Gender in the Profession
Massage from Mars or Venus?
By Karrie Osborn
When it comes to the role of gender in the massage and bodywork profession, the spectrum of issues is great. And despite all that we might do to evade the topic, gender and, subsequently, sexuality always come back to somehow factor into the equation. Whether it be the new therapist struggling to build a practice simply because he’s a man, the seasoned veteran who receives illicit calls from men at all hours because she is listed under massage in the telephone directory, or the underlying cultural current that tries to define, categorize, and typify therapists based on their anatomy, gender undoubtedly plays a role in an MT’s daily business and, like it or not, is an important factor influencing this field.
We’re all aware of the difficulties male therapists can encounter when working in this profession, and I think it’s fair to say we can all appreciate that struggle. Granted, some female therapists have been known to say, “Now they know what it feels like.” Still, at the core, we can all understand the frustration that must come when our work is dictated or judged by our gender, not our performance. So why do male therapists often struggle to build a client base or find themselves discounted from job interviews at the local spa before they’ve even listed their qualifications? Is it just about gender, or something more?
I recently asked several young women from outside the massage community the gender of their massage therapist and why they had chosen that particular therapist. The responses were interesting and varied, but each had an undertone of the bigger problem.
According to these young women, it’s absolutely about sex—and always will be. Gina, a successful business owner in Denver, Colorado, says that until recently she would only frequent female massage therapists “because I don’t want my therapist thinking about sex while they’re working on me, and if it’s a man, I know he will be.” She says when her massage needs changed in favor of something more therapeutic than relaxing, she sought a Russian-born male therapist, who, she quickly points out, is married. Between his orthopedic training and the ring on his finger, she felt “safe.” Others say that while they’re convinced their male massage therapists think about sex during the massage, it’s not enough to deter the therapeutic relationship. Either way, these young, female consumers believe men can’t take sex out of the picture, regardless how good a therapist they are. “That’s how they’re wired,” they say.
While this kind of thinking might sell our highly-skilled male MTs short, it does express an idea not unique to these women. It’s the price for being a man in the massage profession: regardless of training and experience, the difference of a single chromosome can sometimes predict career success.
Yet, men are hardly alone when it comes to sex playing a role in this profession. “As an attractive young female, you will be propositioned during your career,” says Jocelyn Olivier, founder and director of the Institute of Conscious Bodywork in Corte Madera, California. Olivier, who’s had thirty-four years of experience teaching and massaging men and women, says it’s up to each therapist to set his/her limits. “You need to realize that you are in control of what happens within each session, and drawing the boundaries is up to you.”
Olivier also reminds us that just as men have their hardwiring in place, so do women. “I think females have been taught to win approval by being sexual,” she says. “They can be eliciting the overtures they receive by the unconsciously seductive quality in their touch.” Couple that with an antiquated public perception about what massage therapists really do, and we have a sexual storm brewing just under the surface of the profession. When we read the article “Spike and the Leopard Lady” (page 42), it’s an extreme example of this strange brew and a painful reminder of the struggles this profession has faced from the beginning. And when we hear veteran therapists warn newbies about the code words (i.e., “happy endings”) some clients use in seeking out something more than therapeutic massage, it’s obvious sex is still a huge part of the consumer psyche relative to massage, regardless of the fact that Oprah has an on-site spa at her Harpo Studios or that more people than ever before are climbing on the massage table.
If the Emperor Had Clothes
In the client-therapist relationship, or any relationship with a power differential, boundaries of trust are paramount. That boundary is ever more sacred when our clothes are off. We become vulnerable without our cloth armor in place. Vulnerability is a topic best left for the psychologists, but its effect is obvious when we consider why some women seek out only female therapists.
Another aspect of that vulnerability is that women see men differently. Between poor body image and often detrimentally self-deprecating consciousness, many women are uncomfortable in their own skin. They can’t stop judging their own bodies, let alone put themselves on public display for a massage therapist, especially a man.
Does the presence or absence of clothing really make such a difference? David Palmer thinks it does, enough so that he built a business concept around the notion. Notable chair massage guru and founder of Zubio chair massage, Palmer recognized that the clothing issue was a barrier to massage decades ago.
“I have often noted that if you want to make certain that professional massage never becomes widely accepted in the Western culture, here is how it would be designed—force clients to go into a private room, behind closed doors, take off all of their clothing, lie down on a table, and allow a stranger to rub oil all over their body. With that approach, massage will never make it into the mainstream. There is only one other time when people get prone and naked behind closed doors with another person. Consequently, the subconscious, and sometimes the conscious, connection between table massage and sexuality has been unavoidable.”1
Palmer believes this connection is such a barrier that he created Zubio in 2005 to bring massage to the masses in a less intimidating fashion. His Zubio kiosk design and business model ensures that clients will be both clothed and modestly situated away from the view of passersby, while still being within earshot of the rest of the world. This chair massage concept offers a sense of privacy without the vulnerabilities associated with unclothed massage in a secluded therapy room.
Is it our Puritan genetics that has some female clients refusing to visit a male massage therapist? Or is it instead a feeling of safety and being free to “let it all hang out” that has many women booking sessions with female MTs. Being able to experience massage without inhibition, but with full intention, is what many women say draws them to female therapists—their kindred spirits. The thought of a man in the room is too distracting.
Understanding the client-therapist power differential is never more important to understand than when we talk about victims of abuse. For women who’ve been mistreated at the hands of a man, whether through physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, willingly putting themselves in a place of vulnerability with an unfamiliar man, such as in a massage session, requires a leap of faith often impossible to attempt.
Cherie Sohnen-Moe, massage business expert and coauthor of The Ethics of Touch, says we’ve got to respect these clients and give them their appropriate space. “Who knows what’s happened to these women,” she says. “Yes, it would be lovely and healing for a woman who’s been abused to receive safe touch from a man, but—and it’s a huge but—if she’s not up for that, we have to respect her wishes. If anyone is uncomfortable getting massage from a man, it’s not our job to push them through their discomfort.” Still, Sohnen-Moe says she doesn’t assume people will have a problem with a man and recommends that those in a group practice or spa setting also treat the gender of the therapist as a nonissue, until the client indicates otherwise.
Of course, not helping the sexual confusion surrounding the massage profession are the perpetual false messages. Not long ago, it was hard to look in the Yellow Pages of a telephone directory and discern the legitimate massage therapists from those merely calling themselves massage therapists. A codebook was required to figure out if the real therapist was listed under licensed massage therapist, massage therapist, or massage. Pick the wrong one and you could be calling an escort service.
It was only ten years ago that we adamantly fought that fight. Now, not to say the confusion and illusion surrounding massage doesn’t still exist, but great strides have been made. Still, new, similar challenges await. While researching the subject of gender and the massage profession, for example, I came across some seemingly legitimate sites that, on closer investigation, showed message boards filled with male therapists looking for “full-body” massage trades from other male therapists. Though I don’t assume or imply that men receiving massage from men is implicative of anything other than a healthy, therapeutic relationship, there was no mistaking the sexual intent on these sites. Why do I need to know your height, weight, and hair color to trade massage with you? While I think I can discern the legitimate from the seedy, what about the Average Joe who might stumble across the same site while searching for information on legitimate massage or where to buy a massage gift certificate for his wife?
Whether it’s the Yellow Pages or the Internet, there are still a lot of misleading messages tainting the legitimacy of the profession today. Visit any number of legitimate online MT forums and hear the laments of new female therapists who thought that placing a Yellow Pages listing would be a logical step in their business plan, only to find their phone ringing at strange hours with men seeking something more than massage. Many of these young therapists are quickly disillusioned by the sense of invasion this seediness exudes on their wholly legitimate careers.
Avoiding Sexual Pitfalls
It’s important to recognize that both female and male therapists are subjected to the kinds of abuse that can happen behind closed doors. Clients that grope, ply for a date, or drop sexual innuendos affect both male and female therapists.
Industry consultant and spa/massage educator Charles Wiltsie says therapists must establish sound frameworks to avoid the sexual pitfalls. A professional framework should include all aspects of your business; from a sexual standpoint it would include things like dressing appropriately, using words carefully so that they aren’t misconstrued, not dating clients, respecting personal boundaries (and expecting your own to be respected as well), and staying grounded in the work you’re doing.
Wiltsie says he often hears male therapists “whine that their lives will be ruined if a woman falsely accuses them.” His retort? “I say that’s the risk men take if they don’t have their framework set up right. Our female counterparts’ consequence if their framework isn’t set up correctly is to die [at the hands of a violent person].”
As far as sexual innuendo in the therapy room, there is obviously a lot at stake for either under-reading or over-reading the situation. Finding a delicate balance is really the goal. While understanding the real dangers that exist for female therapists, Sohnen-Moe reminds us that there are some very nervous clients out there, too. She says people often resort to sexual jokes or flippant comments simply because they are unnerved by the situation they are in.
“In addressing the issue, consider that while the client might have been obnoxious, they might really want the work. At that point you say, ‘Okay, if you do this again, the session will end.’ It’s about a continuum of behavior,” she says. “It’s gratifying to hear some therapists not automatically say the session is over. They address it and give the person a chance to be an honorable person.” This is especially important when it’s a young client or someone new to the concept of massage therapy. Instead of shaming clients, give them another chance to find their footing. Still, Sohnen-Moe says personal safety must come first. “I would rather err on the side of the therapist. If you really don’t feel safe, get out of there.”
Over-reading sexual cues in the massage therapy room can also create mountains of drama and maybe even a psychiatry bill or two. Which brings us to ... erections. Ten years ago, erections were typically not part of the massage therapist’s dialogue, so no wonder therapists didn’t know what to do when male clients on their tables had this physiological response. Even today, with more educators trying to help students understand that in most cases an erection is akin to a client passing gas or having ticklish toes, some therapists still respond with anger and judgement.
Sohnen-Moe reminds us that when a client gets an erection during a session, it’s really not about us. “Don’t assume that it’s personal,” she says. “Nine times out of ten, it’s a physiological response. Just to assume an erection means bad intent is not accurate.” Over her years as an educator, Sohnen-Moe says she’s talked to both male and female therapists who have been “freaked out” when a client gets an erection on the massage table. She says some of those most unnerved by it have been heterosexual men. “While you can never say never, in general, it has nothing to do with the therapist,” she says. And usually the client is just as unnerved with their body for acting out on its own. A wrong step in what a therapist says or does in response to a client’s erection could certainly turn a motivated massage client into one of those who’ll never venture onto a massage table again.
For client erections and every other sexual scenario that might present itself during massage sessions, Sohnen-Moe encourages schools to step up. “I think schools need to do more role-playing,” she says. “We can talk about it, we can read about it, but once you get the words that are comfortable for you to use, you can actually stop a situation from escalating.” Giving students a chance to act out these scenarios from different perspectives offers them insight into their own feelings, and those of the client, while giving a face to the challenges they might encounter on this sensitive subject.
When we talk about issues of gender and sexuality, Sohnen-Moe says there is a much bigger issue in play for the massage profession. “I get massage from a male therapist and he’s got this very gentle feeling about him,” she says. “I think it’s just his affect—that’s really the calling card and that gets to the root of this industry, period. A lot of younger people are going into the field and they don’t necessarily have the life experience that naturally gives them the tools for relating to people on a different level.” Sohnen-Moe says the bottom line is that what’s been lost is an appreciation for the body. “There’s a lot of worship, but there isn’t as much reverence for the human body as there used to be.” She says instead of seeing the body for the beauty that it is, she’s hearing more and more young therapists talk about their clients’ bodies in horrible ways. Instead of an appreciation for whatever presents on the massage table, therapists are focusing on the superficial and it communicates directly to the client, she says. “I hear the way people talk about their clients and it makes my skin crawl.”
All therapists need to build their relationship skills, Sohnen-Moe says, but especially men. “I think it’s the biggest reason women fail, too. There’s just not that respect for the clients anymore.” She recalls back to her own days as a massage therapist and how she looked at the body as a magnificent form. “I didn’t judge them, and they knew that.” Sohnen-Moe says she appreciated her clients and felt as if they were in partnership with her on this mission of health. The environment it created was amazing, she says. “It’s very powerful to feel totally accepted. I wish more practitioners had that sense [with their clients], because to me, I saw the changes. When people really feel that, they will change more than with any technique in the world.”
Part of that lost reverence, Wiltsie agrees, comes from new therapists coming out of school younger and younger. As a former career college program director, Wiltsie says he saw firsthand the problems being born from students entering the profession for the wrong reason. But he also saw dedicated students benefit from the federally-mandated placement program which comes as a requirement for those schools offering financial aid, and the profession benefit from a greater variety of people entering the field. As career colleges have entered the massage arena, so have the strict federal guidelines attached to financial aid and other admissions policies. Wiltsie says the field is being opened up to more and more people, and that’s a good thing for the most part. For some students, however, he says we’re just setting them up for problems.
So are schools doing a good job of giving male students all the ethical tools necessary to deal with the sexual issues they will undoubtedly face throughout their careers? “Probably not,” Olivier says. “Even if we educate to ethics, the male testosterone-based appetite will prevail and the will unconsciously seduce while working on female clients. Even if it is not acted upon, the temptation within a massage session to fantasize will affect the quality of touch experienced by females from their male practitioners. In some ways, I doubt the world will ever change—and I love men.”
Gender and Discrimination
Obviously massage therapy is not the only field dominated by women, but it’s fair to say it’s potentially one of the more lucrative options out there. While the numbers of new nurses and teachers have dwindled over the years as a result of traditionally low pay and long hours, massage therapy offers women an entrepreneurial path, where a good living on your own terms can be had. Women have dominated the profession to a point where a reverse discrimination is the experience of many male therapists.
Finding employment at a spa can be difficult for men, at best, despite the fact that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Olsen v. Marriott International held the Marriott hotel chain liable for sex discrimination after the company’s Camelback Inn Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, refused to hire a massage therapist because he was male.
“The court ruled that Marriott did not prove that being female was a bona fide occupational qualification for a certain percentage of massage therapist jobs, finding instead that the non-hiring of male massage therapists was based on customer preference,” according to Monthly Labor Review Online.2 “Such a qualification is permissible in situations where a customer’s or client’s bodily privacy interests might otherwise be compromised. The analysis in privacy-based cases has to do with whether the performance of tasks central to the employer’s mission intrudes upon the privacy rights of third parties, such as patients or clients, of the opposite sex. However, a bona fide occupational classification is not permissible on the basis of customer preferences alone. The court also stated that Marriott failed to show that there are no reasonable alternatives to a sex-based hiring practice. The court noted that, because clients are permitted to choose the sex of the massage therapist who works with them, privacy concerns are not present.”
Many who study the massage profession think that things are actually getting a little better for men when it comes to hiring opportunities. “Actually, I think it’s easier for men than it used to be, as massage is more accepted and more people are using massage services,” Olivier says. “Many clients prefer men for massage because they want a deeper pressure and they know a man can deliver it.” Sohnen-Moe says it’s not as difficult for a male therapist to find employment in today’s massage profession as it used to be. She says places like Massage Envy have opened the door for men, while chiropractic offices, sports massage centers, fitness centers, and other medical models continue to create opportunities. Wiltsie agrees, saying he would even argue that this new younger group of people entering the field are somewhat more gender blind than their older colleagues.
Snapshot of a Successful Male MT
With so many pitfalls out there, what makes a successful male therapist? North Dakota-based MT Bob Steers says he thinks he was lucky enough to find the right combination of factors at the right time. Like so many therapists, it was an injury that first brought Steers to massage as a client. He found relief from his injury under the hands of male massage therapist Kim Burkey and realized a lot about himself at the same time. “I was amazed at how much he helped me in such a short amount of time with my injury. He helped me in a psychological sense, too, by having a positive impact on my life and how I deal with stress.” A few years later, Steers saw the compassion his sister brought to their father’s final days. “My sister Dawn, who had twenty years experience as a massage therapist, came home to be with Dad while he was in hospice. She helped him through that time.”
It was both the bodywork and education he was receiving from Burkey and the compassion he saw his sister bestow on his dying father that prompted Steers to consider massage as a profession. With encouragement from his own massage therapist/mentor, Steers felt he was on the right path. “Kim said he thought I would be a great therapist. He saw how much it changed me in my recovery and the other positive changes it had brought to my life.”
Steers says six years of getting work himself was a huge educator. It’s where he learned about the value of nonsexual touch. “It helped me grow as a man,” he says, which ultimately helped him be a better therapist.
With training from Paul St. John, James Waslaski, Clint Chandler, and Aaron Mattes, Steers brings a lot to the table. Still, he believes much of his success is a result of the professional atmosphere in which he was first employed. “One of the greatest things that built my career right from the start was working for a well-known physical therapist. It had real credibility to it. From there, I was able to prove myself.” Steers says the medical atmosphere of those offices broke down a lot of the barriers that would have surely been present had he first started in private practice. That became more clear to Steers when he moved his practice from a professional building to his home five years ago. “Even though I had a steady clientele by then, I noticed an increase of women callers not wanting to book massage after they realized I worked out of my home.”
He respects those decisions, but also knows educating the public is part of his own responsibility as a male massage therapist. So when he gets career counselors asking him to talk to young people or let a young student shadow his work, Steers is delighted. It’s similar to what Burkey gave him along the way. “One of the best things we can teach is positive touch ... to show them what positive, professional touch is and how it can help people in so many aspects of their lives.”
Steers, like all the rest of the MTs out there, says he is still subjected to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink response when those outside the massage circle learn of his profession. “When I get introduced and I tell them I’m a massage therapist, the females will say, ‘I’ve got a spot right here,’ while the males say, ‘Man, you must love your job.’ You still put up with it, because it’s an opportunity to teach and help them understand the professionalism of our business.”
And giving back is what Steers believes in, just as his mentor did before him. “This whole career has made me more compassionate about people in an unconditional, loving way. It’s made me a more well-rounded man. I feel I’ve made an impression on society by what I’ve learned from this business and what I’m giving back.”
Finding Answers, Seeking Advice
With so much at stake, what advice can veterans offer their newer male colleagues when it comes to fighting the challenges of gender?
From a business perspective, Sohnen-Moe suggests male therapists carefully consider their target markets. “It’s smarter for them to look at markets where it’s easier being a man.” More physically-oriented structural practices have always been more welcoming to male therapists, for whatever reason, so use that to your advantage. She says it doesn’t mean you squash your passion or deny markets that present more interest for you, but build a well-rounded practice that offers several avenues for clients to find you. “Maybe one of your passions is an area that’s not necessarily traditional for men. Maybe you’re a man who loves working with pregnant women. I’d suggest that be one target market, but not your only one. Life is hard enough as it is—why choose your entire market to be a harder market? Instead, combine it with an easier market for men, such as sports massage or medical work.”
Sohnen-Moe recommends therapists have at least three different target markets as part of their business plan. “If you did injury rehab work every day, it would get boring. And if you only have one market, it might one day go away. Instead, have at least one market where you don’t have to spend a lot of time educating people about the benefits of massage ... a market already interested in wellness care.” Combine that, she says, with your passion—such as pregnancy massage—and a third area of your choosing. That way you’ve not given up on the work that interests you most, but you aren’t nervously waiting for the barefoot and pregnants to help pay your rent.
Aside from target markets, Sohnen-Moe says it’s important for all therapists to remember that everything they do creates and influences the massage experience for the client. “Everything you bring to the session—your posture, your mood—creates an ambiance, a whole package. And I think we forget about the whole package.” She says all therapists need to be mindful of the experience they create for clients, but men especially so. “Women can get away with not being as aware of that because we have some of those other yin qualities. But most men have to work at it a little bit more.” She says it’s not about being effeminate, but it is about having respect and appreciation for the client.
Wiltsie says he imparts the wisdom of massage therapist William Frick when talking to young students about issues of sex and gender: “Frick says by nature, people are sexual. We are what we are and we can’t get away from it. Even if I’m gay, I still manifest myself as a man and you a woman.” Wiltsie says the first thing to do when you see yourself falling into a sexual pitfall is to recognize that you’re a sexual being. “Secondly, if you begin to feel inappropriate things that are not client-centered, you cannot try to block those feelings. You need to recognize it’s there and then deny yourself the impulse.” He says that trying to block the notion will only force it to manifest itself in some other way. Acknowledging and then denying it, he says, is healthier. “You have to say out loud in your head, ‘I’m not feeling grounded; I’m going to deny myself that impulse.’”
Still, Wiltsie isn’t certain some men can make that sort of leap. “I worry about younger men and whether they can do that—to think of her as your sister and get yourself back into your mind, not your hormones. Your job is not to exploit vulnerability, because it’s not kind or loving. This field is ultimately about serving other people.”
Olivier says she tells prospective male students that they really need to aim for a higher skill level than would be needed by a woman. “What will assure their success to be recession proof and in demand is to have skills that enable people to get out of pain and recover abilities they have lost.”
Noting his own path of success, Steers tells new male therapists to consider the setting of their practice. “Start by getting yourself set up in a real professional setting ... not so much a spa, but more of a medical-based practice where there’s more exposure to more people in the medical and fitness industries.” Continuing education and ethics trainings have also been a support for Steers along the way. “I think an important factor in being a male therapist is you have to be ready for all kinds of situations with female clients. For example, if I’m attracted to a female client, the main thing is to remember your professionalism, proper training, and proper mindset. My commitment as a male therapist is to always remember that while I’m working on her. I think that comes with maturity—not necessarily age, but life experience.”
Stereotype on Top of Stereotype
Now, obviously not all gender woes within this profession are just about the men—far from it. It’s interesting that even within this female-dominated world, women are still subjected to stereotypes. Typically considered the nurturers of the profession, female therapists sometimes lose injury-afflicted clients or those with a chronic condition as they go in search of more burly, male therapists to help. Other women wonder why there are not more top female continuing education providers out there beating the streets and ringing up the workshop dollars like a select group of very talented male therapists have been doing for years.
There are no doubt misperceptions on both sides of the aisle when it comes to gender in this field. And who knows how long sex will continue to taint this profession? Will it be when massage regulations govern all practices in all states? Will it be when we sustain a society in tune with the power of the mind-body-spirit connection? Will it be when women no longer find themselves victims in this world? Will it be when we evolve into some androgynous beings akin to Star Trek lore?
There are no easy answers here, just more questions. Schools can help navigate the waters and creating a framework can make the ride less bumpy, but ultimately therapists control their own destiny, just as they control what goes on in their therapy rooms. Take a minute (a day, a month) to evaluate your own experience and decide if you’ve been throwing gasoline on the sexual fire or abating the flames with careful frameworks, strict boundaries, and grounded intentions? Whether you’re from Mars or Venus, ask yourself, what kind of therapist am I?
Karrie Osborn is the contributing editor for Massage & Bodywork magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.
1. David Palmer, “A Brief History of Chair Massage,” Positive Health (Portsmouth, NH: Ink,1998).
2. Charles Muhl, Monthly Labor Review Online 123, no.1 (January 2000). www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2000/01/tlaw.htm (accessed May 2007).
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