How to get a massage when you don't like to be touched?
September 14, 2016 3:59 AM   Subscribe

I would like to begin receiving massages for self care purposes but due to childhood sexual abuse I'm extremely sensitive around physical contact, particularly from strangers. I am located in Brisbane, QLD Australia and wondering if anyone has any insights on local services in the area or even just information and guidance on how to go through this process after experiencing sexual abuse.

I work in the human services field which often involves long hours and lots of vicarious trauma. Self care is a crucial part of my work and for many of my collegues this involves receiving regular massages. I think I am getting to a point where I would like to give it a try but due to past childhood sexual abuse, I am extremely cautious around being touched, to the point where, at the age of 26 I have been unable to engage in a sexual relationship with another person because of this.

I am seeing a psychologist who is lovely, I would be happy to bring this up with her if necessary but I thought that there may be some mefi's who could share some insights.

I think what I looking for is information on how to go about accessing this type of service after sexual abuse, any referrals to services within Brisbane that are trauma sensitive and information on what to look out for in determining which service to access. It would also be nice to hear any feedback from people who have had similar concerns and have had a positive experience once going through with it.

Possibly relevant info: I am female, I am able to pay for services, I do not have any friends that work within the massage field, I don't believe any kind of self-massage would be effective at this time, I also see a GP regularly who is lovely and helpful.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am seeing a psychologist who is lovely, I would be happy to bring this up with her if necessary but I thought that there may be some mefi's who could share some insights.

Is there a reason you haven't brought it up?
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:53 AM on September 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Have you considered a Thai massage? I know you're stating the aversion is about being touched, but would it make a difference if you're fully clothed, in a common area walled off by curtains (i.e., not behind closed doors alone with a stranger) and worked on by a woman?

It's been a couple years since I lived in Brisbane, but I visited Ling Ling Thai Massage in Fortitude Valley twice and was pretty happy with the massages I got. Thai massage is more about bending and pulling than it is about rubbing, and because you're doing it fully clothed (in long sleeve/long pants pajamas they give you to wear), there's nothing that felt remotely sexualized about the experience. Hell, those tiny ladies took this 100 kilo dude and kicked his sorry ass all over that massage table with all the bending and pulling, but damned if it didn't feel good.

Apologies if this doesn't fit the bill...
posted by GamblingBlues at 5:01 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know if massages are an effective form of self care for you since they generate stress, rather than alleviating it. Self care is supposed to be pleasant! But if you're interested in becoming more comfortable with touch and massage, would small steps help? A pedicure with a leg massage for example, which is public and you could bring a friend? Potentially moving on to fully clothed chair massages?
posted by metasarah at 5:02 AM on September 14, 2016 [18 favorites]

Someone close to me had a similar difficulty with touch after abuse. This might sound weird, but how about a manicure with arm massage (or pedicure with leg massage) as a start? It helped my loved one to receive touch with clear boundaries and expectations. If you can go somewhere decently high-end, where you'll have some privacy and a bit more time, it could be a gentle entry point into physical touch as self-care.
posted by third word on a random page at 5:03 AM on September 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

It might be easier for you to start out with chair massage (seated, fully-clothed) until you get more comfortable with a particular provider and the idea of being touched.

You could also consider asking a trusted friend to be in the same room (they can sit in the corner and read a book or something) for the first few sessions, until you feel comfortable and safe with the person providing the massage. I know I'd be happy to do something like this for a friend.
posted by belladonna at 5:21 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

My daughter-in-law used to work at a massage therapy school in the US. I got massages several times from students there. The reduced rate was great, as were the massages. There was always a teacher in the room so I was never alone with the student-therapist.

Consider sending an email to one of your local massage schools (here's one) asking if they have special services for trauma survivors, or if they could recommend a massage therapist who specializes in working with people like yourself. You don't have to give any details, you can even create a throwaway email.

Also, do you have any pets? I am not much of an animal person but I know that some people feel soothed when they touch their pets.
posted by mareli at 6:02 AM on September 14, 2016

Have you considered yoga? Its not a massage but it can certainly relieve stress related tension from your body and no one has to touch you.
posted by deadwater at 6:10 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate - HATE HATE HATE - being touched by strangers, and the thought of getting a massage makes me break out in a cold sweat. I do, however, adore getting facials, pedicures and having my hair washed by someone else. I think that's because head/face/feet are less 'charged' parts of the body, and because I'm fully clothed.

So I agree with Metasarah, maybe getting a massage isn't the best for self-care purposes right now. But you could start by getting a facial, a blow out or a pedicure. You could also try exercise classes with an emphasis on flexibility - restorative yoga might be a good shout?
posted by nerdfish at 6:31 AM on September 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Agree that getting a nice manicure or pedicure could start you on this path in a less charged way. You're wearing your own clothes, sitting in a chair across from the service provider, in an area of the salon/spa where other people are having services or are walking through, so it doesn't feel as intimate.

Typically you'd look for something called a "spa pedicure/manicure", where the "spa" (or other adjective/modifier) indicates a fancier (and slightly more expensive) version that includes extra lotions/masques/heated towel wraps/light massaging of your calves/ankles/feet or forearms/hands. I've gotten pedicures where they have you sit in massage chairs, which can also be nice.

Honestly, I don't have your background, but I'm not a fan of massages at all. But a good pedicure (with some of the above options) feels great to me.
posted by msbubbaclees at 7:12 AM on September 14, 2016

If massage stresses you out I can't understand why you think you should do it. There is lots of self care that doesn't involve doing something that makes you tense. Many people don't like massages.

I do think a gentle stretching or yoga class as suggested above might be a good alternative.

Any place you go, make sure there's no language barrier. You don't want to be stuck trying to communicate that you're uncomfortable and not being able to.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:49 AM on September 14, 2016

Agree with starting with something like yoga or Thai massage, which is sort of like having someone else perform yoga using your limbs. Both of those involve way more active participation than a regular massage and are done fully clothed in a well-lit space.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:54 AM on September 14, 2016

Also remember that if you do proceed to more traditional massage, you absolutely have the right to, and should, tell the RMT at any time if you are feeling uncomfortable. You are in complete control of what happens. This includes: whether/how far you disrobe (you will always be covered with a sheet regardless), what is done, whether she alerts you to what she is about to do, whether there is music, whether she talks to you at all.

You do not have to bear any discomfort during massage to prove anything or to avoid "inconveniencing" the massage therapist. She is there to help you, not to retraumatize you. Her goal is to make you feel safe and relaxed, so she needs to hear from you if something she is doing is making you feel otherwise.
posted by praemunire at 10:06 AM on September 14, 2016

Would it be helpful to try something else, like a pilates or a stretching class? Although, you should be aware that occasionally instructors in such classes might touch you to say "focus you energy here". Good instructors will ask first before touching you, but you can tell the instructor before class "I don't know what your practice is but I prefer not to be touched during class".
posted by vignettist at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2016

Hot tubs might be a good alternative form of self-care in the meantime. Unlike yoga, hot tubs are don't require any effort on your part, which can sometimes be a plus if you are exhausted. I have especially appreciated communal hot tubs that are women-only, if you can find one.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:39 AM on September 14, 2016

It's smart to be cautious about this. I think full-body massages can be triggering for many people even those who have never been abused or assaulted. We just don't have strangers touching our thighs/butts typically!

1. Try a shoulder and neck massage to start, instead of back/full body, and ask your massage therapist to stay above the waist. (Or a foot massage, and stay below the knee.)
2. You can request only a female masseuse, if your abuser was male/you think this would help.
posted by amaire at 11:54 AM on September 14, 2016

Have you considered energy balancing? It is pretty woo but the best massage I ever received was by a man who never touched me. He had some magic going on. I also remained dressed.
posted by cairnoflore at 1:09 PM on September 14, 2016

I can't answer the specific question, but I just wanted to say I think a lot of folks are not answering the question here-OP wasn't asking if we think this is a good idea, and I'd love folks to trust her to know her body and believe her when she says this is what she wants to try.

Ok, carry on :)
posted by purenitrous at 1:16 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a survivor of CSA and have been going to get massages weekly for the last year. The therapist I was seeing told me she thought that massage would be more helpful than talk therapy for me.

Prior to weekly massages, I had a really strong aversion to touch and didn't even like to be hugged by family or friends. I ruined several relationships by not wanting to be touched or cuddle or even hold hands. Made me want to crawl out of my skin. The work I did in talk therapy combined with the continued bodywork has really changed how I feel about being touched. Although, I do occasionally struggle with dissociating when I'm having a bad day.

Before therapy and massages, I had gone to a chiropractor. It took me awhile to adjust to being touched (with clothes on) by a stranger and I was very jumpy. But, I kept going. My mistake there was not asking the chiropractor to warn me when she was going to touch me. Now that I've been going for awhile, I'm way more relaxed.

I think starting small is the way to go. Go get a chair massage and tell the masseuse that they need to tell you what they are doing "I'm going to massage your shoulders now" type of thing. Go get a pedicure that includes foot massage. If you get comfortable with that kind of touch, maybe then get a massage. But, go slow and speak up for yourself (which is hard, but doable).
posted by BooneTheCowboyToy at 1:35 PM on September 14, 2016

I think the leap from "I don't like to be touched" to "I would like a full-body massage from a stranger" is unnecessarily vast. My local spa/beauty place offers very part-specific massages including head massage, hand massage and foot massage. No removal of clothing is required beyond rolling up pants legs. The seated position is much less (fill in the blank) than laying prone.

I would start with one of those.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:52 PM on September 14, 2016

I really hate being touched by strangers as well, and have similar concerns. Could you possibly get a massage from a non-professional masseuse friend?

My chiropracter used a massaging pad on me, the kind that is electronic and massages by itself without the chiro having to touch me. I really enjoyed that. Maybe you could call around and see if any massage therapists or chiropractors use those in their practice and request just that?

Other things that may work for you are the massaging chair covers, you can get some pretty quality ones that do a good job. Something like this? I have also found slightly strange looking but very comfortable massaging boot type things, you put your feet in and it massages your feet and calves, some have heat as well. I tried this in store at Bed Bath and Beyond and it was pricey but amazing.

At a certain point, you have to ask yourself if you are getting anything positive from trying to learn to enjoy being touched by strangers. It's great that you are trying, but also give yourself permission to stop trying if you need to.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 2:58 PM on September 14, 2016

From the OP:
Whilst I appreciate the feedback, I really couldn't agree with purenitrous's comment more. I don't really wish to be told that this is not a good idea or questioned as to why I should do it, I am looking for information on how to make this process possibly easier or services that are specialized within trauma approaches. Perhaps if it is very confusing for you as to why I am choosing to do this you can keep that thought in your own mind instead of putting it here. Thanks again
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:22 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a licensed massage therapist in the US.

I don't have any personal experience with this site, but here's a search engine for massage in Australia: You can search by modality and location. Some of the entries have contact info so you can ask before you book whether someone has experience with your concerns.

You might look at therapists who specialize in cancer/palliative care, as they are used to being very attuned to the subtleties of how a client is feeling.

FWIW, I have worked on some clients who have sexual abuse in their past and who only wanted a female therapist. It's not an uncommon concern, and it doesn't have to stop people from receiving massage.

You get to decide what areas of the body are worked on, and starting with less intimate-feeling areas like the hands or scalp is a good suggestion. So is asking the therapist to provide comments about what they are about to do. I do that anyway with new clients, but not everyone does.

You want a therapist who has years of experience. Going to a massage school, as has been suggested, is not a good idea. You'd be receiving a massage from someone who is brand new, may not yet be solid at secure draping, and who will be preoccupied by doing the basics, and have nothing left over to focus on your concerns.

Good luck!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 7:05 PM on September 14, 2016

I don't have experience with abuse/assault, but I am very particular about physical contact. I've found that basically chemistry makes a difference. I hated a particular chiropractor touching me, then really bonded with an acupuncturist, then found a massage therapist that I like didn't....exactly...hate. Ultimately, I think you should try different people if you have the like psychic stamina.
posted by mchorn at 7:21 PM on September 14, 2016

There are bodywork educators who specialize in working with underserved and traumatized populations. They cross a variety of fields (beauty, skincare, massage, healing, naturopathy, sex education, intimacy work, wellness cooperatives, counseling) and are more likely to be sensitive to your needs. Try keywords like: queer, trans, body positive, palliative, trauma survivor, sexological bodywork, somatic therapy, intimacy coach, chinese medicine.

^ I linked you to a few of my friends, good examples from the States

Have you considered booking a cuddle companion or sex worker? They are uniquely trained to negotiate touch safely and consensually. You can learn how to engage at your own pace... clothes on or off... ask first, every time... no pressure or rush. It doesn't have to be sexual touch. More like exposure therapy.

Or do you have a trusted friend who can help? Like, "Hey Betty, can you touch me on my wrist for three seconds. How about five seconds on my elbow with a cupped hand?"

Definitely talk with your counselor. She should be able to offer you progressive exercises. Long term work is crucial in engaging with your body in a meaningful way.

I also recommend "Come as You Are" by Emily Nagoski.

Our culture has a very strange separation of "sexual touch" from "non-sexual touch." But that divide is more nebulous than we like to admit. Intimacy lives in brain AND skin. Explore the whole range! Stop for a minute: think of every type of touch you know. It's a big list! Start where you can. What do you think you might like most? Experiment gently and note your responses. Good luck!
posted by fritillary at 1:44 AM on September 15, 2016

Specific recommendation for a business that focuses on sports massage. I have gone to a company called No More Knots on the southside of Brisbane for over 5 years now. While I cannot speak to your direct experience, I am sure they will cater for clothes-on massages. They also are really good at talking through what they are working on and describe your muscles in a very clinical, knowledgeable way. They have SO many therapists, I wouldn't be surprised if they have people who specialise in working through people averse to close touch.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:06 AM on September 15, 2016

I agree with the recommendation of a sports massage, which I've found to be much more matter-of-fact and 'medical', which works for me.

As a survivor I also don't always feel comfortable with strangers touching me, or men. I have also 'pushed through', and said 'I don't mind' when asked if I prefer a male or female massage therapist. I am not sure why I would do this to myself.

I also do yoga which I love, but occasionally yoga instructors (in the UK) ask people to do partner work which involves strangers touching each other.

Thanks for asking this question, and good luck - I hope you find something that works for you.
posted by mgrrl at 3:18 AM on September 17, 2016

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