Sunday Reflections: Stop the Massage Train, we don’t need to be asking professionals to touch one another
I often like to follow a conference tag on Twitter when I can’t attend a conference because I still tend to learn from them. I will screen shot tweets and send them to people I know who have been discussing the issue or save ideas for future consideration. This is what was happening when I was following tweets from #ASRL2018 the past few days. But then a tweet about staff development stopped me cold in my tracks:
Staff Development day presentation starting with a back massage train. #ARSL2018
— Patrick Bodily (@highfives4life) September 15, 2018
I initially thought that this tweet was about doing this activity in a staff development training at the library, but this activity happened at the conference in a session about staff development and training. A group of people who paid to go to a professional conference were asked in a professional setting to engage in a massage train. I imagine given the way that these conferences work that this was also suggested as a possible activity for a staff library training or staff development day, though I can’t guarantee that it was as I was not there.
This tweet seems to be suggesting that asking staff or conference attendees to participate in a massage train is a good idea for staff development and team building. To clarify, this would mean asking your staff or conference attendees in a professional development environment to touch others in very intimate ways. This isn’t a professional handshake, this is reaching out and massaging the person beside you. I want to state this in plain and specific terms: do not ask your staff or other professionals to touch each other or put them in a position where they may have to publicly refuse to do so.
The first thing I want you to understand about this is that light, playful massage is often a grooming behavior of sexual harassers, assaulter and predators. Massage and “playful tickling” are chosen because it helps to break down barriers and it’s hard to accuse someone of assault when it can easily be dismissed as “a light massage”. If you Google Harvey Weinstein and the word massage, you will find stories that highlight the ways in which massage is used in workplace sexual harassment cases. You’ll find more of the same if you Google the words massage and grooming. This is a very common practice among sexual harassers and it should never be encouraged in the workplace, especially in the year 2018.A large number of woman have had to find ways to prevent themselves from being “massaged” by the skeevy coworker who wants to expert power over them and wants to touch them without their permission. There are very real reasons why massage is often the touch of choice and it behooves us all to spend some time researching why that is.
Let’s flip the script. Imagine you are that pervy person who is always looking for a reason to touch other people and now you’ve just been handed a buffet. What’s more, you have reinforced their belief that this is normal and acceptable behavior and fed into the foundational beliefs of a serial harasser or abuser. You have normalized what should not be normalized behavior. You are now complicit in this person’s ongoing harassment of their coworkers.
Many of our staff members and conference attendees are themselves sexual violence survivors. If we go by the most current statistics, 1 in 4 of them are. That means that many of the people we are putting in this situation will be triggered by this activity and they now have to figure out how to deal with it. Do they publicly opt out? If they do so, how will it affect their work relationships? Imagine you are the person in the room that your coworker has just refused to let touch them when everyone else in the room had no problem doing this activity. There are so many group dynamics and ramifications happening here. It’s not a good look for anyone.
It’s important to note that this is not just about sexual violence either. Some religions and cultures have very strict rules about touching, especially touching between people of differing genders. Other people just don’t like touching people period. Others have OCD issues and serious germ phobias. There are a lot of reasons why people may not want to touch other people and it is, quite frankly, completely unnecessary for us to ask our employees to do this.
But this isn’t just about employee comfort and safety, it’s about workplace liability as well. In the year 2018 and in the midst of the #MeToo movement, any workplace who asks their staff members to engage in this type of activity, even if we are suggesting that they can opt out if they wish to, can be seen as putting staff in a harassing environment. There is no scenario in which I would ask my staff to touch each other as a part of their job or job training because I don’t want to be sued for creating a sexually hostile work environment nor do I want to appear in the press for doing so. It’s a bad look.
It was suggested in the discussion that participants can opt out or in as they wish, but we all are aware that peer pressure is a real thing as are group dynamics. Even if someone is told that they can opt out, they may not feel genuinely safe to do so because they have to measure what the true social and professional cost will be to them. There is a social and professional cost to being the staff member who refuses to participate, especially publicly, in an staff training or staff development activity. Even if management claims it is okay, we all know that it is now possible that management has now internally labelled this staff member as an outlier, someone who is not team oriented or wants to cause problems. This sets up all kinds of potential internalized bias for a staff member all because they want to protect their bodily autonomy.
I can think of very few scenarios in which we should ask our employees to touch their coworkers or fellow conference attendees, and most of them involve saving their lives. But a massage train? It’s completely unnecessary. Whatever we believe may be accomplished by this activity can be done so in another way and in a way that respects our employees bodily autonomy and keeps us safe from liability.
Don’t get me wrong, I have hugged tons of my professional peers at a conference and sometimes even at work, but this is always because the other person and I choose to engage in this activity. We have full bodily autonomy and mutual consent, it’s not being privately or publicly suggested by a person in a position of power outside of the two of us, and there is no cost to us if we refuse to do so. In a professional environment, there is little reason to ask people to touch each other. Please don’t do this.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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