Priscilla Fleming became a licensed massage therapist in 2019 to help people. What she didn’t expect was sexual harassment, which she says began almost instantly. “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 all together 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” to help other therapists recognize threatening behavior from clients. She’s also on a mission to combat harmful stereotypes that plague the massage industry.
The dangers facing massage therapists made headlines last month, when NFL quarterback Deshuan 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’ was not a crime unless extra money was paid for the service.
“I feel as though he single handedly 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 Dashaun 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.