Some registered massage therapists in unregulated provinces offering sex for sale and insurance receipts
Chaotic oversight of massage services in some provinces leading to abuse, confusion, CBC investigation finds
Warning: This story contains graphic language.
A CBC investigation in Montreal, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Calgary has found that some massage therapists who are members of professional associations are offering sex for sale.
Those same businesses also provide receipts to clients so they can be reimbursed for the service by their insurance companies.
Undercover CBC reporters sent texts to dozens of businesses in those cities, which are all located in provinces where massage is unregulated, meaning there is no central college maintaining and enforcing standards and ethics.
The investigation focused on therapists promoting their businesses on the classified advertising website Kijiji. In these ads, people presented themselves as registered or licensed massage therapists and offered insurance receipts.
Of the 40 businesses that responded to texts, 18 indicated a willingness to provide a range of sexual services, from sexual touching and a "happy ending" to "full service," meaning intercourse. While some of the remaining respondents flatly said no, others indicated they would only discuss the matter in person.
CBC's survey wasn't scientific, nor should it be taken to indicate that a high percentage of massage therapists offer sex. But it shows that in unregulated provinces, it is not difficult to find people claiming to be professionals who offer sex.
Michel Eid, a board member with the Federation of Quebec Massage Therapists (FQM), said his organization has known for decades that some therapists have been selling sex and issuing insurance receipts for the service. Still, he said he was surprised by the extent of what CBC found.
"It's shocking. I'm flabbergasted," Eid said. "We have to understand, this is prostitution, this is not massage."
WATCH | Quebec massage therapist Michael Eid calls CBC findings 'shocking':
He said that while selling sexual services is legal in Canada, the practice has no place in professional massage therapy.
"[If] you want to do that kind of work, just don't call it massage."
'Happy endings' and 'full service'
It didn't take CBC long to suss out if the services being offered on Kijiji were strictly professional.
When reached by text, for example, a Montreal woman advertising as a certified massage therapist that promised insurance receipts offered the reporter "massage and bj (oral sex) $140. Massage and sex $180."
A Saskatoon clinic promoting service from an RMT and insurance receipts also offered an undercover reporter a "happy ending" and "full service."
A Calgary RMT who claimed to have 2,200 hours of experience explained her "premium" massages allowed the client to be undraped and to touch her sexually.
Daniel Tourangeau, a forensic accountant and the former chair of the Canadian Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, said this is one of the most difficult types of fraud to detect.
"What you have is two individuals, a provider and a recipient, who are both colluding to say, 'No no, there is nothing wrong here going on.'"
What went wrong?
In B.C., Ontario, P.E.I., New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, governments have established an independent college of massage therapy.
Much like colleges of medicine or dentistry, these organizations are mandated by the province to license massage therapists, set professional standards and enforce them by meting out publicly reported discipline to offenders.
In addition, only members of the college can call themselves massage therapists or registered massage therapists in those provinces. These are legally protected titles and if a non-college member uses them, they could find themselves in court.
Canadian insurance companies only reimburse the receipts of therapists who are members in good standing. According to a study by the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario, 75 per cent of massage customers use their health coverage to pay all or part of the service.
In unregulated provinces with no centralized college, massage therapists can belong to a variety of professional associations, each with their own standards.
These associations compete with one another for members and also work hard to win the approval of insurance companies, attempting to persuade them that their members are qualified and ethical.
Tourangeau, who used to oversee fraud investigations for a major insurance provider, said this puts the insurance industry in a "no-win" situation where insurers are forced to determine which associations should be approved.
"What we're asking the insurers to do is step in and replace regulation," he said.
In Quebec alone, there are more than 30 massage-related associations, governing about 22,000 members.
According to Eid, some of those associations are of questionable quality. He said many have low educational standards for therapists and virtually non-existent disciplinary procedures.
"It's a bit like the Wild West," he said.
Receipts for sex
The issue came to CBC's attention in April while investigating Trevor Wowk, a "family-values" politician and activist in Regina. CBC discovered he had been running a massage parlour in his own home, staffed in part by his wife.
An ad for the business claimed she was a "trained acupressure massagologist [sic]" who offered insurance receipts. An undercover CBC reporter was offered "sexual encounters" by Wowk's wife, Lily, who also offered to provide insurance receipts.
She texted the undercover reporter a sample copy of a receipt that indicated she was a RMT with the Quebec-based Massologists and Practitioners in Massage Association of Canada (MPMAC).
Further investigation found Lily was not registered with that association. MPMAC told CBC that Lily was fraudulently using the membership of another Regina-based massage practitioner, Baiping Wang, who also offered sexual services to the undercover reporter.
When reached for comment, Wang denied it was she who made that offer.
Members warned against 'engaging in the sex industry'
In an email to CBC, MPMAC president Shu-e Wu said her organization, which has been around for 16 years, takes misbehaviour seriously.
She pointed to a December 2020 email she sent to all her members reminding them they shouldn't "deceive insurance companies for their own benefits" or "engag[e] in the sex industry."
CBC asked Wu what prompted her to send such a warning. She didn't reply.
Wu runs the association out of her Montreal home, where she also runs eight other health-related associations for everything from acupuncture to alternative medicine. A Google search of these associations provides little evidence that most of them are actually in operation.
Her website features dozens of photos of Wu with Chinese and Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Wu claims her organization is overseen by an eight-person advisory committee. One of the members listed was "Professor Denyse Roy." However, when CBC contacted Roy, she said she's a management consultant, not a professor, and wasn't on that committee.
It was the same story with Wu's so-called disciplinary committee. Several members of that eight-person body were not aware they were on it.
One of the supposed members of that disciplinary committee faced discipline himself from a professional organization back in 2017. He faced several allegations of professional misconduct from an Ontario acupuncture regulator, but surrendered his licence before the hearing.
Shortly after CBC started making inquiries about this committee, someone started removing the names of committee members from Wu's website. Only two members of the original eight-member committee remain on the site.
CBC asked her what happened but she didn't reply.
Despite these problems, two major insurance companies — Sun Life and SSQ Insurance — confirmed that they honour MPMAC receipts.
'I am not a policeman'
The MPMAC isn't the only Quebec-based massage association that raises concerns.
Two of the therapists who offered CBC's undercover reporter sexual massages said they belonged to the Regroupement des Massothérapeutes du Québec (RMQ).
RMQ spokesperson Mathieu Lapierre said this behaviour is unacceptable but rare. He said after learning of CBC's investigation, the organization terminated the membership of one of the women and continues to investigate the other.
The RMQ's website notes that in 2015, it took similar action against a couple of other members under suspicion of offering sex to clients.
Another woman who offered sexual services to an undercover reporter said she belonged to the Quebec-based Canadian Tui Na Association. When asked about the offer, the association's president, Wen-ling Zhao, told CBC, "I am not a policeman."
"I can't control all of them," she said. "I only have two hands and one head."
Zhao did not ask CBC for the massage therapist's name, but said if she found out who it was, they would no longer be a member.
Ironically, Zhao is named in a 2015 civil case connected to her massage therapy clinic. Desjardins Insurance became suspicious after noticing that in 2013, a Montreal man had racked up 65 massages over a five-month period, totalling about $4,500. Zhao's name was on all of the receipts.
An undercover investigator the company sent to Zhao's clinic was offered a "hand job" during his massage, confirming Desjardins's suspicions. The therapist who did the massage used Zhao's professional credentials.
Desjardins concluded that the clinic was offering sexual services.
The push for regulation
For decades, massage therapists in unregulated provinces have been pushing governments to regulate the industry.
Lori Green, the executive director of the Massage Therapy Association of Saskatchewan, says that was the primary reason her organization was founded in 1995.
"More than a few times, the government would say... 'You're doing such a great job self-governing your association. Why do you need [regulation]?" she said.
She said they also argued that unlike medicine or dentistry, massage therapy is non-invasive, so there's little chance of patient harm. But from Green's perspective, physical harm shouldn't be the only consideration.
She said the fact that so-called massage therapists in her own city are selling sex is harming the reputation of her entire membership.
According to the City of Saskatoon, since 2015, seven businesses licensed by the city to offer therapeutic massage services "have had their business licence suspended or revoked for offering adult services."
It's 'a slap in the face'
A 2020 study by the University of New Brunswick found that 75 per cent of legitimate massage therapists surveyed had "experienced sexual harassment by clients." A quarter of those had experienced such an incident more than three times.
Hailey Rogers knows all about that.
She told CBC that when she began as a massage therapist in Saskatoon in 2012, she was stunned by how many of her new male clients were looking for "extras," even though her ads promoted therapeutic services with no hint of sexuality.
"If I took in 10 new people, there would be four of them that would kind of be, like, looking for other things," said Rogers. "I think it's kind of a slap in the face."
She recalled that in 2016, during a session with a new male client, he pulled the sheet off his naked body, rolled over on his back and just stared at her.
"I was, like, mortified. And he was like, well, what are you going to do about it? Like, what are you going to do with my dick?" she said.
She told him the session was over and left the room. Then she went back in to give him final instructions.
"I open the door and — this is so gruesome and gross — but it smelled like men's fluid," Rogers said. "It was really gross and it was all over my room. And he just walked by me and left."
She cried, went home and left the industry shortly after.
Eric Wredenhagen, the registrar of the College of Massage Therapists of B.C., said he sympathizes with Rogers and believes regulation would help clarify the difference between legitimate massage therapy and sex work.
He said he's never received a complaint of an RMT offering sex for sale to clients.
"You don't go to the trouble of getting that education, earning that certification, maintaining that certification in order to sell sex for money," he said.
Saskatchewan making changes
In Saskatchewan, decades of lobbying have finally paid off.
In the fall of 2020, the Saskatchewan government introduced the Massage Therapy Act, which received royal assent in May. It will establish a massage therapy college in the province, though there's still no precise date for it.
Massage regulation is being considered in Manitoba and Alberta, but those governments have no timeline when it comes to specific action.
As for Quebec, no consultations are underway.
Eid said his organization hasn't given up — and is in fact inspired by Saskatchewan's new law.
"We want to become the next province after [Saskatchewan]. And not in 25 years," said Eid. "We have been waiting long enough."