A massage therapist was last week convicted of indecent assault against 14 women during massages they purchased through the voucher site GrabOne. This latest example of the abuse of power raises a number of questions. Among them: should massage therapy be impervious to regulation? Madeleine Chapman reports.
Trigger warning: the following story contains descriptions of indecent assault.
The only other spectator in courtroom nine at the Auckland District Court had yet to open her eyes. She sat alone in the front row with her hands clasped on her lap, muttering noiselessly as the jury foreman read through the verdicts for 21 counts of indecent assault laid against her husband, Rajinder Paul Singh.
Three days earlier, Judge David Sharp had addressed the jury before they began deliberating. He implored them to “not judge the complainants [for how they acted] because there’s no way of knowing how you would react in such an uncomfortable position”.
Those uncomfortable positions varied for the 14 victims, but included unwanted kissing and being touched on their exposed breasts, buttocks, inner thighs and genital area by Singh during a full body massage purchased through the discount site GrabOne.
One of the victims, Jane*, redeemed her voucher in February 2017. She’d used a massage voucher from GrabOne before, but not for Singh’s practice, Soothe Me Massage. As a quick precaution, she checked the website and saw numerous testimonials and a professional looking web design. Her internal warnings began, however, when she rang to make a booking.
“It was a guy who answered the phone. It was him,” she said in an interview with the Spinoff. “I talked to him for a couple of minutes and he was very overly familiar, disturbingly so. Asking quite personal questions.” When Jane asked who’d be performing the massage, Singh said he himself would.
On the day of her massage, Jane made a half-hearted attempt to cancel the appointment. “I was actually quite busy,” she said, “but I think subconsciously I didn’t really want to go.
“I texted him to say I’d be 30 minutes late and if I have to miss the appointment, so be it. But straight away he texted back saying he’d wait for me.”
The appointment was on a Sunday, as Singh had said he was fully booked for every Saturday she mentioned, though he “could squeeze me in on a Sunday”. But when Jane arrived, not only was the location deserted, it was barely a location at all. “There wasn’t even a sign. It was just one very isolated room behind a maths tuition place in the back of an industrial neighbourhood.” Soothe Me Massage’s website states that they aren’t open on Sundays.
So Jane followed Singh into the room and filled out an appointment form. It wasn’t until after Jane left, an hour later, that she realised that the form aside, “there was nothing else in that entryway to suggest anything to do with massage”.
‘I said that I really wanted to focus on my back, neck, shoulders, head – because I find that’s the best part of the massage.” But before he began the massage, Singh instructed Jane to take off all her clothes – including her underwear. She refused. “I haven’t had many massages,” she said, “but I know you don’t take off your knickers.
“He spent a lot of time massaging my feet and lower legs. And that’s when he was talking a lot about his massage prowess. All these famous clients and all this training he said he had, like special spiritual training. I’ll admit I did think it was a really good lower leg massage. I was thinking to myself just chill out and relax.”
Singh moved his hands from Jane’s feet up to her lower back. When he asked if Jane suffered from lower back pain, she said, yes, a little. After explaining that all the tension is actually in the buttocks, he volunteered, “I could do that massage for you if you like.” Lying near naked and face down on a table, Jane didn’t feel there was much choice.
“You can see how it’s hard to opt out of that. It just seemed easier to go with it. You’re naked, and you’re really vulnerable. So you do what it takes to keep it calm and also I didn’t want to make him feel like I didn’t trust him.” But after agreeing to the lower back massage, things became substantially more uncomfortable.
“This is a bit embarrassing to talk about, but he just really pulled my knickers up into my bum. It was really uncomfortable and when he was doing that he said, ‘next time you come for a massage, it’ll be much better if you wear a g-string. Or even better just don’t wear knickers at all’.
“And that’s when I was getting really nervous. Because around that time he was massaging my inner thigh and so close to my private parts. I was just waiting for the finger to ‘slip’ or something. That’s when I started thinking fuck, what have I got myself into. How can I run and get out of here, I’ve got no clothes on.”
Months later, when prosecutors preparing the case showed Jane what she had written on Singh’s feedback form, she was shocked to see that she’d described him as having “a safe pair of hands”. Singh had stood directly behind her, watching as she’d filled out the form following the massage. She had written whatever she thought would make him happy and felt fortunate when she got back to her car without further incident.
She was moving past the ordeal when she received an email from GrabOne telling customers not to redeem their Soothe Me Massage vouchers and to contact them if there were any concerns. Jane contacted them immediately.
“They told me it was under investigation by the police and I thought that wasn’t surprising, and good on the first women who went forward. I think their experiences were more severe than mine. For me to go to the police over my experience alone, what would I say? Would they just laugh me out of the office?”
Singh was found guilty on 20 of the 21 charges of indecent assault laid against him by 14 women. It took the jury three full days to come to a unanimous decision and just over a minute to announce the guilty verdicts while he stood in the defendant’s box, impassive. He wore a brown suit and hair tied up in a small, tight bun. Bail was denied and Singh was remanded in custody to await sentencing. His wife opened her eyes as he was led out of the courtroom. Her hands remained clasped.
It was a victory for his 14 victims but while Singh has been convicted, it does nothing to his status as a massage therapist. After all, it’s hard to remove a licence that doesn’t exist. Legally, literally anyone can practise massage. For prosecutor Kirsten Lummis, that knowledge is disturbing. “My concerns are around the lack of regulations in the industry,” she said, “and the lack of awareness by the general public.”
Many New Zealanders are operating under the false assumption that massage therapy is as regulated as any other health profession. When visiting most health practitioners, there’s a comfort in the knowledge that all staff have been trained and vetted in some way. With massage, this is not the case.
The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (HPCA) was formed to protect the health and safety of the public when seeking advice and treatment from health practitioners. Practices covered by the Act range from medicine and dentistry to physiotherapy and dietetics. Massage therapy is not regulated under HPCA. An unregulated health practice means a complete absence of oversight and enforced standards. To hold the title of physiotherapist requires a four year bachelor degree and an annual practicing certificate signed off by the Physiotherapy Board. Take two steps sideways and you can be a massage therapist in however long it takes you to set up a Facebook page saying you are.
On the companies register of New Zealand, Singh is listed multiple times as a director and shareholder, including running a tutoring business and a nail salon. There is no record of Soothe Me Massage on the register, but it shares the same listed address as Expert Maths Tuition, which Jane saw at her appointment. When approached for comment on their vetting processes for businesses, a spokesperson for GrabOne said they carry out “certain checks against legal and regulatory requirements, which obviously vary depending on the product or service offered”.
Indecent assault cases like this one are heavily predicated on whom the jury chooses to believe. For at least half of the 21 charges, Singh denied the incident occurred outright, but in some of the charges, his defence claimed any inappropriate touching was purely accidental and should be expected as part of a full body massage.
While not the entirety of his defence, there was an implication that by purchasing a massage, the women consented to being touched in all areas of their body – including their exposed breasts, buttocks and inner thighs. This stance is disputed by Teresa Karam, vice-president of Massage NZ, the self-regulating association of massage therapists. “That is definitely not the rule of thumb for a professional massage service,” she said. “It’s not a given that women should expect to be touched in those areas, definitely not.”
Massage NZ requires an NZQA qualification in massage in order to become a registered member. Singh trained at Brandon Raynor’s Massage School in Auckland where the advertised courses are a five-day certificate and a 10-day diploma, as well as Fusion Massage Training where the “advanced” course is completed in five days. This wouldn’t be enough to become a registered therapist with Massage NZ. Because of this, Karam is eager for the industry to be regulated, and the sooner the better. “It protects the client from what’s happened in this case,” she said. “It also assures the client that the person they’ve booked with is professionally qualified, knows what they’re doing, and they can therefore trust their therapist.”
While they acted swiftly and cooperated with the police investigation, GrabOne nevertheless appears to have allowed an unregistered business to advertise on their site. Had Singh been a member of Massage NZ, they’d have known he was at least self-regulated. This creates an issue for qualified massage therapists who aren’t Massage NZ members, but is perhaps a necessary precautionary step. An anonymous inquiry to GrabOne’s helpdesk about how they ensure that potential advertisers are legitimate businesses brought a response that “having a website” was a good indicator. Singh had a website. He’s now been found guilty of indecently assaulting 14 women who purchased vouchers through his GrabOne ad.
The relationship between a massage therapist and their client is one built on trust. With the intimacy of skin on skin contact comes the responsibility to make your client feel safe in their environment. For Jane, the opposite was true. There were causes for unease before she’d even set foot in the office, but she didn’t want to make a scene. “I probably would’ve just parked in the carpark, looked at [the building] and then driven away,” she said. “But he came out the door as soon as I parked.”
Massage therapy is not included in the HPCA because it is considered “low risk”. Meaning if something goes wrong, there is a low risk to the patient’s health. Putting aside the instances where a bad massage could seriously injure a person, the HPCA doesn’t account for the vulnerable position that clients are in every time they lay down on a massage table. Walking out in the middle of a bad haircut is hard. Walking out of a massage in which you are naked, vulnerable, and feel violated is much harder. For Jane, there was no attempt to leave, even as Singh touched areas she was uncomfortable with. “I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I felt like the safest thing to do was just to shut up and deal with it.”
Because of its essentially unregulated nature, there is no governing board in the massage industry to determine what is and isn’t appropriate for a therapist, nor to discipline those who practice massage in a way that makes patients feel unsafe and brings the profession into disrepute. There are any number of qualified massage therapists in New Zealand, and associations like Massage NZ work to provide guidelines and quality control in the industry, but registration isn’t compulsory and guidelines are just that, nothing more. A Massage NZ therapist may be barred from the association for inappropriate conduct but that would not prevent them from continuing to practise massage independently.
Massage NZ also requires therapists to have a clean criminal record to join alongside their qualification which, for Karam, is “not much to ask when you think of how vulnerable clients are when they come into our care”. There’s no reason why someone with a conviction can’t earn a living and there are plenty of industries in which that would be appropriate. But it would seem a given that anyone convicted of crimes of a sexual nature should not be allowed to work in an industry that requires skin-on-skin touch and the level of intimacy that massage therapy often does. Singh may choose never to practice massage again but that would be his choice, not a restriction.
When Jane and 13 other women purchased a GrabOne voucher for a massage, they just wanted a treat. Instead they were assaulted by a man who was, and still is, well within his legal rights to practise massage therapy. As far as Jane is concerned, that needs to change before more women and men fall victim to those exploiting the lack of regulation in the massage industry. And if things won’t change, she at least wants awareness.
“People need to know that if they sign up for a massage they do it at their own peril. I won’t be doing it again.”
*name has been changed
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