When is Refusing a Massage Client Discrimination?

Is Refusing Massage Clients Discrimination? Back in August, I caught a news clip about a photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex union ceremony based on her religious background. The headline read, “NM Court Says Christian Photographer Must Compromise Beliefs.”

A few days after, another story hit the headlines. “Oxford Restaurant Owner Kicks Out War Vet, Service Dog.” The restaurant owner claimed the service dog was fake and when questioned, he said referring to the war vet [who struggles with PTSD]; “how much emotional support do you need when you’re eating breakfast?”

Now I’m not going to get into all the politics, support issues [and how bad I wanted to smash that guy in the face] but I will ask you to think for a moment about what it means when we turn a client away.

During my massage education, I was told that it was completely and absolutely OK to refuse to work on a client for any reason. The comfort of the therapist is priority. Ultimately it is us who gets the final say in who we treat and how.

We have the ability (and sometimes obligation) to turn people away based on:

  • our experience or lack there of

  • conditions or injuries presented

  • our knowledge in a particular modality

  • that icky feeling some people give off

  • or even the relationship you already have with them [family, friends…]

All valid reasons. You should never treat someone outside your scope of practice, if you feel hesitant, uncomfortable or have no prior education in a specific modality or injury. Yes, even if someone so much as looks at you the wrong way and makes you feel uncomfortable treating them. You have the right to say no. And you should.

But what about if you’ve had a bad experience with a person of another race? What if you were raped by a man? What if your heart breaks every time you are around the elderly?

Is refusing to work on these types of clients discrimination?

Now let’s turn it around.

At what point is the client’s comfortability a priority? Let’s say, you are an [insert awesome modality/skill here] therapist who specializes and has years of experience in [insert condition/injury here]. And a client comes to you in dire need. Massage is their last ditch effort to find peace in their body. But this client happens to have a skin tone that matches the skin of the person linked to your bad experience or perhaps they display a certain resemblance of your rapist from years ago.

What do you do?

It’s true the client in question might not get your best work because you would be totally uncomfortable. Your massage would be shaky with distraction, nervousness, or even fear. And that’s grounds for rejection.

But, on the other hand, we are professionals. Does a real estate lawyer not take a client because of a past experience with someone else? Does a doctor turn a geriatric patient away because they miss their grandfather terribly?

I think the difference here is what we do IS professional but also has a profound way of touching people [literally and figuratively]. And I think it’s really hard to make that connection without our involvement in some way.

We must be present, even with clients who challenge us and surfaces these types of feelings.

Look at what’s really making you feel the way you do and acknowledge what’s going on. Is the client a real threat [ie: inappropriate requests]? Are they clearly out of your scope of practice?  Decide. It’s important to know if you are turning someone away with good cause … or if we should just suck it up and do our job.

What do you think? Is refusing to work on someone based on their religion, color or sexual orientation discrimination? What if you have a personal history that complicates the picture?

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • Jason Peringer

    My usual philosophy is that I am more than willing to take a client’s money for treatment, within my scope of practice/capabilities. I will not, however, work with someone who is rude and/or unwilling to honor my boundaries, (time, place) for treatment. Great topic and I also like the flip-side of how clients can arbitrarily refuse to work with therapists based solely on gender. 😉

    • Amber Robidoux

      That is true as well. I think the dynamic changes though, depending on which way the money is flowing. We can choose where we spend our money but it’s something entirely different if we are refusing to provide a service to someone based on gender.

  • Rev. CeCeLia Jacobs

    If a counselor was molested by a step-brother in childhood and they are trying to help this relative with supportive efforts and life skill needs but the step-brother is making the counselor feel very uncomfortable like sexually icky creepy feeling when he stands near them too close or inappropriately (too often it seems like). The feeling the counselor gets is not a brotherly okay feeling and the counselor is becoming irritated to be around the step-brother and is now putting distance between them and the step-brother but soon will have to confront the issue with him or try to continue helping the step-brother with his life skills adjustment in the community which the counselor has committed to do going forward. The counselor does not feel the step-brother will receive the discussion about this, the counselor feels that they detect a sexualpredator type presence on the step-brother but the brother feels that yes he did molest/incest when they were growing up but that he has moved on and he does not need any counseling about that in his life now. The counselor has noted that they do not pick this up from other family members who also suffered sexual abuse in their childhood except for one other family member and this particular step-brother. The question is can this discussion be had without harm to him and set some boundaries about what is needed so that the counselor can feel comfortable to be around him such as make a request that the step-brother go talk to a counselor about what is happening and about what the step-brother needs to know is going on with himself (he thinks he is okay with the past) but the counselor feels strongly that the step-brother could get into some sexual related problems if this is not dealt with now. However, if the step-brother disagrees with the counselor’s request for boundaries they cannot continue to spend time with the step-brother under these conditions. The counselor will also revisit with a counselor about this however, the counselors counselor has in the past already recommended cutting ties with the unhealthy family relations and their past but feels this was a bit harsh even though the counselor agrees with the recommendation because of the treatment received by some family members even to the present.

  • Rev. CeCeLia Jacobs

    The counselor is not a Massage Therapist but a Mental Health Counselor in the previous post…