What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Fun fact: For a brief period out of college, I worked in spas1. Not as a massage therapist, the term generally preferred over “masseuse/masseur” for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, but as a receptionist. It was my job to be bright and perky in the office (I know, I find it funny too), field calls from clients, and book them into our complex and arcane schedule. Keep in mind that at one point I worked for two spas at the same time, each of which had a different scheduling system, which added an element of excitement to the proceedings.
And one of the most frequent requests we got from clients of all genders was “Please book me with a female massage therapist.” It’s a common enough request that at most spas, clients are specifically asked at the time of booking, to make sure there isn’t an awkward situation later, as once happened to me when a mother booked a massage for her 12-year-old daughter, didn’t tell me her daughter was underage, and didn’t express any concerns when I told her the best available therapist was “Craig.” When the mother/daughter pair arrived, “Craig” was understandably nervous about being alone in a room with a naked 12-year-old girl for an hour and we had to do some last-minute schedule juggling.
And by asking the question, of course, the spa immediately sets up a dilemma for the client. Clients might feel like the receptionist is silently judging them for being discriminatory or trying to imply that a massage is sexual, for example, or might never have actually thought about it before being asked. Many spas say, “Would you prefer a male or female therapist,” which sets up the decision as a binary with no third option; I usually said, “Do you have a gender preference?” A lot of clients responded to that with, “No,” because they didn’t feel pressured to pick one or the other.
The gender issue was a scheduling nightmare, because often we’d have a situation where the four to six female therapists on call were booked solid, and the one dude had nothing. And was understandably pretty pissed about it. Especially since he was often very, very good at his work, and was skilled in a number of different kinds of bodywork specifically because he was aware of the prejudice against male massage therapists, so he wanted to be sure to have a range of options for his clients.
Only one male therapist at either of the spas I worked for managed to build up anything resembling a client base; he had specialized training in lymphatic drainage and working with fibromyalgia patients, and had a very loyal following of women who would only see him. However, when I tried recommending him to clients who weren’t sure about which therapist they wanted to see, they’d all shudder and go “Ugh, I don’t want a massage from a man.”
It’s a sentiment that is extremely common in the industry.
There’s a lot of confusion and stigma surrounding massage and bodywork, not least because of the blurred lines created as a result of the fact that it involves naked people. Folks in the US in particular seem to think that nakedness=sexytimes, and get a little squirrely around massage, convinced that there’s something sexual going on. That isn’t helped by the fact that some people providing actual sexual services advertise them under the guise of massage in order to fly under the radar, while others practice legitimate sensual massage (different from therapeutic massage) and clients have difficulty distinguishing the difference between sensual and therapeutic.
It’s one reason a lot of massage therapists don’t like the terms “masseuse” and “masseur,” because they can kind of evoke an image of a steamy bathhouse with all the sexing going on and none of the massage therapy. And I mean, let’s not kid ourselves; having your body intimately touched while you’re naked can feel good, and you can’t always control the physiological responses to that. Even if you’re getting a strictly therapeutic massage and really enjoying it, you can sometimes experience some, uh, tension2.
But the goal of therapeutic massage really is to make your body feel better. To address specific muscle aches and pains, tension, knots, and other issues that make it hard for you to feel comfortable and to move. It can also provide emotional benefits; unsurprisingly, being touched by another human being can make you feel less alone, and give you an anchor of reassurance.
However, a lot of people feel really, really uncomfortable with getting massages from men. It’s hard to relax if you’re stressed out about the person putting his hands on you, but it also sucks, because male massage therapists are terrific, and are totally underutilized in the industry.
Talking with women about the issue, I’ve received varying responses when I ask about why they’re nervous about getting massage from men. Some say they’re uncomfortable with being naked around men, even with the drapes used in massage. Others fear that he’ll get turned on, or that they’ll get turned on, and that professionalism will fly out the window in a heated tangle on the sheets of the massage table, oil spattering everywhere.
Evidently some women are worried about not being sufficiently primped for a massage from a man, and, honestly, massage therapists don’t really care about shaved legs or anything else. Basically, they really appreciate it when you bathe before you come to a session, and when you make sure they’re aware of any particularly tender spots or medical conditions that might be issues. Other than that, feel free to come in schlubby yoga pants with messy hair. No one cares. I swear.
On the other hand, in a recent Sunday Styles piece, evidently some women said they preferred male therapists because they didn’t want to be judged by other women. And I can definitely understand where that comes from, because, well, there’s a lot of body talk that goes around and some of it is judgy. And I wish I could tell you that therapists never make nasty comments about the bodies of their clients, but the fact is that some do; I’ve heard them mock fat clients, clients with anatomical variations, and other people who look different. Doing some research to find a fat/trans/disability/etc-friendly therapist before booking an appointment is, sadly, a good idea.
Men, on the other hand, seem to get nervous about being naked around other men, particularly fully clothed men3; the clothed/nude dynamic can induce feelings of vulnerability. Or they think women will be gentler or more skilled, since apparently ladies are supposed to be more nurturing or something.
I tend, probably unsurprisingly, to be of the belief that the best person for the job is the person who does it the best. And four of my top five massage therapists ever have been men, because they were very good at deep tissue work, which I like, and three of them were especially skilled at handling repetitive stress injuries and working on my arms and wrists to make them less painful. Likewise, all the medical professionals I see are male; in years of interacting with docs of different genders, they’re the ones who suited my needs best, so I stayed with them. If I found women bodyworkers and clinicians I preferred, I’d just as happily work with them.
Gender is not really relevant to me because they’re doing my jobs. I don’t get edgy when Dr. Thorough is poking around in my genitalia because I’m very well aware that this isn’t an erogenous task for him; he’s a clinician who’s concerned about me as a patient. Likewise, male massage therapists aren’t ogling my tits when they ask me to turn over on the table; they’re focused on areas of tension in my body so they can work on them and, hopefully, resolve them so I’ll leave the room feeling more relaxed and calm.
The gender issue is complicated, because obviously I don’t want to force people to get massages from people they’d be uncomfortable with, since that defeats the purpose. But I do think the tendency to request female therapists reflects some embedded and outdated attitudes on the part of clients, and I’d like to find a meaningful way to fight it through outreach and education about the nature of therapeutic massage and what male therapists have to offer. Ultimately, spas are going to have to keep asking the gender question, which will keep putting clients on the spot, but hopefully they can use a neutral framing like mine instead of a binary choice. And maybe more and more clients will find themselves comfortable saying, “Whoever you think would be best for me,” rather than picking on the basis of gender.
2. The penis-equipped are at a particular disadvantage here and seem to be deeply ashamed about it. Look, people, it happens, it’s fine as long as you don't expect anyone to do anything about it, massage therapists are totally used to it, don’t worry about it, okay? Return
3. Not all, of course -– some of our male clients specifically requested male therapists because they were worried about getting turned on by female therapists. Return