Sexism in massage

I recently read a great article in Massage & Bodywork talking about the gender gap in massage. According to Thomas Claire, the author, approximately 70% of massage clients are female–and over 80% of massage therapists are female. It’s a bit difficult to pin down statistics, because there is no national registry of massage therapists. Claire surveyed several professional organizations of massage therapists for his figures.

For the massage and spa industry, male clientele is an untapped fount. More and more spas are designing treatments for men, and even designating men-only areas in their facilities. With the era of the metrosexual at hand, more men are interested in massage, scrubs, wraps, and other assorted spa treatments. For those intending to make money off them, this is a good thing.

But I’m interested in the gender gap for therapists. Massage is an overwhelmingly female dominated profession, emphasizing our “naturally healing” nature. A large number of therapists are feminists as well, and it’s rather ironic that they participate in an industry which promotes very sexist values. The woman-as-healer image is used by a lot of spas and massage institutes, to the detriment of therapists of both sexes.

Male therapists are a small group, brave adventurers in a female-dominated frontier. Not only do they have to deal with sexist pressure from within their industry, but they also have to deal with sexism from their clients. For some reason, massage clients usually prefer female therapists. This preference is often stated, loudly, at the time of booking–“I don’t want no man working on me!”

I feel for male therapists, and I’m getting to a point of anger over this. I’m tired of women saying in whispy voices “oh, I’d really feel more comfortable with a woman, if one is available…” and I’m tired of men saying “I don’t want a man working on my wife.” Client files are littered with “prefers female therapist,” and I have yet to work with someone who prefers a male therapist–only people who will “settle for a man if a woman isn’t available.” It saddens me to see female therapists all booked up on busy day, and male therapists without a single appointment.

So what’s the deal here?

I think there are a couple of things going on. The first is the image of women being more gentle, sensitive, and nurturing than men. Under this stereotype, women would be preferred as massage therapists. Because the spa industry is rife with images of loving female hands, female technicians administering facials, female therapists gently wrapping their clients, the average client is accustomed to the idea of a woman therapist. I rarely see men in promotional imagery for spas, unless they are receiving male-oriented treatments…from a female therapist.

With men, it seems to be a security issue. I was recently talking with a gentlemen from Spain, and he said:

“Here in America I think it is fear. Men are afraid of being touched by other men, because then they will be called homosexual. In Spain, we don’t care. We know who we are.”

The second thing is that for the uneducated, massage is tinged with sexuality. Especially in the United States, anytime there are naked people involved there must be sex. It’s really rather frustrating for those working in the massage industry, because most therapists have high ethical standards, and most certifications require ethics training. The men and women who work in the spa industry have high personal standards–to quote a male therapist I recently discussed this with:

“What really frustrates me is that people think I’m going to see them naked. At my school, we spent a lot of time on draping–I really have a unique draping technique. I never see anything inappropriate on my clients, although I have done doubles with therapists in other spas who are pretty sloppy…you can see all kinds of stuff.”

For massage therapists, your naked body is a healing challenge. The therapist wants to get to know your body, wants you to leave relaxed and released. The therapist is not interested in seeing your breasts or genitals, and engages in steps to prevent this–draping. Most therapists have partners at home, and if they were pursuing extracurricular relations, they probably wouldn’t be picking you. Not only would they be likely to lose their job, but they would strike a blow at the reputation of massage therapists as a whole. It’s unfortunate that the sex industry has been forced to use “massage” as a front, because of the Byzantine legal system. Trust me, professional spas and massage parlors offering “other services” can be easily differentiated, if that’s your concern. Of course, massage parlors usually have an all female staff, if that’s your issue.

I think there’s also an aspect of fear of the unknown, and new clients tend to prefer female therapists because they think it will be “safer.” Women, of course, are far less likely to prey on innocent massage victims! Women will stop if you ask them to! Women will respect your needs as a client, instead of riding roughshod over them like the big bad male therapist. And nothing turns a man gay like a massage from a dude. Works every time.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m a dirty hippie, so I don’t give a fig for my therapist’s sex. What I care about is the quality of their work, and whether they are a good fit for me. I’ve worked with male and female therapists and never have I felt anyone overstepping professional boundaries. Indeed, I have what a friend calls the “massage school mentality,” which means that if there’s a table and a willing therapist, my pants are off. (And so is my shirt.) Sexism is a pitiful reason to miss out on great massage, especially since many male therapists have gotten extensive training in a wide variety of modalities in an attempt to counter the sexism of their trade. Men almost always do deep tissue, for example. But many also have training in shiatsu, trigger point, polarity work, lomi lomi, accupressure, lymphatic…and are happy to incorporate their training into work with you. Working with men will probably broaden your massage horizons.

It’s a great pity that male therapists are missing out on clients by nature of their sex, and it’s a greater pity that clients are missing out on a great session by nature of their sexism. The male therapist above has a clientele of loyal women who love his work and won’t book with anybody else–and several of them only booked with him the first time because there was no woman available.

If you are considered about the ethical boundaries of your therapist, you should probably be picking a different spa, because all spas hold their therapists to the same level of professional standards. Get reviews. Ask around until you find a spa you would be comfortable in. And let the staff book you with the therapist they think will be your best match. You might find yourself encountering the perfect therapist for your needs–surely you can look beyond the matter of their sex, because it doesn’t affect their job performance.


One Reply to “Sexism in massage”

  1. I feel ya on this! Fight on! My husband is a massage therapist and it sucks when you are looking for work. You’ve summed it up very well. The homophobia, the idea that men can’t be healers or sensitive to healing, the idea that there has to be some kind of sex involved or that the therapist is looking at you or wanting a piece of you. I mean come on, get over it ladies. Male therapists DO NOT want a piece of everything they see! That is so oppressive!
    anyway, right on for writing about this!

Comments are closed.