Denise Richards and her Unhappy Ending

PHOTO: Bravo, Illustration: Dillen Phelps

In Season 9, Denise Richards joined the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with a bang, and by a bang, I mean a happy ending massage. For those of you who don’t watch the show — good for yewww— here’s the backstory:

On a glamping trip, after sipping some tequila, Denise Richards announced that she had arranged for her current husband, Aaron Phypers, to get a happy ending massage. Apparently, he was the only man she had ever been with who had never had one. So she wanted him to have one. They were, as she put it, “on the hunt.”

The ladies were predictably scandalized, because nothing is going to make less sense to a bunch of middle-aged housewives than suggesting that your husband get a hand-job from another woman. They asked Denise whether she had ever had a “happy ending” herself, and she replied that yes, she had. But then she elaborated that she hadn’t planned for it to happen. She just “didn’t stop it.”

Whew. Where to begin. I guess with the obvious:

That’s not a happy ending. That’s nonconsensual sexual contact.

Many sexual assault victims don’t scream, fight, run away, or tell the person sexually assaulting them to stop. So the fact that Denise didn’t stop her doesn’t mean she liked it, wanted it, or consented to it. The fact that she seems unbothered, and in fact, volunteered the information on national television, also doesn’t make it any less problematic.

I’m not here to argue the morality of sex work, but calling a massage that ends in the client getting an orgasm a “happy ending” is just putting lipstick on a pig.

Only a few weeks ago, 8 people, most of them Asian women, were murdered at a massage parlor in Georgia by 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, who blamed his “sex addiction” for the shooting, and justified his actions by saying he was trying to remove temptation from his life. Criminalizing sex work has obviously not destroyed the demand for it. Decriminalizing sex work would make these transactions safer for everyone involved, but also remove some of the stigma that further isolates marginalized people — many of them immigrants under great economic pressure.

But Denise Richards’ story is not that she paid for sex. The story she is telling is that she was touched in a sexual manner by surprise, and that she did not stop it. That’s really, really different.

Consent makes all the difference in this story, and silence or inaction does not constitute consent.

A close friend of mine was sexually assaulted during a massage. She froze, lay there motionless, waited for it to be over, paid the guy, and left. When she told me about it that afternoon, she said:

“Something really weird happened to me today.”

I asked what, and she said that her massage had turned into a “happy ending.”

She said it like a question. “It was a happy ending?”

“A happy ending?” I repeated. “Did you call the police?”

It wasn’t until she saw my reaction, which was horror, that a man had sexually assaulted my friend, that she broke down herself. All day, she had been rationalizing the event to herself, trying to convince herself that what had happened was okay. In reality, it had been anything but okay. For an unknown period of minutes, she later told me that she had been terrifyingly paralyzed, and that she felt like she had floated outside her body. That’s called dissociation, and it’s a common coping mechanism during sexual assault, which can lead to lasting trauma.

My friend filed police charges against the man who assaulted her. He confessed over the phone in a recorded call with detectives present. He begged her not to pursue criminal charges. He also said, “none of the other women I have ever done this to have felt this way.”

The detectives on the case felt great about his confession — it was air-tight. Solid. But when the case made its way to the District Attorney, it was dismissed. The DA, an overworked woman, kindly told my friend that it’s really hard to prosecute sexual assault in a massage context, due to a loophole in the law that says you have to be able to prove sexual intent.

“If he had been a dentist,” she said, “it would be a different story.”

My friend was floored. She had gotten the massage to deal with a chronic shoulder problem. She had met with this same massage therapist multiple times before. Every time, the focus had always been her shoulder — until the day he stuck his fingers inside her vagina. She knew he had been aroused during the assault. But how was she supposed to prove it?

On her way out of the building, the police officer who was escorting her told her confidentially that she was not alone. According to lawsuits filed as recently as March 2020, more than 180 women have been sexually assaulted in Massage Envy spas across the country. My friend ended up suing out of court, and winning a financial settlement against the man who assaulted her. It was something, but it was not enough.

I think there are plenty of clues in Denise Richards’ story that point to the fact that, underneath her glib demeanor, she is not as okay with what happened to her as she would like to think.

Whatever Denise Richards personally went through with Charlie Sheen was likely traumatizing, not only while it was all happening, but also as her daughters grow up and find out about it all on the Internet. If the rest of her romantic relationships were only half as intense, it’s fair to say that Denise has been through some shit.

Second, the fact that Denise wanted her current husband to have the experience that she had was read by her cast-mates and by the general Bravo audience as a sign that she is sexually liberal. Another reading, though, is that she wanted Aaron to have the experience, in order to normalize it. That may also be why she brought it up to the women as a funny story –– because she really wants to believe that’s what it is.

Denise Richards stayed on the show for one more season. She never fully recovered from the ladies’ judgment of her happy ending story. When she got upset about her cast-mates talking about having threesomes at a dinner where her teenage daughters were present, they called her a hypocrite. After all, this was the woman who talked about her happy ending massage on TV — who was she to shield her 14-year-old daughter from explicit sexual content?

The important thing for us to take away from Denise Richards’ “happy ending” story is not that Denise Richards is a freak in the sheets — it’s that it is never, ever, okay for someone to touch your body without your consent. Not a masseuse; not a dentist – no one. Not ever.

It’s not not a Napoleon Complex.

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