In the United States, a man’s sexual orientation is still considered to be a private matter.
So it’s no surprise that when the American Institute of Professional Counselors surveyed members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in January, they found that less than 1% of respondents felt comfortable being in the presence of a gay or lesbian massage therapist.
And while some gay men and lesbians have found therapists that are willing to treat them for physical, emotional and sexual abuse, a majority of those who said they have experienced abuse said they weren’t comfortable being alone with someone they considered to have been abused.
One reason for this may be that the vast majority of massage therapists do not feel comfortable in their own homes or in a public setting, which can be a barrier for many gay men, according to an IAPC survey released last year.
“There’s this assumption that a therapist will feel comfortable with you if they are gay, because they have never had to deal with someone in the closet,” says Matt Smith, who worked as a massage therapist for 10 years before becoming an advocate for LGBT rights and is now a public speaker and author.
“I don’t know of any straight, gay massage therapists that I’ve ever met who felt comfortable with me.”
The IAPCs survey also found that nearly half of the surveyed massage therapists (46%) reported they had experienced sexual abuse.
And a full quarter (26%) of the massage therapists surveyed reported that at least one of their clients had experienced a sexual assault in the past year.
Many of the same therapists who reported abuse in their previous massage sessions reported that they were afraid of being alone in the bathroom with their clients, Smith says.
Smith says the problem of sexual abuse in the massage field is not limited to the gay and lesbian community.
“The problem is everywhere,” he says.
“We see it everywhere.”
A few of the most common problems massage therapists report are physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
In one study, about 20% of the participants reported that their massage therapist had physically abused them at some point during the massage session.
In another study, 22% of massage therapist respondents said they had been physically abused during a massage.
A survey of massage parlors by the IAPCC found that about one in five massage therapists experienced harassment in their professional life.
And Smith says he often feels uncomfortable in the shower after having been a massage parla for years.
“A lot of the time, I get uncomfortable with the way the water feels on my body,” he said.
“Sometimes, it makes me think about the abuse.”
He also worries about the stigma that can attach to the word “gay” in the workplace.
“You have to know that if you are a gay man or a gay woman, it is assumed that you are in some way gay,” he adds.
“So you have to find ways to be yourself.”
A recent survey of American massage therapists found that more than a quarter (24%) of them had experienced harassment.
This is compared to just 7% of people who are not gay.
According to the IACCP, about 10% of those surveyed reported having experienced harassment while practicing massage therapy.
But not all massage therapists feel comfortable going public about their experiences.
“My client base is very small, and my business is very profitable,” Smith says, adding that he knows that some massage therapists might feel uncomfortable going public.
But he believes the lack of stigma surrounding the word is a sign that the problem isn’t being addressed enough.
“You’ve got a group of people that are not being recognized for the work they are doing,” he explains.
“They are just not being treated the same way that the general public is.”
And because so many massage therapists are afraid to speak out, many don’t dare to take action to get their voices heard.
“Some massage therapists don’t want to be called out because they are afraid of having to deal wither the business,” Smith explains.
And there’s a reason for that.
“When people talk about abuse in massage, people say that they didn’t know they were abused,” he notes.
“But they don’t think about that because they think, ‘It’s my problem.'”