by Kristin Kurens
The bulk of my #MeToo moments came during my years as a massage therapist.
The first happened when I was 18. A client I met through the school clinic asked if I would be willing to come to his house to massage him. “Just bring a table,” he told me. “I’ll supply the sheets.”
He was an odd, stout, middle-aged man who preferred to lie on his side during treatments. I, along with many fellow massage students, worked on him regularly. While he was strange nothing untoward had happened, so I agreed, ignoring this nagging feeling in the back of my gut.
He turned out to be a bit of a hoarder; it was near impossible to set up the massage table anywhere in his house. We did an hour-long session together, with him lying on his side. Throughout the session, he rocked his whole body back and forth. As I washed my hands in the kitchen while he got dressed, he quickly stripped the sheets from the table.
It didn’t occur to me until after the session that he was stimulating himself to orgasm. He thought his cum-soaked sheets were his own secret. A classmate confirmed my suspicions a few days later. I felt gross. And pissed that she hadn’t mentioned it earlier when I said I was going to his house to give him a treatment.
Another incident happened during the holiday season at a high-end spa. I had just given a 60-minute massage to a male client. During his treatment, he was pleasant. I don’t remember our conversation in any detail, but I remember he was nice to talk to, pleasant, considerate. His wife was down the hall with another therapist. I walked him back to the waiting area. His wife was there briefly; she headed to the women’s hot tub to soak. He said he wanted to sit and relax for a few moments.
About five minutes later, I walked back through the waiting area as I wrapped up my end-of-shift duties. There he was, the man whose body I just been massaging for an hour, alone and standing next to the Christmas tree. He had an issue of Truly Alive or Natural Awakenings—I don’t recall which—pretending to read. He stood in his spa robe with his dick hanging out.
I wish I could have seen the look on my face, which must have been a mixture of disappointment, disgust and amusement at the absurdity.
"What was his expected outcome for standing in the corner next to a Christmas tree with his dick hanging out of his spa robe while pretending to read a magazine?"
Beyond the initial “Oh, there’s his dick” shock, I felt bad for his wife. Was it funny to him? Did she know about his predilection for indecent exposure? What was his expected outcome for standing in the corner next to a Christmas tree with his dick hanging out of his spa robe while pretending to read a magazine?
It makes me laugh, still, because the image was strikingly ridiculous. “Excuse me, sir… your penis... just, no….” I wanted to say it but didn’t—I couldn’t even make eye contact as I breezed through quickly to my treatment room.
A few years later, I tried a stint with a quasi-famous massage therapist. She was setting up mobile massages in cities across the U.S. at prices that were impressive—particularly by New Mexico standards. After my successful interview with a local therapist who already worked with her, I was booked with a male member of locally well-known and wealthy family (with ties to Vegas) at a hotel.
He tried, not so subtly, to get me to engage in some kind of sexual activity with him or pleasuring him. I kept him at bay, redirecting, ignoring, staying as calm and professional as possible. He was also really bad at trying to get at what he wanted.
After I turned him over, he kept asking for Lomi Lomi, a Hawaiian massage that involves minimal draping and long strokes up the body. I think he thought it was code for “massage my junk.” It isn’t. I took the sheet and draped him so he looked diapered.
When it became clear that my boundaries were firm, he opted to end the massage early. He talked incessantly while I put everything away. He offered to let me use the room for the night, waving the key in front of me, as it was already paid for. Who doesn’t want to revel in a room paid for by a man who’s violating your boundaries? I guess me. He peed in the bathroom with the door open, talking to me the whole time.
I was still breaking down the table, grabbing the music player, tossing sheets into my bag. Mobile massage sucks, and it sucks even more when you just want to get the fuck out of there.
I finally had my belongings together and he insisted on walking me to the elevator. I had my bulky massage table in one hand and a bag with sheets, oil, a bolster, and a music player in the other. He pushed the button and took the opportunity while my hands were full to grab my ass—not just a little squeeze, but a grab, with his fingers curling up into very private places.
Then he rode the elevator down with me and proceeded to “jokingly” tell me not to be a prude.
During my massage career, which spanned close to two decades, I was mostly self employed. I worked in several spas to bridge the gap in income while trying to build a successful private practice. I advertised in a local publication. I ran a few ads, but it became clear quite early on that the people who saw those ads were not my ideal clients.
One in particular was belligerent throughout his treatment, mocking my intellect and condescending to me. He was not threatening or sexually inappropriate, but years of dealing with this kind of garbage were taking a toll.
Looking back, I know I felt safer in spas, despite the fact that's where most of the inappropriate behavior happened. But there were always other people around. One spa felt and was particularly safe. Most of us experienced few incidents. We had a reliable managerial and front-desk staff that had our backs, no matter what.
"He rode the elevator down with me and proceeded to 'jokingly' tell me not to be a prude."
But at another spa, I experienced more inappropriate conduct from clients. It seems that the richer the client, the more they perceive the right to push boundaries. (Not to mention the front-desk employee who stole tips—a lot of tips, but that’s another story.)
I’m not much for quitting when I’ve set my mind on something, and I really believed that I could build a successful private massage-therapy practice. I thought that building a solid client base through a referral system would be a sure-fire means to success. It worked for a while.
The problem was that I never really felt safe alone at my office. Regular clients were fine, amazing even. New clients, especially male, made me uneasy. I always tried to book them when I knew others would be in the building. Had I continued to advertise, I would have likely built a stronger business. But I just didn’t feel safe doing so. It was clear from years of working in the massage industry that some clients would just be inappropriate.
To these men, it might have seemed harmless. I wasn’t raped. But these incidents, and many, many more, made me question my safety. Who would be next to cross the line? It was heartbreaking for me. I really loved my work. I saw people’s bodies change, relax. I helped clients recover from sports injuries and car accidents. I was damn good at my job.
But by 2012, I’d had enough. The economy was shrugging along. Some clients moved out of state, some had financial issues that made them reduce the frequency of their treatments. My client base was crumbling. I felt disrespected by a few. One woman took the knowledge I gave her regarding her running injury, based on my extensive knowledge and study of anatomy, and attributed it to her favorite male trainer.
I wasn’t only worried for my safety and finances, but I also had to deal with some systemic sexist bullshit from both men and women. Massage therapists are largely disregarded as frivolous already. I couldn’t feed into the system anymore, nor could I fight it. I continued massaging at a spa for a few more years, but I was finished with private practice.
I remember after the hotel incident that the local therapist who had interviewed me asked me about the treatment. I told her what had happened, and she said, “I told him not to pull that again. I just worked on him last week and he kept trying to get me to give him a happy ending.”
Cool. So she knew what he was like, knew I was working on him and didn’t mention his perv nature until after the fact? I never took any more gigs with the company. The thought of getting harassed—or worse—backstage at a concert, in a hotel or in someone’s home was enough to keep me out of that side of the industry.
"I wasn’t only worried for my safety and finances, but I also had to deal with some systemic sexist bullshit from both men and women."
I lost revenue, years and years of revenue, because I was too afraid to advertise. And what recourse did I have? I could have filed a police report, but that’s pretty much where that stops. And, as in the case of the dick-wagger I just mentioned, some of these men seem genuinely nice, until they cross a line that cannot be uncrossed. A coworker of mine suffered badly after a client who had become a regular crossed that line. She filed a police report, and that was that. He was banned from the spa, but who would know his history when he took his business elsewhere?
We could have established a whisper network, a means to share information on inappropriate clients. And sometimes we did check with other female therapists to see if anyone had heard of so-and-so. One spa where I worked at for almost a decade kept an unofficial list of problemetic clients.
I understand on a very personal and professional level how vulnerable it can feel to be a woman in the world, looking to make a mark, looking for safety, looking for professional and financial security. When I read about Moira Donegan’s Shitty Media Men list, I knew exactly where she was coming from. And I’m sure plenty of women can relate.
In October 2017, the New York journalist started the list: a Google spreadsheet meant as a woman’s guide to the potential offenders in media, everything from inappropriate text messages to violent offenses. Donegan, initially anonymous, included the following note:
“DISCLAIMER: This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see something about a man you're friends with, don't freak out. Men accused of physical sexual violence by multiple women are highlighted in red.”
Meant as a whisper-network warning document, the doc’s existence wasn’t quiet for long. Its spread was rapid. Donegan quickly deleted the original, but copies proliferated and spread throughout the internet.
Since the release of the list, there’s been a lot said about its flaws. Victor Navasky drew comparison to McCarthyism and the danger of alleged guilt without due process. The Shitty Media Men list came with consequences: a few men on the list were investigated and fired from their positions (Ryan Lizza from The New Yorker was one of them).
"What young woman or girl wanted to be added to Larry Nassar’s roster of victims?"
Indeed, lists are dangerous. Judging anyone as guilty without due process is dangerous. But I wonder how many lists have women been on that endangered them? How many women have been targeted, assaulted or worse because they made someone’s list? What young woman or girl wanted to be added to Larry Nassar’s roster of victims? Which actresses wanted to join Harvey Weinstein’s notorious ranks?
When I first read about Donegan’s list, the Marine's United Facebook scandal came to mind immediately. Anonymous posters shared explicit photos of female—and male—Marines. Comments on posts ranged from calling the women sluts to declaring that they deserve to be raped. Shortly after the scandal broke, and a second page was put up. Dropbox accounts were shared.
An investigation of the Marines scandal found that the Facebook group had around 30,000 members, both active duty and veterans. Of that number, 15 were found to have been involved in “felony-level criminal activity,” according to Stars and Stripes. “The investigation has spanned to more than 150 websites and investigators have reviewed some 75,000 images of female and male servicemembers. Nonetheless, only 27 individuals have been identified as potentially committing felonies.”
Those are some “interesting” numbers.
Before Donegan revealed her identity as the instigator of the list, there was a bit of a frenzy to find out who she was. Donegan outed herself after she received a call from a Harper’s fact-checker for an article coming out in March.
Why the deep need to suss out the owner of the Shitty Media Men list? From industry to industry, from institution to institution, it’s clear that women do not feel safe. Worse, often they aren’t. Is it any wonder that lists like Donegan’s circulate?
Yes, lists are dangerous. But what’s just as dangerous is ignoring the context for all this and the reason the list was started in the first place.
I was angry for years after my practice closed, but I could never put my finger on the cause of that deep-seated anger that could seethe into rage. It was fear. The actions of a few men undermined my confidence, my sense of security. Unchecked fear can grow into rage. I didn’t have the same opportunity as a man, because men would remind me that they unilaterally drew the boundaries and made the rules.
I’m glad I’m out of the business. I let it suck me dry, and years of my life that I could have spent writing and creating are forever gone. That’s not to say that I regret my former career. I learned some of the deepest intricacies of human nature in those years—great fodder for creating. I regularly experienced something on this planet much greater than myself during those years. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
"Yes, lists are dangerous. But what’s just as dangerous is ignoring the context for all this and the reason the list was started in the first place."
There’s a common question after someone comes forward with accusations of sexual misconduct, especially when it’s years after the fact: “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
My supervisors at the high-end spa were all but worthless. One was involved in a tryst with high-roller gambler while balancing a relationship with her fiancé. The one who followed in her footsteps could barely remember my name. As for the mobile gig, what was the point? It felt like the behavior I encountered in that hotel was par for the course—just suck it up and deal with it. In my private practice, the buck stopped with me.
The ripple effect of one action is enormous. I think of the effects that all those men had on my psyche, my business, my sense of self in the world. I think of the women who are tethered to them through marriage, children, family.
I never made a list of the men who behaved inappropriately, but I remember them very clearly. The dick-wagger’s fleshy member is permanently imprinted on my brain (thanks, bro, really). But I could have made a list. I could have shared it. And it would not have been in the throes of hysteria as Navasky suggests (oh good, we’re back to throwing the term hysteria around when women are upset about something—how quaint). Perhaps the resistance to the idea of the Shitty Media Men list is that some men are now beginning to understand that it’s not always stars and accolades when you’re listed.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.