Customers in West Chester among 180 claiming sex assault at Massage Envy locations

Listen 5:04
A Massage Envy location in West Chester, Pennsylvania. (Jillian Guyette for BuzzFeed News)

A Massage Envy location in West Chester, Pennsylvania. (Jillian Guyette for BuzzFeed News)

Massage Envy, the largest chain of massage franchises in the U.S. and the world, trades on offering a relaxing spa experience without breaking the bank.

But more than 180 customers allege they were sexually assaulted during their appointments — including nine patrons at the Massage Envy location in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

BuzzFeed News reporter Katie Baker investigated the company’s response to these allegations. She sat down with NewsWorks Tonight’s Dave Heller to discuss what she found.

Interview highlights

On the lawsuit filed by Susan Ingram, who says she was sexually assaulted by an employee at the West Chester spa in May 2015:

“Massage Envy franchising does not require its spas to call the police or investigators from the state board or any other outside expert in determining what happens in these cases, and in the case of the West Chester massage therapist, within under an hour he confessed to assaulting not just Susan Ingram, but other women.

“I have the police report. He said, ‘I need help.’ It almost seemed like he was just waiting for somebody to notice that he was serially molesting women. But the manager at Massage Envy who is not specially trained to investigate crimes did not figure this out. So the lawsuit is arguing that Massage Envy franchising should be on the hook for failing to train their employees at their spas to handle these situations.”

On why Massage Envy claims it’s not liable for these incidents:

“Although Massage Envy franchising says it leads the industry when it comes to sexual assault policies, it also argues in court filings that as a franchise that sells franchise agreements rather than employs individual massage therapists, it shouldn’t be liable in client sexual assault lawsuits, and oftentimes their cases are settled under strict confidentiality clauses, so it’s difficult to know exactly what happens. But, in general, they say, ‘We can’t do more, we’re not liable, we can’t as a franchise do that much in the day-to-day operations of our spas.’”

On federal legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County in 2016 to improve the process of reporting sexual assaults in the massage industry:

“It would require employees and owners of massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to police. It would be up to the victim to decide whether to pursue charges so the victim would still have agency in that decision. But Meehan said … that having to report the assault would help victims understand their rights and their resources, and the bill would require owners to publicly display policies about preventing and responding to sexual assault.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.