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Do No Harm: An Open Letter to Massage Therapists in the Wake of the Atlanta Murders

Hello, friends of the blog. I know many of you are not massage therapists, but I know that all of you are people who feel deeply and who are affected by the tragedy that took place yesterday morning in Atlanta, so I am hopeful that this blog that I originally wrote for Healwell, the organization of which I am Executive Director, will resonate with you.

In the early days of COVID and the related shutdown, the massage therapy profession embarrassed itself online bickering and attacking each other about what it meant to “do no harm” amid a pandemic about which we understood very little. There was no agreement. Lots of panic and needing to be right and to be heard and seen. Some people went back to work and were vilified and others were mocked because they swore they wouldn’t go back “until it’s over.” We argued and tore each other down, in plain sight, about who is essential and who is not and we complained bitterly that we weren’t being recognized the way we “should be.”

Yesterday morning, nine people were shot in Atlanta at what are being referred to as “massage parlors;” eight of these people were shot fatally. Six of them were Asian women.

Once again, massage therapists just can’t keep their eye on the ball. The online, knee-jerk bickering began almost immediately. Massage therapists piled on all over social networks about the media’s use of the world “parlor.” Outraged and indignant, demanding respect and wanting to be clearly differentiated from sex workers. Throwing our hands up, victimized again.

We are doing harm.

Eight people died, my fellow care givers. The media’s use of the word parlor and the possibility that some of the victims might be (though just as likely not) sex workers does not change the true and deeply sadly reality that eight humans were taken from their families yesterday.

It’s also vitally important to remember that there has actually been no statement that any of these establishments were, in fact, selling sex. The way that the public and the massage therapy profession at large has run with this assumption is so incredibly central to the depth of this tragedy. The perpetrator, a white man, assumed these establishments were selling sex (possibly because he perceived these establishments to be “Asian” and, therefore, associated with the fetishized perception of Asian women as sex worker/bodyworker) and chose to target these establishments. The media called them “parlors” and conjecture leapt out ahead of any possible truth.

We refuse, at every turn, to look at how we, the massage profession, did the same thing as the perpetrator. We heard this story or even just part of this story and then we made assumptions. We didn’t check those assumptions. We just ran with them and fanned each other’s Twitter-informed flames. It is essential that we get a hold on the truth of our own racism and our own bias, right here in this profession. Right here in our own self-proclaimed “colorblind” hearts. Being “healers” does not exempt us from the neurology of bias or actions of marginalization. None of us is so “good” as that, because, lucky for us the good/bad binary is a lie. You can be “good” and still have biases that hold up “bad” systems.

These murders and the response of massage therapists to these tragic events clarify some awful truths. America has a very serious racism problem that is not isolated to our Black and Brown citizens. America has a very serious problem with sex and sexuality. America has an equally serious misogyny and toxic masculinity problem.

The massage therapy profession has, at best, a tenuous grasp on what will truly be necessary to separate itself from sex work. And let me be clear, this separation is necessary because these are very different interventions, not because one is bad and immoral and the other is sacred and therapeutic.

Ending the “parlor perception” of massage therapy is on us. You might notice that we don’t see chiropractors or physical therapists being mistaken for sex workers.

Changing the perception of massage therapy and massage therapists is our work to do. Regulation, education and meaningful national infrastructure in both of these realms will be key. As a profession, we dither and wring our hands and, in the end, we do little more than show time and time again that we don’t want to do it, don’t know how to do it or simply don’t think it’s necessary.

These are big issues and they will not be solved for us by anyone outside the profession. Ours is not a problem of knowing, it’s a problem of willing. We know what we must do, but we are unwilling to do it. The “what,” however, is not for this conversation.

Please, in this moment, do no harm. For now, join me in mourning the eight lives lost and ripple of other lives shattered by yesterday’s murders. And as you go back “out there” on social media, do no harm. Check your tone. Check your privilege. Own your role in the events of yesterday.

We can all do better.

I have one other request, if you’re still open to it. Slow down as you set about “fixing” these complex and layered problems. They are deep, nuanced and reinforced by millennia of neurology, policy and trauma. They will not be solved solely with outside action. We must, each of us, go deep inside, be honest with ourselves about our own biases and likely unintentional, but no less complicit participation in the dynamics that made yesterday’s tragedy not only possible, but inevitable.

If we are to begin to create a better world, we must first agree that there is a problem and that it is our problem. Each of us.

Do no harm, my friends. Do no harm.


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