Male or female?
When given the choice between a male or female therapist, which would you prefer? There are definitely many factors that play a role in this decision, including your gender, sexual orientation, religious and/or cultural mores and presumed stereotypes to name a few. Although ideally it should be an equal opportunity booking system, ultimately you want to book with someone you feel comfortable with. More often than not, the therapist that fits that bill ends up being female.
While still in school, I remember becoming very anxious about my ability to find work upon graduation. I consulted with one of my teachers, who happened to be male. I was hoping he could advise me on where it would be best to apply and what potential employers were looking for in a “rookie” therapist. Keep in mind that this teacher had a successful private practice, had been a lead therapist/supervisor at a very popular gym/spa chain and super active member of various professional groups related to massage in addition to his position as a core member of the faculty. Despite all this experience, he told me that it had been very difficult for him to obtain clients. He had to work twice as hard as the female therapists to strum up business and eventually reach the level of success he had. His skills and expertise were not the deciding factor; it was his gender that put him at a disadvantage.
Think about the power differential. The client laying on the table is in the most vulnerable state. You are unclothed and in a submissive position. You trust that the therapist towering over you has the education and skills to address your needs properly and respectfully. You hope that they don’t judge you or your body in any way. You pray their touch is firm, focused and has a flow. You want them to put you at ease from the start, so that you can mentally check out and really enjoy the benefits of the work. Regardless of gender, a true professional will be able to provide all of the above to the client, but without a doubt women win out for their perceived nurturing nature, transcending the role of “mommy” on the massage table. A recent article in Psychology Today outlines the gender gap when it comes to caretakers. Society expects women to be the natural choice due to their biology, while men are hardwired to be natural “fixers” and protectors. You might think these qualities would bode well for the male therapist, but not when it comes to massage.
Then there is the tricky area of sexuality. As long as there are “happy ending” jokes circulating and brothels posing as massage parlors, the massage profession will always have to prove its legitimacy. That said, heterosexual men, whether single or married, can feel extreme trepidation at booking with a male therapist because of what other people may assume about their sexuality. Also, since the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated during massage, an erection could occur and the thoughts of this happening with a male therapist brings on much anxiety. On the other side of the coin, heterosexual women, whether single or married, can feel hesitant to book with a male because of the possibility of an attraction related to their touch or the judgment of their body in a sexual manner. I recall one of my clients telling me she didn’t care if she had shaved her legs or had cellulite dimpling on her thighs with me because “we have the same parts” but if she had gotten a male therapist she would have felt embarrassed. Throw into this mix the complicated and often skewed ways touch could be perceived after a trauma or abuse and again, the female therapist is the “safer” choice.
You may wonder then, how male therapists are ever able to get clients and be successful in this career. There are some stereotypes that work in their favor. With respect to strength, males are definitely viewed as the stronger sex and more capable of delivering deeper work. Even more so if the work is sports specific, as most massage therapists affiliated or employed by sports teams tend to be male. It took many years for Kelly Calabrese to push through these stereotypes and become the first female massage therapist employed by a Major League Baseball Team. All that aside, education and über professional conduct will prove to be the most powerful tools in bridging the gender gap. The more informed the client is about massage and its benefits, about the background of the therapist and their skills through testimonials and reviews, the more likely they will be able to make an informed decision when given the choice of male or female.