Savage Love Breast Massage Part 1 of 2

A dear colleague, Barbara Helynn Heard forwarded this post to my attention. It is a letter from a woman to Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist, detailing her experience with breast massage during a bodywork session. She left the treatment feeling confused that she may have been drawn into a questionably sordid situation, rather than confident that she received a therapeutic treatment by a sincere professional.

My initial reaction was anger about the whole thing. The State of Washington is currently meeting to draft a new Administrative Code to regulate breast massage, and it’s not an ideal time for anything construed as “bad” about breast massage to be in the public eye. Bureaucrats tend to have a heavy hand with regulations when they see a perceived threat; however, in order for things to flourish, they need some room to grow. Breast massage is in exactly that phase of adolescent growth in the US and it could use some understanding, rather than diminishment and stricture. I want more than anything to protect this development!

Enough about my agenda. I’m reading an excellent book by Matt Kahn, “Whatever Arises, Love That”, and it helped me to take a step back and re-evaluate this unfortunate situation and write a story from a new perspective. The experience this woman was brave enough to share is EXACTLY what needs to be heard by all parties involved in making these massage regulations. First of all, that women are capable of making a decision about breast massage without having a prescription from a doctor. Second, that advanced training after massage school is truly necessary for therapists to navigate this terrain. Third, it is in everyone's best interest to have written consent prior to providing therapeutic breast massage. (In Part 2, I discuss some options for getting clear consent from clients.)

What I sincerely appreciate about this woman’s letter is that it is bipartisan. She really tries to see things from both sides (probably a Libra). It is one of the few times that I’ve heard a discussion in such detail as to where things started to “feel weird” in a session. It’s also an excellent study into the psychology of how we use various environmental cues and data to validate the decision our gut has already made that “something’s not right”. This is only one side of the story. There is a chance that things were misconstrued and the practitioner had only the best possible intent.

Even with the best intentions, the fact remains that breast massage, though therapeutic and healing, is an intimate experience to manage professionally. One person can receive massage to the thumb that could be considered erotic, if that is the goal. Another person can receive a clinical breast exam and it is the furthest thing from sexual (cold and awkward comes to mind). The art of massage is to find the balance between these extremes that leaves a person feeling therapeutically enhanced, yet nurtured and safe.

I'm also grateful that this puts the topic of incidental arousal during a therapeutic massage on the table. Sometimes arousal happens, despite the best intent. Dan really says it best:

"...arousal only becomes a problem when the client or the LMP telegraphs their arousal in a way that makes the other person in the room feel uncomfortable or unsafe, makes assumptions that aren't true, makes moves that aren't welcome, or obtains consent for one thing ("work on your chest") and then convinces themselves or pretends they've obtained consent for something else entirely..."

I’ve been studying breast massage for the past seven years and I am sometimes terrified of what an intimate area of the body this is for some women. Everything about it can seem like such an ethical dilemma. Initially, I hyper analyzed each aspect of my breast treatments:

  • is that word the most neutral?

  • what is the connotation of using that phrase?

  • is this hand position more or less suggestive?

  • is my body position intimidating somehow to a vulnerable person?

  • why is she crying/laughing/sleeping/frowning/smiling? what did I do?

  • am I really doing breast massage now, since my focus is actually the sternum, not the breasts themselves? should I have gotten a consent for breast massage in this case?

Eventually I had to accept that no matter what I did, I could not control another person’s perception. I could only control the clear intention within myself to provide the most help for breast health, without doing harm. In my experience, clear, respectful communication is actually what matters most.

In this confusing situation, a medical professional’s license to practice could now be in question and this client may avoid healing bodywork in the future. I am sending a prayer that there is wise mediation involved in this exchange and everyone learns a valuable lesson: with good education and professional communication, everybody wins. In Part 2, I share some suggestions on how to avoid this situation. Please share your thoughts and experiences below. If you like my thoughts better than yours, you might sign up for my newsletter. If you know better than me, please come to the next Bodyworkers Confidential and Massage Your Practice gathering this month and we can duke it out in person! ;-)