How a nationwide massage franchise is dealing with hundreds of sexual assault allegations

In the midst of a national wake-up call regarding the prevalence of sexual assault, a new report highlights hundreds of allegations of such violations against a chain of massage spas. As reported by BuzzFeed, the franchise Massage Envy has faced some 180 different allegations of sexual assault from its customers.

With nearly 1,200 locations across the country, a reported 1.65 million monthly members, and a 67% grasp on the day spa market, Massage Envy is a behemoth in both the franchise industry and in strip-mall massage therapy. Even with those astounding metrics, the hundreds of allegations of sexual assault should raise more than an eyebrow. Additionally, the reporting done by BuzzFeed, and the stories from the women who have come forward, depict a company struggling to protect itself in the face of these crimes.

Despite the difference in timing and location, the women’s stories bear striking similarities. They were loyal customers — Massage Envy is based on a monthly membership model — who considered a trip to the spa a welcome respite from their busy lives. In the midst of routine appointments, the women said, they were assaulted and, when trying to report the crimes to police, found that local management was reluctant to cooperate and the parent company was reluctant to intervene.

Rather than referring reports within their spas to law enforcement, it appears the company has repeatedly attempted to deflect customers’ complaints and to dissuade them from calling the police. As one former manager explained to BuzzFeed, “[The internal review policy is] in place to protect the company. It’s centered around defusing the situation so the client doesn’t call the police. You don’t want cop cars showing up at your location the next day.”

Danielle Dick, a college professor in Virginia, is one of the numerous women who have come forward in recent months to report sexual assaults at Massage Envy. (Photo: CBS 6)

The disturbing list of assaults and the way the company has dealt with them makes one wonder if the franchise business operation — a model mostly associated with fast-food joints and dry cleaners — is well suited for a business that relies on employees laying their hands on customers’ bodies. A lawyer who has filed a number of lawsuits against Massage Envy, Adam Horowitz, points out to BuzzFeed that the massage business has built-in risks.

“Just like there was opportunity in the priesthood,” says Horowitz, “there’s opportunity in the massage room. When you get a massage, your guard is down completely. You’re not expecting to be violated.” In response, however, representatives of Massage Envy point out that all therapists undergo background checks.

It’s important to recognize that many, if not most, of these cases aren’t mere allegations. Despite the lack of cooperation from Massage Envy corporate, victims have filed charges and perpetrators of assaults have been found guilty and convicted.

In the case of Susan Ingram, a Pennsylvania woman who was assaulted in 2015, a massage therapist, James Deiter, was sentenced to up to 13 years for assaulting her and eight other women. When arrested, he reportedly admitted that he “needed help.”

While the corporate entity has never had to appear in court to face proceedings in sexual assault cases, an upcoming lawsuit brought by Susan Ingram and seven other women may change that. In an attempt to hold the company more accountable for its policies and procedures, they are taking Massage Envy to court. A trial is set for this January. “Massage Envy is a partner in crime,” says Ingram. “They had every opportunity, on multiple occasions, to remove [Deiter] from his position, and they chose not to.”

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