Is it a massage or is it harassment?


This is a story about trusting your gut, and the time I didn’t trust mine.

It goes back to a month or so ago, when I was in Indonesia. After a week trekking around prisons and meeting people with drug-resistant tuberculosis for work, I took some holidays in polar opposite style. Swimming, massages, rice paddies and food heaven.

On my last day in Jakarta, with a few hours to kill at the airport, my partner and I decided to get a massage in one of the lounges.

My masseuse/salesman quickly and deftly up-sold us to shoulder massages as well as the foot massages we had requested. He was polite, friendly and pretty good at his job, but as I sat there in the lounge – next to my partner – I started to feel something strange was going on.


My foot massage was going all the way up my legs. Then, for a split second, one of his fingers seemingly accidentally brushed across my crotch.

“Awkward,” I thought. A couple of minutes later, on his next way up, it happened again. “Was that on purpose?” I thought. But on he continued and everything went back to normal, him politely asking me if the pressure was ok, and making the odd bit of friendly small talk.

Then came the shoulder massage. Within a couple of minutes he was positioning my back by holding on what should have been the front of my shoulder but was really mostly my breast. Then he moved on to a different part of my shoulder, smiling, and asking “everything ok? Pressure good?”

I said yes but my mind was racing. “Was that normal? Perhaps that’s just what he always does? I don’t want to look like I'm assuming he's a sleaze”.

Then, minutes later, his hand was back lightly holding on to my breast again, a little bit more than before. Then, minutes later, again. All the while casually asking questions that made him seem attentive to my every need. 

For a split second too, I think one finger was hooked into the front of my dress, peaking inside, and then gone again before I could be sure what happened.

I started subtly maneuvering my body, pushing my arm forward to block his access to my breast.

I became more and more sure that he was doing it on purpose, yet for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to say something. At one stage, I even thought about how angry I would be afterwards, when I had the chance to think about it and realise there was no way it could be an accident.

He soon switched to my other shoulder - the side potentially in view of my partner - where his hand stayed firmly on my shoulder. The massage was over and I paid my money and left.

Now, writing about what happened, I feel silly and embarrassed for not being confident enough to say something. After all, I’m in a job that has as a very basis of my day-to-day work a confidence and willingness to call people on their bullshit.

So why didn’t I? Bianca Fileborn is currently completing her PhD at the University of Melbourne, looking at unwanted sexual attention.

She says variations of my experience are extremely common.

“Yet we don’t even have the language to identify what these experiences are,” she says. “We know these kind of ‘minor’ experiences [for lack of a better word] are not taken seriously as a form of sexual harm”.

Her interviews with women who have had similar experiences in licensed venues have revealed a complex web of emotions underlying the inability to call out this behaviour: politeness, not wanting to make things awkward, fear of being wrong, and making excuses for the other person’s actions all feature regularly.

“The fact these sorts of behaviours are taking place in ambiguous social settings, where the intention of the person doing the behaviour isn’t really clear, can make it difficult,” she says. “But there should be a level of social trust there, you should be able to go to a bar, or have a massage… and feel like you can trust the people around you”.

For a while that one experience, even though it was set against the background of many polite, respectful men I met, soured my experience ofIndonesia. But clearly, as Fileborn’s work shows, this kind of low-level unwanted sexual attention can happen anywhere. In fact, 80 per cent of the women she interviewed thought it was a common occurrence.

If it happens to me again, I hope I’ll be ready to trust my gut and say something the minute I feel uncomfortable. And if it happens to you, I hope reading this will help you be ready too.

If you have experiences sexual assault or family violence and need support, you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)