How A Massive Spa Chain Systematically Ignored 180 Women's Sexual Assault Reports

by Morgan Brinlee
Diane Macdonald/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

More than 180 women have reported being sexually assaulted while receiving what was supposed to be a relaxing and rejuvenating massage at one of the nation's largest spa franchises, according to an investigative report from BuzzFeed News. Women reported being sexually assaulted at Massage Envy locations across the country, and according to BuzzFeed's investigation, the company often failed to adequately respond to clients' reports of sexual assault.

Although Massage Envy tells Bustle they cannot comment on open legal cases, the company said each of the incidents were heartbreaking for it and the franchisees operating Massage Envy locations.

"With over 15 years and 125 million massages, even one incident is too many," the company says in a statement sent to Bustle.

That's why we will never stop reinforcing to our franchisees the importance of a safe environment. It's why we are constantly listening, learning and looking at how we can do more, including how we support franchised locations with best practices in handling these incidents and supporting their clients.

As allegations of sexual harassment and assault levied against high-profile men have brought increased attention to the issue, multiple women came forward to share disturbing stories of being sexually assaulted by massage therapists at various Massage Envy locations. The investigation by BuzzFeed reporter Katie J.M. Baker found "more than 180 people have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees, and the national company."

Although Massage Envy declined to respond "point-by-point" to BuzzFeed's questions, the company's general counsel told the website that they used the "most stringent, rigorous policies" when screening, hiring, and training therapist candidates. Melanie Hansen, the Massage Envy Franchise general counsel, told BuzzFeed:

We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it.

While 180 people might seem like a small number when you consider that the company has 1,170 franchised locations nationwide, BuzzFeed noted that the number of sexual assault incidents could actually be higher:

Lawyers for aggrieved spa clients told BuzzFeed News that there are more cases where women report abuse by massage therapists to police but no arrest is made, and that Massage Envy spas sometimes offer a settlement before a suit is filed, leaving no public record.

In late October, Danielle Dick, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, penned a powerful public blog post detailing her experience at her local Massage Envy in Richmond, Virginia. "I'll spare you the horrible details of those 90 minutes [at] MassageEnvy," Dick wrote in a Medium blog post, "but in the end I found myself with a masseuse's hand around my throat, and then face down with his hand covering my mouth while he violated me."

But Dick's ordeal didn't end with the massage. Dick claims that when she reported the assault to Massage Envy immediately following the incident, the manager on duty refused to call the police or allow her to speak with the location's general manager. Instead, Dick wrote that she was told the company "would handle it internally"; the manager then offered to waive the company's penalty fee if she wanted to cancel her membership.

Dick wrote that she "never heard from anyone at Massage Envy ever again" — not during 11 months of court proceedings that followed her reporting the assault to police; not after her massage therapist was convicted of felony sexual assault and sentenced to time in prison.

It wasn't until Dick went public with her allegations and complaints at the end of October that she reportedly heard from Massage Envy. According to Dick, the company responded to her blog post and a petition she started by threatening her with legal action for making her story public. In a statement to Richmond TV station WTVR, Massage Envy said they were "deeply concerned" and had "reached out to Ms. Dick, through her counsel, to continue to listen to and better understand her concerns and ideas."

But as Dick herself notes, her story is not an isolated incident. In September, a D.C. Superior Court judge denied bond to a former massage therapist who was charged with sexually assaulting two clients at Massage Envy locations in northwest D.C. and Maryland. In that case, a woman has filed a $25 million lawsuit against Massage Envy over accusations that the company attempted to cover up sexual assault allegations — Massage Envy management was reportedly aware of complaints and allegations against that therapist, and yet continued to allow him to work.

Since the lawsuit was filed, two other women have come forward with additional allegations of sexual assault against the same message therapist. One of those women told D.C. TV station WRC that when she reported her June assault to Massage Envy management, they told her the situation had been handled and that the therapist had been transferred to another location in D.C. The company also reportedly refused to allow the woman to cancel her membership, and instead offered her a free spa day.

In late August, that same therapist allegedly sexually assaulted another woman while working at the D.C. location. According to court documents, the client reported the incident to management at that Massage Envy location. Despite that report, the massage therapist continued to see clients for at least another week, during which he allegedly assaulted the woman who initially filed the lawsuit.

Earlier this month, a woman alleged she had been groped by her massage therapist during a visit to a Massage Envy in Wellington, Florida, local NBC affiliate WBBH reported. The woman claimed the company was slow to respond to her complaint and, in the end, offered her free massages.

In 2016, a former Massage Envy therapist had pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting nine women while employed for less than a year at a franchise location in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to six and a half to 13 years in prison.

Part of the issue may lie in the reported lack of guidance and training that Massage Envy passes on to its franchise owners regarding sexual assault complaints. According to Buzzfeed, although the company instructs its franchise owners to conduct "prompt, fair, and thorough" investigations into clients' claims of sexual assault, it fails to provide significant guidance for how those investigations should work.

But some women are seeking to hold the company accountable. Susan Ingram, a woman who reported being sexually assaulted in May 2015 at a Massage Envy franchise location in West Chester, Pennsylvania, has filed a lawsuit against Massage Envy. That case is expected to go to trial in January, according to BuzzFeed.

Ingram has also worked to help Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Pat Meehan introduce federal legislation to Congress that would require massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to police; the Duty to Report Sexual Assault Act of 2016 was introduced into the House last July. Ingram told BuzzFeed she hopes the legislation "will protect women when billion-dollar companies like Massage Envy fail to do the right thing."