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)


  • Ah, yes, the "accidental" grope, haven't we all been there?

    For example, I ducked into my local last Melbourne Cup day for a beer and a flutter. Under the guise of having a chat about my choice as I filled in my betting card, a fast-approaching-drunk guy decided to cop a feel. A friendly back slap turned into an ass grab, but I brushed it off (physically) and dismissed it as a mistake arising out of too many beers. And then he did it again. And again. Finally, the fourth time he went to grab my butt, I looked him straight in the eye and called him out on it. (Something like "Stop touching me. Seriously.") He backed off with a nervous laugh, and five minutes later I saw him with his hands all over the shoulders of another, uncomfortable-looking woman who suddenly felt the need to visit the bathroom and never return.

    Yet, it's usually only here that I've seen it framed as accidental. In plenty of overseas countries I've experienced it as disturbingly deliberate and open. (hahaha... anyone want to hear the story about the time a Moroccan youth hostel owner backed me into a corner and showed me his penis? No, that isn't the start or finish of the story...) Indonesia is indeed a bit of a worry for this sort of thing. I remember as a kid, a tuk-tuk driver quite openly grabbed my younger brother's crotch when our parents jumped out to enquire in a hostel - and he was about 7 years old at the time! Fortunately, he (and his big sisters) had the nous to yell out and startled the man into keeping his hands to himself. At the time we thought it was funny...

    Red Pony
    Date and time
    August 22, 2013, 9:25AM
    • It's not something that just happens overseas. It was my first massage a few years ago (at a very well known hair salon that also had beauty rooms - I'm sure if I identified the place my post wouldn't be published, but most Sydney people would be very familiar with the salon). The masseur didn't just brush my breasts, he very confidently and deliberately massaged the whole area. I was quite shocked, and felt violated, but was not sure whether this was normal massage procedure. Being in my early 20s I wasn't as confident as I am now, and not wanting to make a fuss didn't say anything. But I look back and wish to god I had, even just to prevent it happening to someone else.

      Keep your hands off
      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 8:40PM
  • No "calling out" needed.

    If something happens that you're not comfortable with, just say so. It will either stop, or it become clear that the other person won't respect your boundaries and you leave and make a big noise about it.

    Yes, you shouldn't *have* to do this, but sometimes you have to assert your rights when others try to walk over them.

    Date and time
    August 22, 2013, 9:57AM
    • Friends of mine had a similar experience at a hotel in India whilst receiving shoulder massages. It's a very uncomfortable situation but my friend was assertive and ended the massage. We complained to the management and the masseuse was sent home and I believe our Indian chaperones saw that he was fired.
      If you have the confidence to say something, do it. We have a tendency to keep these things to ourselves for fear of making a fuss, but if you are paying for a massage and something makes you uncomfortable, it's your right to protest. Men like this often take advantage of the people they think won't complain.

      Date and time
      August 22, 2013, 11:03AM
      • Happy-ending-massage-parlours serve for women too. Wow, what a revelation. Just say no, the "pressure" is not right if you're not interested. Try being a male looking for legit remedial massage.

        Date and time
        August 22, 2013, 11:43AM
        • >>Try being a male looking for legit remedial massage.<<

          Ha! A friend of mine (no, it wasn't me) went to a registered masseuse, a pleasant middle aged lady who, after giving him a therapeutic massage, did the happy ending thing. He was so taken aback that he did nothing. As I understand, registered masseuses have a zero tolerance policy for these euphemistically named "extras", but, as always, there are those that flout the policy.

          Ben C of Canberra
          Date and time
          August 22, 2013, 5:23PM
      • I have just read the above article with total horror, mouth gaping & head shaking. I am a remedial massage therapist & it makes me very upset to read the experience suffered by the author. Sadly, often it is the unpleasant experiences with massages that remain with people. The majority of massage therapists are hard working professionals & this type of behaviour does nothing to help our reputation. .

        Date and time
        August 22, 2013, 12:15PM
        • I had a similar experience once from a male masseur who continually would place his hand so that it was rest against my genitals while he was massaging my legs.

          It was thoroughly uncomfortable and I didn't enjoy the entire experience.

          I was too scared to say anything because I didn't want to come across prudeish or accuse someone of being unprofessional.

          I was livid for hours after the massage, considering I had paid $120 for a full body massage only to be sexually harassed the entire time.

          I will never go to a "walk in" massage place ever again. I now have a regular, certified massage therapist who is also male but has never once touched me inappropriately and I feel completely comfortable around him.

          Just as an FYI - I am gay so I'm not squeamish at all being touched by a man for the purposes of a massage but I don't want your hands on my balls unless I ask for them to be there, thank you.

          Date and time
          August 22, 2013, 12:26PM
          • Ewww, this happened to me a few times in Sri Lanka. Once during a massage, once on a horse ride where a boy led me around, and a few of my drivers overstepped the boundaries.

            It's so disgusting, it makes you feel violated and for the reasons mentioned above you don't know what to do. Then you feel like it was partially your own fault for not being more assertive. I can't even imagine how rape victims must feel. I think it's especially hard when you're not used to, or expecting, this kind of thing to happen.

            As a solo female western traveller they saw me as fair game. Sri Lankan culture is very traditional, 99% of the women are "good girls" who don't smoke, drink, or - heaven forbid - have sex. So the Lonely Plant warnings are often correct, due to western movies or pornos they see, western women symbolise to them all the fun things their own culture denies them. They see you as a walking pair of tits and a$$ there for enjoyment!

            By the end of the trip I felt like my confidence had been destroyed and I was suspicious of any friendliness from men. I definitely wouldn't travel to certain countries now as a solo female traveller.

            Date and time
            August 22, 2013, 12:30PM
            • Why do you go to those countries then? You have had unpleasant experiences a few times too. One is too many in my opinion.
              I have never visited Sri Lanka nor do I have a desire to but why do you feel the need to denigrate a country or a society? If I get a bad experience in one place I never EVER go there again. I would never visit an Islamic place for example or a backward society.
              You should research the place before you visit, today you have internet, you drown in information and you can chat with people who have returned from your intended destination. Enjoy your next trip unmolested.

              S Adams
              Date and time
              August 22, 2013, 1:10PM

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