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Creating a Safe Space

By: Nicki Iskander, RMT

When I first opened my Toronto home massage studio, I knew two things: 1) I wanted to work with women. 2) Trans women are women.

For safety purposes, I chose to only accept men that I already knew (and liked) and men who were directly referred to me by a trusted source.

Why? Ask a woman—any woman—and you’ll quickly understand. I don’t care if he’s the plumber; under no circumstances will I let a strange man into my home while I’m alone. This is not how I die. I hit the ground running with self-promotion. I chose hot pink as the main colour for my branding. My marketing messaging exclusively spoke to women, emphasizing the body positivity movement  and women’s empowerment.

I hired interior designers to give my massage room a feminine aesthetic—from soft lighting to the ornate, gold-framed mirror on the wall to the floral art piece on the ceiling (a delightful surprise when my clients turn from prone to supine). I wanted every woman to feel like a queen when she set foot in that room.

I even sourced a muscle chart labelled The Female Muscular System. Spoiler alert: It features all the same muscles as the male chart, only prettier!

I placed a sign on my front lawn that read “Massage Therapy for Women,” to make it very clear who was welcome and, just as importantly, who wasn’t.

My women-only targeting was working. Women love supporting women-owned businesses. Clients were flocking in droves and then sending their female friends. It felt to them like an invitation to be a member of an exclusive club. No Boys Allowed.

I quickly gained a reputation for being one of the go-to massage therapists in the city for women seeking size-inclusive and trans-friendly care. I had found my people, and it was an honour to serve them.

One day, I received a request for an appointment from a man. I declined the request, citing my policy of accepting men by direct referral only, and suggested a nearby clinic instead.

“I’m gay. Does that change things?” he replied.

Oddly, yes. That did change things.

While a person’s sexual orientation is none of my business, and while this piece of information should have precisely zero impact on my treatment plan as a massage therapist, it makes a big difference in one key aspect:

My safety.

With a gay man, I figured, I didn’t need to worry about him forcefully grabbing my arm during his treatment and asking me out on a date. (This has happened to me.)

Nor would I need to fear him leaving, ahem, a gift between the sheets for me to clean up afterwards. (This has happened to several of my friends.)

I took a chance and accepted him as a client without a referral source. Unsurprisingly, he was harmless and lovely. Bullet dodged.

As my practice grew in popularity, more requests like his started to appear in my inbox. I received emails from queer men and trans men looking for massages. They liked my vibe, they respected my policies, and they asked permission for entry into my home. Some of them had heartbreaking stories involving abuse at the hands of other men, or having been mistreated and misgendered by other healthcare providers. Not everyone puts the “care” in “healthcare.”

Just like me, these men didn’t feel safe being alone in a room with another man. They wanted a female massage therapist, and they hoped that therapist could be me.

But what about my women-only policy? How could I address this without offending anyone and without putting myself in harm's way?

Here’s the rub (pun intended) …Gay men are men. Trans men are men. This is indisputable.

But you know what they’re not?

A threat. At least, not statistically.

I spent nearly seven years living in the Church-Wellesley Village— the gay area of Toronto. It’s statistically the safest area of the city for women to live, because it’s largely populated by men who have no interest in touching us.

During my time there, the only catcalls I received were compliments on my outfits. I’d never felt safer in this city at night or cuter, for that matter.

I wanted to send a clear message to these men who were contacting me:

You are no less of a man because of the gender of the people you’re attracted to, or because of the gender that was assigned to you at birth. And you are welcome here in my home for the same reason that you want to see me: I feel safe in your presence.

By nature, any recipient of a massage therapy treatment is placing themselves in a vulnerable position—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Clients are expected to disrobe within minutes of meeting their therapist, to spend time alone in a darkened room with a total stranger, and to lie face down on a table while we touch them foran hour plus.

As the therapist, we’re placed in a position of power. We’re fully clothed, we’re standing above them, we may be physically stronger than them, and we’re hailed as the experts in their care. We’re in command of that room and they know it.

I had been so focused on my own safety—my comfort, my boundaries, my policies—that I had inadvertently excluded an important segment of the population who wanted what I provided:gender-affirming and size-inclusive care in a safe and calmingenvironment.

Because of the exclusive nature of my practice, I had drawn in awhole world of misfits who didn’t feel like they belonged elsewhere.Some said they’d never felt comfortable receiving a massage until they’d met me.

Queer men, trans men, non-binary people, and plus-size people of all genders deserve feelings of safety and nonjudgment in the hands of their massage therapist. We all do.

Just as I need to feel safe opening my door to them, they need to feel safe entering that door.

Today, my clientele is 95% women, with the remainder comprising people of other genders and a small handful of vetted cisgender heterosexual men. (If you don’t know what cis means, you are cis.)

And to the straight dudes who text me at 2 o’clock in the morning asking for a massage, I encourage you to contact a licensed body rub parlour instead. They’re legal here in Toronto.

Block and delete.


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