Isn’t it mind-boggling how sexual all of that sounds?!?!
No wonder we have a giant consent problem in the bodywork industry. Dialogue around consent has been relegated almost entirely to the arena of sexual engagement. Phrases like “touch me there” have become suspect in and of themselves. So how can you ask your clients the most important questions:
- Is it alright if I touch you here?
- How about there?
- How do you like to be touched?
- What kinds of touch do you not like?
- May I touch you now?
- Are you ready?
- Do you want me to touch you?
Words that describe the quality of touch are likewise tainted to varying degrees: stroke, press, rub, massage, manipulate. We are afraid of a lot of words. We are not practiced in how to comfortably alter them for either a platonic or sexual context, personal or professional meaning, depending on the person and situation at hand. We’ve lost the ability to contextualize consent, clarify what is meant and talk openly about touch without sounding like we're talking about sex. We are therefore limited as bodyworkers in how we can talk with our clients and ask for their permission to touch their bodies. As long as we are tentative or limited in the words we use, as long as we skate along with the barest bones of a consent dialogue, the possibility for the wrong kind of touch exists and increases.
The majority of practitioners who I receive bodywork from and mentor have a bare bones consent form, talk very little about consent before beginning treatment, and treat consent mostly as a formality. To put it more bluntly, for most of us, getting client consent is a cover-your-ass move. This is not because we are bad people nor because we want to touch our clients in ways that cause harm. It’s because we have become a country of people who are more and more wounded by touch, suspicious of touch, skeptical of touch and avoidant of touch.
Touch based professionals are cautioned to protect themselves from their clients. The majority of practitioners we’ve interviewed about how consent is handled in training programs confirm that the subject is limited and almost entirely addressed through a liability lens. But consent, true consent is a tool. A powerful tool we can use to increase client safety, agency and receptivity to healing. I once heard someone say that the number one indicator of whether or not an employee sues after being fired is how they get treated as they are packing up and walking out the door. Being kind and compassionate and treating someone like they matter directly decreases their likelihood of litigating. How we treat one another matters. And I think it must be the same for bodywork - caring about your client’s safety, treating them like they matter by asking explicitly for their consent and assuring that you have tools in place to maintain it… this is the greatest liability protection of all.
Let’s change the trend, people. Start using all the touch words in all the appropriate contexts. Be clear and open with your clients about why you are doing so. It’s up to us to lead the change, be the change and grow the change in others. Client consent can be enthusiastic. Client consent should be enthusiastic. And client consent is not the absence of a no. It is the present of an enthusiastic YES!