180-plus Massage Envy customers say they were sexually assaulted
More than 180 customers of Massage Envy say they were sexually assaulted by company employees, according to a new report.
The Buzzfeed report amasses claims in sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and state board complaints against both individual employees and Massage Envy itself. It also finds a history of the company allegedly ignoring or mishandling claims.
In one case, it recounts the story of Susan Ingram, who said that during her seventh session with therapist James Deiter — whom the spa had enthusiastically recommended — he ground his penis against her body, groped her breasts, and put his fingers in her vagina.
But even after Ingram complained, a manager fused to interrupt a session Deiter was having with a female client, the report says. After Ingram called police, Deiter confessed to assaulting several clients, saying "I need help," according to police records. He pleaded guilty to assaulting nine women the next year.
In that case, according to the report, two other women had complained about Deiter before Ingram — but their complaints were ignored because the women would only make them over the phone and wouldn't come in to talk further about them.
None of the specific instances described in the Buzzfeed report take place in New Jersey. However, NJ.com notes a company massage therapist was accused of sexually assaulting a female customer in Warren in 2013. It cites an affidavit in which the therapist, Raude Guerrier, of Orange told police “he misread the victim’s body language” during the massage and touched her vagina.
Law firm Laffey Bucci Kent, which has several locations in New Jersey, says on its web page spa memberships "may facilitate sexual assault because of the high-volume nature of these arrangements." It says spas tend to hire employees for low wages, resulting in lower quality, and their drive to maintain low hourly rates "can create situations where a spa business attempts to sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug."
"The business seeks to protect itself and its profits, rather than face a criminal investigation and negative media attention. This is true of national chain spas and local spas," the firm writes.
And it says the failure to report such incidents can create "a culture of acceptance."
"The manager assures the client that the massage therapist will be dealt with internally," the firm writes. "The client is never told that the same massage therapist had similar complaints lodged against him in the past. In accordance with policies of the corporate headquarters, the manager calls the corporate office. The manager is told that the specific massage therapist will be transferred to another branch location. Law enforcement is never notified, and the therapist commits sexual assault at the second location."
It also says massage therapists may escalate sexual misconduct over a period of time — and "test the waters" with less egregious conduct.
For instance, a massage therapist "may spend more time massaging areas near private parts or may engage in light touching of genital regions. Massage clients may feel uncomfortable, but often believe they imagined the contact. Their silence only serves to embolden perpetrators, who then believe their conduct is acceptable."
Massage Envy has more than 30 locations in New Jersey.
"Each of these incidents is heartbreaking for us and for the franchisees that operate Massage Envy locations, and we will never stop looking for ways to help our franchisees provide a safe environment at Massage Envy franchise locations," the company said in a statement. "The (Buzzfeed) article references 180 reported incidents. These occurred over a span of 15 plus years and 125 million massages. But, we believe that even ONE incident is too many, so we are constantly listening, learning, and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues."
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