Disturbing allegations for the popular spa chain, Massage Envy.
Disturbing allegations for the popular spa chain, Massage Envy. WIN-INITIATIVE / GETTY IMAGES

Massage Envy is the largest massage franchise in the world, offering a range of therapeutic massage and other spa services at locations all over the country, including here in Portland. Now, the company has a lot more on their hands than just Swedish massage techniques—a report by Buzzfeed found that 180 women have filed lawsuits and police reports alleging incidents of sexual assault. But the company refuses to deal with it.

Buzzfeed first broke the story on Sunday (content warning: it contains several graphic descriptions of sexual assault. If you want to read more about the story without those specific descriptions, go here).

The report found that Massage Envy was not only woefully unprepared to deal with these allegations, but that their response to claims of improper conduct had more to do with protecting their brand than protecting their client:

Customers have been violated in shocking ways, then seen their reports brushed aside, while offending therapists have been allowed to keep their professional standing with no consequences.

In some cases, the alleged abuser was either allowed to stay or quietly let go to practice massage elsewhere, cases were settled out of court if they came up, and employees were not trained in how deal with the serious nature of these allegations.

One woman who reported her assault to the front desk immediately after it happened got a call the next day: they were sorry she had a negative experience, and would not charge her for the massage.

Here’s more disturbing information: in most states, the article says, massage facilities have no obligation to report sexual assault to the authorities.

And Massage Envy says they aren’t liable for any sexual assaults that happen in their spas “because of the nature of the franchise agreement.”

“Spas control their own day-to-day operations, including figuring out how best to investigate inappropriate conduct,” a company rep told Buzzfeed.

And even though there are steps in place for spas and massage companies to report sexual assault and hold employees accountable for improper behavior, Massage Envy doesn’t use them.

Massage Envy Franchising doesn’t require its spas to take any of those steps. Except in the few places where local laws might demand it, the company does not compel its franchisees to notify law enforcement or to hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened. This holds true regardless of the seriousness of the allegation, even if it involves rape.

In a statement to the Washington Post, the company said they “believe that even ONE incident is too many, so we are constantly listening, learning, and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues.”

But Buzzfeed found a different story. Apparently, this has been an “open secret” among Massage Envy's corporate management, an ongoing problem for at least 15 years.

A communication guide from 2014, obtained by BuzzFeed News, directs employees facing potential crises to consider questions such as “Who is responsible?” “Can it happen again?” and “How will it affect me, my guest/members, or the clinic?”

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There’s only one question written in bold type and marked “critical”: “Could it negatively impact Massage Envy’s Spa Brand?”

One of the victims decided not only to take them to court, but to take the issue to Congress as well—and she teamed up with Congressman Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania last year to introduce bipartisan federal legislation that would require massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to the police.

She told Buzzfeed she is hoping the legislation “will protect women when billion-dollar companies like Massage Envy fail to do the right thing.”