. All I told my colleagues was that I was no longer seeing this patient and if he calls, to refer him to someone else. I didn’t know my rights as to what action I could take, and as a newer RMT, I thought that the College could take away my license because I breached patient confidentiality if I reported this person to the authorities. So I tried to let it go.
It wasn’t until much later when my anxiety was so crippling that I sought counseling, I was made aware of my rights. However, when I was going to pursue legal action, this patient had lied about everything identifiable on his intake form, including his name. He always paid cash. There was no way of tracing him. He was a professional predator who was grooming me and knew from the moment he saw my photo online that I was going to be his target.
I want to take this opportunity to share with you readers what my actions are and what my plan is when a patient makes me feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
- Always go with your gut. If someone’s behavior, conversation or actions make you feel uneasy or unsafe, don’t shrug it off as just creepy or weird as we tend to do.
- When your gut tells you something is off, don’t deflect or redirect. Address the concern head-on. “ I would prefer if we moved away from this topic of conversation because it is not relevant to your treatment and is inappropriate for this setting.” Be firm. Don’t laugh it off, because they won’t take you seriously or think that is okay. If they say they are just joking or call you cold or that you are being too sensitive, tell them the treatment is over and you will be following up with an official discharge email. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile.
- Don’t use the College or a relationship ( ie: I can’t go out with you, my college says I can’t date patients, or I’m married/have a partner etc..) as an excuse for why you don’t want to do or engage in something. It’s easy for someone to follow up and say, “I won’t tell if you won’t”, and then the conversation goes in circles. Decline and say, “ I would like to remind you that this is a clinical setting and if you are seeking anything more than what I offer, which is only therapeutic treatment, I will refer you to someone who can continue your care.”
- Know your surroundings and have a strategy prepared. I had recently posted my strategy on the BCRMT Facebook page. I suggest you meet up with your colleagues and have a plan ready, role-play situations and get used to saying those phrases; that way, they just come out easily when you need them too.
- Never make it obvious that you are alone. Close another treatment room door and put music on in that room. If patients ask if you are alone or if they are your last for the night, say no. Colleagues, if you are locking another colleague in by themselves, don’t announce it to everyone in the office, just leave a note and lock up or have this as a known clinic policy that if someone is by themselves to lock them in.
- Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t avoid when someone decides to attack you, self-defense lessons are a great idea. Under the law, you can fight as hard as necessary to protect yourself and get away safely. Your rights to safety and self-preservation under federal law are above any by-law.
Finally, my intent for this post is not to scare or alarm you therapists out there; it is to prepare you. We are so knowledgeable in how the body works and can apply critical thinking to our manual therapy, but we need to have that same knowledge and strategies when it comes to our safety and boundaries. Do what you must to get comfortable dealing with uncomfortable situations, as I am not going to tell you that this is a rare occurrence. If it is in your experience, I say, it’s better to be prepared than it is to find yourself negotiating your safety with a predator.