On Sunday, Buzzfeed News published a lengthy, disturbing story with over 180 allegations of sexual assault by patrons of Massage Envy, a national chain of over 1,200 spas with locations across the United States. Accounts range from women being groped during massages to being penetrated both orally and digitally against their will. One woman says she opened her eyes during a massage to “find her massage therapist sucking on her nipple,” while another says a masseur “ground his erect penis against [her] body” before touching her breasts and vagina.
That victim, Susan Ingram, attempted to report the assault to the spa after it occurred in 2015. She claims the manager refused to interrupt the masseur’s session with a female client, which was taking place when Ingram called, or to connect her with the franchise owner. “I said to her, ‘Nicole, he stuck his fingers in my vagina less than an hour ago,'” Ingram later recounted in court. The man in question later admitted to assaulting several other clients during his tenure at Massage Envy, two of whom had previously attempted to warn the spa.
Disturbingly, the pattern of assault does is not limited to any one location or even geographic area. Buzzfeed spoke to victims in Oregon, Florida, Virginia, Montana, Maryland, California, and elsewhere. Massage Envy told Buzzfeed that it would not be “appropriate to respond point-by-point” to questions due to pending litigation, but said: “We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it.”
The Buzzfeed report also reveals a troubling pattern in Massage Envy’s dealings with victims of assault, with the chain often brushing aside their reports and allowing accused parties to continue their employment. According to Kate Hardy, who worked at a Montana location between 2014 and 2017, the internal review policy “is not in place to protect the client. It’s in place to protect the company. It’s centered around defusing the situation so the client doesn’t call the police.”
“Except in the few places where local laws might demand it, the company does not compel its franchisees to notify law enforcement or to hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened. This holds true regardless of the seriousness of the allegation, even if it involves rape,” writes Buzzfeed reporter Katie J.M. Baker.
Several experts quoted in the story seem to blame Massage Envy’s fast-growing business model for the problems. When a company is in a position of having to fill a great number of jobs in a short period of time, standards for who is hired (and who gets to remain on staff) risk being lowered, they posit. The franchise model also makes it harder to ensure a uniform standard of care and oversight. “You can’t compare running a fast-food joint to laying your hands on someone’s body,” says New York-based massage therapist Gina Liccardo.
Ingram and others have filed lawsuits against both the parent company and individual spas, with a case scheduled for trial in January 2018. “Massage Envy is a partner in crime,” Ingram said. “They had every opportunity, on multiple occasions, to remove him from his position, and they chose not to.”