When Priscilla Fleming became a licensed massage therapist in 2019, she expected that she'd feel fulfilled by her goal to help people. What she didn’t expect was sexual harassment, which she says began almost instantly.
“The sexual harassment that I experienced actually bombarded me the first month of getting licensed,” Fleming tells Yahoo Life. “The second that I made my professional social media page, I was flooded with vulgar and inappropriate comments and requests. It was disgusting.”
That same month, Fleming started working at an integrative healthcare facility, where she one day noticed a man outside in the courtyard. Upon closer inspection she could hear that he was watching pornography and he eventually exposed himself to her. She immediately went back into the building, shaken by what she had seen.
“At that point I now had to process this traumatic experience while also navigating a brand new industry that put me alone in a dark room with strangers. So I really contemplated just leaving the industry altogether, between the vulgar messages and then trying to navigate that. I wasn't sure if it was worth it, but I stuck it out," says Fleming.
In response, Fleming launched the ethics course “Safety & Solicitation: Gaslighting and Power Dynamics,” both virtually and in her home base of North Carolina, to help other therapists recognize threatening behavior from clients. She’s also on a mission to combat harmful stereotypes that plague the massage industry.
“There have been two recent studies … and both of those studies have found that of the massage therapists that were surveyed, 76% have experienced sexual harassment at work with 27% of us experiencing it on more than one occasion,” says Fleming.
The threats facing massage therapists made headlines last month, when NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended by the Cleveland Browns for 11 games and given a $5 million fine after he was accused of sexual misconduct by 24 massage therapists. Allegations included Watson exposing himself and manipulating therapists into touching him in an inappropriate manner. Two of the women also accused Watson of pressuring them to perform oral sex. While Watson has repeatedly denied the claims, 23 of the 24 civil lawsuits have been settled.
In an interview with Sports Radio 610, Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, claimed that a "happy ending" (when a massage therapist finishes a session with oral sex or manual release) was not a crime unless extra money was exchanged for the service. Still, despite the misguided comments from Watson's attorney, sexual solicitation is illegal in the U.S., except for in a handful of places in Nevada.
“I feel as though he singlehandedly put a lot of us at risk to be assaulted,” says Fleming. “The NFL is a very large, well-known industry and there is a very large fan base. So by his lawyer making these allegations, I'm afraid that this is going to empower that fan base to come and seek what Deshaun Watson was receiving.”
With her ethics course, Fleming spends considerable time educating other therapists about gaslighting and grooming tactics used by predatory clients. Gaslighting involves manipulating someone by sowing self-doubt in what they are experiencing, and grooming is a process of seeing how far a predator can push past a person's personal boundaries.
Fleming notes that in the therapeutic relationship, the licensed therapist is granted the power to lead the dynamic in a professional setting. She says that when that power dynamic shifts, therapists may find themselves operating in threatening territory.
“They're grazing you as you walk around the table, it's just one boundary push after another, depending on if we're accepting of it,” says Fleming. “They'll undress as we are doing our intake, they'll pull the drape down if they're hot and expose different areas. I don't feel as though the intent is always malicious, but it definitely is inappropriate."
She adds, “When that power shifts, it can create that dangerous path to abuse if we're no longer in control of the situation, because now we no longer feel empowered to end the session or to remove ourselves in the situation.”
To prevent these unsafe and uncomfortable interactions, Fleming trains other massage therapists to look for red flags. She recommends screening clients beforehand by asking them why they are looking for a massage and inquiring about their goals for treatment. This open communication provides the therapist with an opportunity to listen for references to illicit massage websites or "happy endings."
Fleming says that the hyper-sexualization of the massage-therapy industry is one of the biggest threats facing licensed therapists, and law enforcement estimates that there are more than 9,000 illicit massage parlors in the U.S. that are actually avenues for human trafficking.
“They are pretending to be a massage therapist giving out happy endings, when they're really contributing to modern-day slavery. So those happy ending jokes are not just putting massage therapists in danger, but they're putting a lot of people in danger in general,” says Fleming.
While there isn’t a governing body to protect massage therapists from danger, Fleming educates other therapists to know their rights. HIPAA laws are designed to protect patient identity, though there is a clause where therapists are allowed to give a clients name, phone number, and address to law enforcement if they have experienced sexual harassment.
Educating and empowering other massage therapists is Fleming's passion, but she also wants the general public to take responsibility for their actions. She reminds potential clients that massage therapy has countless physical and psychological benefits, ranging from pain relief to managing depression, anxiety and disordered eating. It can be a powerful healing tool — but it is never about sex.
“Massage therapy is not sexual in any way, shape or form. Massage therapy is not 'happy ending,'" she stresses. "Massage therapy is a branch of healthcare."
—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove