Confronting the taboos of Sex in the Spa Industry


Ever since Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator a few weeks ago, the dominos have continued to fall. It seems like every day or two another famous person is being called out for their own past offences. It’s obviously a problem that’s been around for a long time. But Hollywood has chosen to just put their collective heads in the sand. If they didn’t speak of it, they could just go on believing it’s not happening.

So, it got me thinking about our own industry. How exposed are our staff to sexual harassment from the client? How can we best protect them? And in terms of the perceptions and realities of sex in our industry, how much are our collective heads buried in the sand?

Regardless of how hard we in this industry want to shake the image of spas as a place for ‘hanky panky’ or ‘extra services’ or whatever euphemism you’d like to use for sex, it still persists. And I think it probably will for a long time. At least as long as spas offer a service where the customer is required to strip naked, or near-to-naked, and then be stroked, rubbed and massaged by another person.

A massage is an intimate experience. There’s simply no escaping that. It can also at times be quite a sensual experience. That kind of intimate, sensual experience is arguably a big part of why spas have worked in hotels. It’s part of the overall indulgence factor offered by hotel spas – but not in a bad way. The challenge with this is that it is a small step from intimate and sensual to sexual. There is a line but it is a fine one. And depending on your perspective, it can also be a blurry one.

Then how can you, as the hotel or as the management, deal with this issue of sex and the spa?

No Sex Allowed

The most critical thing to do is make it very clear that your treatments and your spa are strictly non-sexual. I’ve actually seen signs to that effect in some spas I’ve been to. Though admittedly these have been in day spas, not hotel spas. It’s interesting to me that I’ve never seen a hotel adopt a similar approach. I think this is because they are worried that just the mere mention of the word sex in the spa is going to create negative connotations. The attitude seems to be one of if we don’t acknowledge it, then it never happens. (Sound familiar?)

Whether or not a No Sex Allowed sign in the spa would solve the problem is debatable. It’s probably a mute point anyway as I just don’t see many, if any, hotels making this statement. Some hotels may be ok with a more discrete notice. Something like perhaps a line or two under the Spa Etiquette section of the spa menu. But even then, who ever reads the fine print? It probably will not solve the problem of the guest who comes down to the spa expecting a little bit extra.

Peek a Boo

In some countries where the government authorities have stepped in, worried about what may happen behind the closed doors of a spa treatment room, they have enacted laws that demand there is a window panel in the door. This way both the management and the government inspectors can come along at any time to ensure there is no ‘hank panky’ going on. Needless to say, most guests aren’t comfortable with this. Even if they have no intention of being naughty in that room, they still want their privacy.

Protection Protocols

I don’t believe that we will ever be able to fully eradicate the problem. There will always be some clients expecting and requesting sexual services in the spa. Therefore, what we need to do is make sure we have systems and procedures in place to deal with these issues when they eventually occur. The most critical of these involve training your therapists to know how to handle the situation.

Sometimes the client may come right out and ask for something sexual. Possibly even at the reception, before they even get to the treatment room. In these cases, the procedure is very simple. Your staff just need to politely inform them that you don’t offer those types of services in your spa. In many cases like this, if the client is up front with the question from the beginning, being told they can’t get that service at your spa, will mean they don’t want a treatment there anymore. And if they do agree to continue with the treatment, there’s a good chance there will be no issues. They have asked, they’ve been told no, they understood and accepted it and so instead settled for a nice massage instead.

However, the scenario described above is not the norm when it comes to this kind of thing. Much more common is the scenario where once the treatment begins the client gets a bit promiscuous and grabby and touchy with the therapist. This behaviour is usually accompanied by the ask. “If you can just do XXX to me, I’ll pay you extra. “ or “How much would cost for you to do XXX to me?”. In this situation, your therapists simply must be educated and empowered to control the situation.

First and Final Warning

I’m an advocate of the First and Final Warning policy myself. ‘I’m sorry sir, but we don’t offer that here. If you continue to ask, I will stop the treatment and leave the room.’ I know some spas prefer their therapist to inform the client that the manager will also be called if they continue. However, I believe this adds an unnecessary element of threat to the situation. You never know how some people will react when threatened like this. So, rather than add any extra element of risk to the situation, just the promise of the therapist leaving the room should be enough.

Once the therapist has left the treatment room, they should immediately report the incident to their manager. Assuming the client is still in the treatment room, which often he will be because he’s probably still in shock that the therapist actually did what she said she would and left the room, the manager should then go to the client and inform them that their treatment is over. The manager should ask the client to leave the spa and advised that the spa will not accept any future bookings for him.

That last point is sometimes a contentious issue for the hotel management team. They don’t like to say no never. Instead, they tend to draw comparisons to a guest who has had a few too many drinks and gets kicked out of the lobby bar. It’s not really their normal behaviour. They just did it because they were drunk. Usually, however, this is not the case with sexual advances in the spa. Chances are if they do it once, they’ll do it again.

Naughty Staff

So far, we’ve been focussed on the naughty guest. But what about the naughty staff member? It would be naive to assume that all therapists will refuse such sexual advances. Indeed, in some cases it may even be the therapist who is encouraging such advances and effectively offering these ‘extra services’ to your guests. And unless the guest reports it to the spa manager or the hotel management, they may never know about it.

Mystery Guest programs are often used in hotels to test and monitor service and performance when the bosses aren’t looking. Many spas do the same. But I have never heard of spa Mystery Guest inspection report that includes propositioning the spa therapist, to check if they are performing ‘extra services’.  I’m not sure they could, even if they wanted to. Think about it, if you as the management, bring in a Mystery Guest and part of their brief is to find out if your therapist is being naughty, you are infact responsible for that sexual harassment. Of course, your Mystery Guest can definitely report on it if it was the therapist who approached them for ‘extra services’, but that of course is the exception.

Usually it is the guest making the ask, rather than the therapist making the offer. The law, of course, differs from country to country. But even if you had reports from guests about a certain therapist offering ‘extra services’ to them and wanted to get proof, I don’t think any country’s laws would allow you to subject a staff member to sexual harassment just to prove their sexual harassment.

Like I said earlier, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to fully remove the connection between sex and spas. At least in some people’s minds. But one thing I am sure of, if we just stick our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t happen, that’s just not smart in the long term.