Massage therapists, clients worry new consent forms won't guard against sexual assault

All massage therapy clients are now required to sign a consent form, allowing a therapist to massage any body parts deemed "sensitive areas" before they begin their appointment. But some therapists and clients aren't so sure the forms protect against sexual assault.

No buttock or breast massages allowed in Ontario without a signed form

The buttock region is one of four 'sensitive areas' that now requires signed consent before a massage therapist is allowed to touch it. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Some Ontario massage therapists and thousands of their clients are skeptical that a new requirement to sign consent forms will help prevent sexual assault. 

If clients want therapists to touch any body parts deemed "sensitive areas," the College of Massage Therapists now requires them to sign the forms before they begin their appointments.

Those four sensitive areas, as defined by the college, are the breasts, chest wall musculature, upper inner thighs and buttocks. The form does allow patients to withdraw or alter their consent to massage those areas at any time, should they change their mind.

The requirement came into effect three months ago, along with a piece of provincial legislation, Bill 87, Protecting Patients Act, 2017. It covers all health professionals, with an aim of eradicating sexual abuse. Requiring consent forms is the way the regulatory body for massage therapists decided to implement the bill.

Ian Kamm worries the regulations designed to protect massage therapy clients from sexual assault could instead make them less likely to come forward. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Ian Kamm, a registered massage therapist at Donvale Massage Therapy in Toronto, says he is uncomfortable with the forms.

"We're asking for permission to touch certain body parts, but we're not obliged by law to tell [patients] that a complaint mechanism exists and what their rights are."

He says many of his long-time clients tell him they see the written consent forms as a way to shield therapists from allegations of inappropriate behaviour, since consent has been given in advance.

"They have said to me repeatedly, 'Explain to me again how this protects me?' They don't get it."

Before this new regulation, he says therapists obtained verbal consent during a massage and marked it in a patient's file.

Kamm is far from alone in his criticism.

Online petition against consent forms has 13,000 signatures

An online petition has gathered more than 13,000 signatures of people calling on the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario to scrap the forms.

A statement from Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care clarifies that its act "neither introduced new requirements relating to patient consent nor did it make specific amendments related to the profession of massage therapy."  

It says a key amendment expands "the list of acts of sexual misconduct that carry a mandatory penalty of revocation, to include sexual touching of the breast, buttocks, genitals and anus of a patient by a regulated health professional."

The college would not do an interview with CBC Toronto, though it did respond in a statement.

"As a regulator, our job is to protect the public interest, and stay at the forefront of evolving regulation," the statement reads "We have zero tolerance for sexual abuse, and we believe in the importance of Massage Therapy clients clearly consenting to have their sensitive areas treated."  

Some massage therapists feel the new regulations are unclear, including how wide an area around the breast requires signed consent by a client before a massage. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Sue Sheedy, a registered massage therapists at Toronto Bodyworks, was initially skeptical about the new forms, especially since she felt they sexualized certain body parts.

"I certainly felt some apprehension,"she said. "I feel like for so long we've been working so hard to separate ourselves from the sex industry."

But Sheedy says she changed her mind after a discussion with a regular client, a woman who had at first questioned why she had to sign a new form every time she visited the clinic, giving her consent over and over.

The new regulations came into place weeks before the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein hit the news. 

'I want to do something that empowers clients'

"A few times ago she came in," Sheedy recounted, "and she said, 'I'm never going to complain about this again, because of everything that is happening. I understand and it's okay.'"

This isn't the only recent change for Ontario massage therapists. As of January 2017, all new therapists have to undergo not just a police check but a more wide-ranging vulnerable-sector check, aimed at catching any past sexual abuse allegations.

Kamm still feels there's a piece missing in the changes and wonders how much harder it would have been for the women who eventually came forward against Harvey Weinstein to speak up if they had signed some type of consent form.

He'd like the college to require the forms to include information for clients on how they can complain and also an explanation of their rights.

"I want to do something that empowers clients to know that they can come forward if they're not happy."