Not Good, but Better

Bodies are my business. Sounds sexy, right?

Don’t say yes and don’t get excited. It won’t look good on you from here and it definitely won’t get you an appointment.

After years of hourly appointments based on torn rotator cuffs, Achilles tendonitis, stiff necks that can barely turn, and, most humbling, bodies recovering from the havoc of chemotherapy, it’s difficult to remember how and why any and all sexual aberrations about massage therapy have come to be. Neither Hippocrates or Galen, one brilliant ancient Greek and one brilliant ancient Roman (and we should almost always refer to them) wrote about massage as anything other than a healing modality. In fact, Galen wrote in disdain of this social myopia. It was, he said, “all wanton witticisms, not at all befitting a man so learned in so august an art.”

The topics and issues my hands and brain try to untangle all day are not nearly as interesting to people as they are to me and people in the health field. Many people, and it’s not unnatural to wonder, would rather ask how many of my male clients have gotten erections. Pathetic jokes about “happy endings” aren’t uncommon either. My own family still calls my studio a “parlor” and some of my closest friends still use the cringe-worthy word “masseuse.” The crudest of them all? When one friend wanted to know if I’ve ever been aroused while giving a massage. I felt sorry for him. The idea hasn’t yet developed in his brain that human touch is defined by intention, not always hormone-driven biology.

Therapists don’t spend months studying the human body’s 206 bones, approximately 640 muscles and their actions, the nervous system, as much pathology instructors and texts impart, and hundreds of hours of ongoing education to be illicit operators. Perhaps some people do, but that’s none of my business and no one I know.

The most recent research says between 30 and 40 percent of the American population has received a massage in the last five years. As a therapist, I don’t understand why it isn’t higher, but I also am appreciative it has grown that much. We ourselves have grown as well. In 2008, the number of massage therapists was predicted to grow by 19 percent by 2018. Currently, there are 280,000 to 320,000 therapists and massage therapy students in the United States. In my little sea shore town alone, there are 10 therapists on one street.

Still, despite these numbers and the various state-by-state legislative efforts to regulate massage therapy through certification and licensure, there is a blurred socio-cultural view in which “massage” is magnified and “therapy” is barely seen. This skewed vision is what unfairly keeps the profession a matter of pleasure; a luxury at best and a potential sexual favor at worst.

Massage therapists themselves are not naive or ignorant to the inadvertent parallels. Because of them, it’s even easy for people with innocent brains to see it all wrong. Massage therapy’s basic facts and vocabulary are uncomfortably interchangeable with more intimate ideas. The umbrella term for our techniques is “strokes.” People, more times than not, are nude beneath linens. We work by minute increments and use oils and lotions. We touch peoples butts, which to us are just “glutes.” Massage tools are no better with their unfortunate names. Self massagers take it to a whole other level of inappropriate monikers. There’s the “Knobber,” “Bonger,” and “Tingler.” There is the “Orgasmatron,” a long claw of copper wires tagged as “the ultimate head massager.” Even the innocuous foam roller has been enhanced by the words “vibrating” and “textured.” When clients ask about self-massage, my response has become, “I’ll send you a link.” Except I will not be sending them the link to the Amazon page that recently showed thigh restraints among back scratchers and roller sticks.

It’s difficult to deny that our jobs can appear seductive, but only in the same way an empty couch can seduce you into a nap on a Sunday afternoon after a long work week. There is nothing sensual about being on either side of “diagnosed with right sciatic nerve impingement six weeks ago,” “MRI revealed bulging disks C-5 thru C-7,” or “bicep separation repaired three months ago, R trapezius/levator scapula compensation w/pain radiating into chest.” It actually doesn’t even have to be clinical. Stress is not sexy either. It’s sad and disruptive.

We could go on for pages, but here it is in simpler terms: We’re not here to make you feel good. We’re here to help you feel better.


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