A few days ago, I went to a spa that I’d never visited before for a massage. When I arrived, I was given a questionnaire to fill out. Initially I thought it was just the standard spa-intake form, where you jot down your contact details and fill in any relevant medical history. When I began completing the form, I was taken aback. The questions were a pleasant surprise to me.
The first few questions were the standard fare. But as I moved on the focus shifted. The form asked if there were any body parts that I do not like touched. I was offered the option of being massaged fully clothed, partially clothed or in underwear. I could opt to be massaged through a sheet or skin-to-skin. They asked if I was sensitive to any scents, or if I disliked having my face covered. There was a section asking for specific consent to massage areas such as glutes, pectoral muscles and thighs.
When I went into the room with the masseuse, she checked that the type of oil she’d chosen was pleasing to me. She reinforced that if I felt uncomfortable at any time, we could stop. During the massage, she checked in each time I changed position and offered pillows and bolsters to make me more comfortable.
The massage was one of the most relaxing I’ve ever had. I was able to relax and let go completely because that I felt respected and cared for. It didn’t feel like a burden to ask for anything that I needed, and I felt that I could refuse anything that wasn’t working for me. I was able to trust the person who was touching my body.
After I left, I thought a lot about what a huge difference that questionnaire had made to my enjoyment of the massage. I get massages very regularly, and have done for many years. It’s surprisingly unusual to be asked if there are any spots you don’t want to be touched, or given so many options to enhance your comfort. I usually feel like I just have to go along with whatever the masseuse is doing, even if it sometimes feels uncomfortable.
I know a lot of people who refuse to get massages because they feel anxious about the process. Some of them are frightened that they will be touched in a place that is upsetting from them. Some are overwhelmed by the idea of having their skin touched by a stranger, or being naked and vulnerable. Some have chronic conditions that make it uncomfortable to lie in certain positions, or become claustrophobic if their faces are covered. It makes me sad that fear holds so many people back from accessing a service that I find so healing and nourishing.
This experience highlighted the importance of bodily autonomy. People need to have agency over their own form, and to be able to communicate their boundaries and have them respected. When we feel able to voice our needs without fear of ridicule, we can relax and enjoy ourselves. When we control how our bodies are treated, it makes it so much easier to hand that control over to another person. Bodily autonomy opens up the possibility for healing, for pleasure, for exploration and for intimacy. Conversely, if we feel unable to speak up about our boundaries, to ask for what we need and to know that they will be honoured, it makes it impossible to relax and open up.
In the context of sexuality, bodily autonomy is vital. We need to be able to ask for what we want, and to put a fence around things that are too much. We need to find ways to ensure that we respect what our partners are telling us, to make them feel safe setting those boundaries and to respect the rules that are put in place. If you want a more fulfilling, intimate sex life, you need to respect the bodily autonomy of your partners and be vocal about your own needs and desires.
It’s a huge thing to think about. I have spoken a lot about bodily autonomy before, but this experience at the spa really opened my eyes how vital it is to ensure that people feel safe and able to enjoy themselves. There are so many changes, big and small, that each of us can make in our daily lives to improve bodily autonomy and ensure that we and the people around us are able to exercise a greater degree of control over how their bodies are treated by others.