A massage prompts a sexual harassment complaint. What happens after that?

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GREAT BARRINGTON — For many years, Veronica Martin's birthday treat to herself was to indulge in a massage, but in 2016, Martin says, she received an unwanted surprise during her session.

In late June of that year, Martin was enjoying a massage at a therapist's private office in Great Barrington when he asked her if she'd like an "abdominal" massage. Enjoying a good stomach rub, Martin agreed, but that's when things started to get uncomfortable.

Martin alleges that she was sexually harassed during the massage, and she filed a complaint with the state Board of Registration of Massage Therapy — over a year ago, and it has yet to get a hearing before the board.

Martin said she is frustrated that a sexual harassment complaint made to the board is yet to be heard.

"At this point, I'm not sure who I'm more angry with, him or the board," she said.

Meanwhile, it isn't clear why Martin's complaint is taking so long to work its way through the system. According to annual reports in 2016, the board dealt with eight more complaints above the number filed that year, and in 2015 the board handled 30 more cases than what were filed, indicating that some cases might roll over from one year to the next.

Since filing the complaint Oct. 18, 2016, Martin said she has been diligent in inquiring about the status of her case and has kept notes about her conversations with the executive director of the board and state inspectors. Sometimes, Martin is given a hearing date, but so far, the hearings have all wound up canceled or tabled, according to Martin and at least, in part, corroborated by the board's own posted agendas and minutes.

In 2016, 222 complaints to the massage board were investigated; of the state's 28 boards of licensure, cosmetology and barbering, real estate, and massage therapy receive the most complaints.

That same year, 181 complaints to the massage board were closed and 49 were dismissed, according to the Division of Professional Licensure's 2016 annual report, the most recent information available. The board met 11 times that year.

For Martin, putting off a state board-conducted hearing about a sexual complaint more than a year after the alleged incident is inexcusable. And she's hoping that by speaking out, she can spur the board to action and shine a light on the licensing complaint process.

So far, she has state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, interested. A spokesperson for the senator's office confirmed that Martin has reached out to Hinds for assistance in moving her complaint along and that he has assigned a staffer to inquire about the case and the length of time it's taking to resolve.

Reached for comment, Alexie Levine, vice chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Massage Therapy, said he is precluded from discussing board matters outside board meetings and that discussing an unresolved complaint wouldn't be possible anyway.

At this point, Martin said she is unsure if she's more upset with the board's inaction or the alleged violation.

After getting off the phone with state officials there to help her, Martin said she often has been moved to tears.

"I'll just cry," she said.

What happened

Martin doesn't consider what allegedly happened to her June 28, 2016 a crime, necessarily, but she does believe that the therapist breached the state's massage therapist code of ethics, which has been enshrined in Code of Massachusetts Regulations. This is why Martin reported the alleged incident to the board instead of the police.

"Sexual offenders should not be allowed to retain their massage license. We are here for therapy, not for an experience for which we will need therapy," she said.

Before a student can become a licensed massage therapist in Massachusetts, she or he must spend 60 hours learning about the ethics code, according to state statutes. Saiska Cote, a massage therapist with 22 years experience who has been teaching ethics at The Massage School in Easthampton, which was co-founded by Levine, said every massage therapy class should address ethics, not just the courses focused on the topic.

In such a sensitive environment, ethical subjects such as personal boundaries — those of the client and the therapist — come up a lot, said Cote who does not know any details of Martin's case and spoke about massage ethics in general.

"The law is really kind of black and white, but that's not life, so ethics deals with the gray," Cote said. "We look at what are (students') beliefs, what's in their background growing up and knowing the right versus wrong thing to do. ... Also, language becomes really important to make everything open and clear."

Cote said students learn about everything from how to touch and wrap a client in blankets to maintain a professional level of distance from the, for the most part, undressed people they help. They're taught what to do if someone requests a sexual favor. (Make the person explain what they want, Cote advised. Usually, the person will be too embarrassed to bring it up again.)

They also learn about more concrete matters, like not keeping clients waiting too long for treatment and making sure everyone who gets a massage is age 18 or older, or has the written permission of a parent.

Martin alleges that on the day of the incident, after receiving about half of a 90-minute massage, she agreed to an abdomen massage and the massage therapist removed the blanket that had been covering her bare stomach and breasts. He then began to apply his skills to her abdomen while leaving her torso uncovered.

Martin said she felt vulnerable about having herself so exposed, but didn't know what to say. That's when the therapist allegedly told Martin about how "beautiful" he thinks she is.

"He said I'm the most beautiful woman he's ever seen," Martin said. "He said he'd like to see me again, but that he feels it would be unethical to charge me when I come back. He asked if I know what he means. I said that I didn't know, hoping my gut was wrong. He said that as a professional, he's not supposed to become sexually aroused by anyone on his table, but that with me it's been impossible.

"I think it was referencing the arousal in his pants that really made me no longer have doubt that this guy was breaking the moral code."

Martin, who has experienced sexual assault in the past, said she froze on the massage table and, not knowing what to do, nervously laughed.

Sex and sexual feelings are covered in any ethics class, Cote said. Students are taught how to speak professionally, clinically and without judgment with clients about their bodies and the treatment they are seeking. Students are taught what to do if a client exposes himself or herself to the therapist and what to do when sexual feelings crop up for the therapist.

"When you are a therapist and you have sexual feelings for your client, how do you be professional about it? It does happen sometimes, so students need to be prepared," Cote said. "If you want to go on a date with your client, and it can't happen, then maybe you're only their therapist once and you can refer them to someone else because you have too many feelings."

After paying for the massage, Martin went home and told her partner and friends about her experience. She said she feels lucky to have people in her life who believed and supported her immediately, and later encouraged her to file a complaint.

"They convinced me that I should speak up, that I don't need to be quiet and maybe I could help someone else," said Martin, noting that if she is vindicated by the board, perhaps the therapist will not subject another woman to what he allegedly put Martin through.

Martin said that since filing the complaint, she was able to confirm with an investigator for the licensing board Dec. 13, 2016, that an investigator had received her complaint and that the accused massage therapist had 90 days to respond to the allegations.

Complaints to the Registration Board of Massage Therapy are investigated by the Division of Professional Licensure's Office of Investigations, which is overseen by the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

After the investigation is completed, it's presented to the massage therapy board. The board then decides whether there is sufficient information to go forward with a case or ask the office of investigations to get more data, explained a spokesperson for the Office of Consumer Affairs. The board has the power to order a licensed massage therapist to cease and desist any unethical or unprofessional conduct, as well as suspend someone's license to practice. The board might also decline to renew a license or send a case on to be prosecuted. Fines may be imposed as well.

The next chance Martin's case has for being heard is Nov. 13, the Board of Registration of Massage Therapy's next meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Boston. Martin said she has been told her complaint is scheduled for a hearing at this meeting, but she has been told that before.

"At this point, I'm in too far. I'm not going to give up," Martin said.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.


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