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The Ethics of Massage & Bodywork

In my 30 years of studying and practicing massage and bodywork, I have watched this country go from keeping massage at arm’s length to reaching out to it. Today, there are over 46,000 massage therapists certified by the American Massage Therapy Association, working in 27 countries. There are 60,000 massage therapists and bodyworkers Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, and a multitude of other bodywork organizations.

Thirty-three states have state licensing, and California finally is one of them. State licensing is a way of ensuring the quality of practitioners, which will (soon, we hope) encourage health insurance companies to reimburse for massage treatments.

But we still haven’t fully embraced the field of bodywork. Why is there still a shroud of mystery around it and a distrust of the massage therapy profession?

One reason is that the boundary between therapeutic massage and sensual or sexual massage is still unclear. In many Yellow Pages, including one of our local Temecula books, all types of massage come under one heading. So who is to know which therapist to go to? I have been told by several new clients that they went to get a sports or relaxation massage, only to be offered more.

For many people, that would be upsetting. But it can devaste people who have already had their boundaries violated physically, emotionally or mentally.

Bevery Susan Johnson, a massage therapist and educator from Alaska, says, “Each of us has our own energy cocoon (and needs for space), and it is not appropriate for someone else to be in our space without our consent.”

And that is why the ethics of bodywork is a required course in all massage schools today.

The National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, or NCTMB, requires members to abide by its code of ethics and defines ethical practice as “acting in a manner that justifies public trust and confidence, enhances the reputation of the profession and safeguards the interests of individual clients.”

The NCTMB requires that practititionres “always be responsbile not to engage in sexualizing behavior and therefore not engage in any sexual conduct or activities even if the client attempts to sexualize the relationship.”

I think also our society is touch phobic partly because our Puritan forefathers frowned on pleasure, and partly because healthy, nurturing touch was not modeled for many of us when we were children.

Recently I saw a television movie about the man who killed his pregnant wife and was having an affair with a massage therapist at the same time. It was the first time I have ever seen a massage therapist shown in a positive light on television.

My wish is that Americans and others become educated and enlightened and realize that therapeutic massage and bodywork sessions are a safe place for healing.


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