Troubling Touch: Thousands of complaints against massage therapists in Florida

WSVN — When you go get a massage, you should be relaxed, but 7News has learned there are an extraordinary amount of complaints against massage therapists in Florida this year. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is on the case.

A quick search of seedy websites reveal ads for massages in South Florida, where sex is clearly a key selling point. But for those booking a massage for muscle relaxation, any attempt at a happy ending may not only be unexpected but terrifying. These two South Florida women asked we not show their faces.  

Woman 1: "I really feared for my own safety."

Woman 2: "It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience." 

Sabrina Lartz spoke to us through Skype from Florida’s West Coast. 

Sabrina Lartz: "I absolutely froze up."

All three say they were sexually battered by their therapists while getting massages. 

Woman 1: "At some point, he massaged all the way up to the top, at which point he started massaging my vagina."

Sabrina Lartz: "He slipped his hand in between my legs, and he started to stimulate me from front to back, over the top of my underwear."  

Woman 2: "He then proceeds to be between my feet and starts performing oral sex on me, and I have my hand on his head pushing him off of me."

In the last case, "he" is Michael Ster. Ster was arrested, and at trial, he claimed it was consensual.    

Michael Ster (on stand): "To make her happy. She was enjoying her massage."

That defense didn’t work. A jury found Ster guilty of sexual battery, and he was sentenced to 15 years in state prison. But not all cases end in convictions, or even arrests. 

Adam Horowitz: "Unfortunately, it’s an under-reported crime. It’s embarrassing. It’s frightening. It’s very intimate. It’s difficult to report."

Attorney Adam Horowitz’s firm represents all three women in civil lawsuits. He says victims are mostly female, and by the very nature of a massage setting, are in relaxed, vulnerable positions. 

Adam Horowitz: "Nine times out of 10, the clients will freeze and that’s their response. It’s a sort of mechanism to protect themselves. Almost like an armadillo that goes into its shell."

And Horowitz says it’s a big problem. 

Adam Horowitz: "There are an extraordinary number of incidents of sexual assaults in the massage setting."

7News has discovered 3,429 complaints against Florida massage therapists so far this year. But there is no data to indicate how many of those involved sexual misconduct.

Keith Miller: "It’s extremely taboo. It’s looked down upon. It’s scarring our profession."

Keith Miller is Vice President of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida State Massage Therapy Association. He says bad apples give good therapists a bad name. 

Keith Miller: "To touch anyone inappropriately is the biggest violation that can ever occur in our business, because it goes against everything that we stand for. We stand to promote healing, to create a mutual trust."

But when that trust is shattered, victims are left to pick up the pieces. 

Woman 1: "Someone has now stolen my trust, and I’m never going to get it back. That’s how I feel, so I’m pretty angry about that."

Sabrina Lartz: "After it happened, I was losing sleep. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I lost my appetite. I was having nightmares, when I did sleep." 

For victims, a soothing touch can become a troubling touch in an instant.

Carmel Cafiero, 7News.

IF YOU HAVE A STORY FOR CARMEL TO INVESTIGATE:

Miami-Dade: 305-627-CLUE
Broward: 954-921-CLUE
E-mail: clue@wsvn.com
You can also send a tweet to @carmelonthecase

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Verify a massage therapist’s license: 
https://appsmqa.doh.state.fl.us/irm00praes/praslist.asp

Florida Board of Massage Therapy: 
http://floridasmassagetherapy.gov/

Florida State Massage Therapy Association: 
http://www.fsmta.org/