It’s a matter of choice

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.

Minus the watch, this is a perfectly normal image of a male therapist working the lumbar region of the back of a male client.

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.

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Petitioning for an “UnHappy Ending”

In my first few weeks working as a massage professional, I encountered what no development class could ever prepare me for. I was bombarded with one after another uncomfortable situation involved a client who expected a “happy ending” at some point during or after massage. Almost every massage therapist, male and female alike although women definitely get it more than men, have encountered at least one such situation in their careers, but even one is too many. I have had my share of male friends cracking jokes over the stereotypical “release” I should be giving my clients to which I always respond with a hammer fisted punch to the side of their heads. It’s incredibly frustrating to spend so much money and time on obtaining a legitimate degree for a legitimate health oriented profession and have to deal with such ignorance and nonsense. Of course, the truth is, so long as sensual massage parlors exist so will the stereotypical expectation. The attitude often is, “well, if they do it, why can’t you?”

Here to add to this ridiculous stereotype is a new program from the Women’s network that is Lifetime Television. It’s called “The Client List” and stars a buxom Jennifer Love Hewitt playing the role of a single mom who, as the synopsis states”…has taken a job at a seemingly traditional day spa, but soon realizes that the parlor offers a little more than just massage therapy. It’s not the happy ending she was expecting but it does open her eyes to a world she’s never seen before. The series follows Riley balancing these two worlds – one that revolves around her kids and family – and the other that revolves around the massage parlor and it’s special clientele. These two worlds couldn’t be farther apart, yet she’s totally comfortable in both. Keeping them separate … now that’s the tricky part as she discovers she’s not the only one with secrets.”

Um…no. This is not an example of what massage therapy is, nor a good example for single mothers in dire straits all over America looking for work to support their families. A Massage Therapist in NY requires 1000 contact hours of training done at a state accredited program ($20,000 plus for the 16 month Associates Degree I earned) on top of a licensing exam that costs a couple hundred dollars to take and once passed, a continuing education requirement that has to be completed every 3 years when your license is up for renewal that can cost thousands of dollars.  What is Lifetime thinking??? I suppose a series about Massage Therapy premised like “ER” (which was a pretty exciting medical drama if I recall) would not be nearly as thrilling as watching the illicit world of day spa sex and unlicensed massage. Right. Good job, oh women’s network for promoting this idea of the female massage therapist and for encouraging Mr. Pervy McPerv to come into the spa and boldly ask for his “happy ending.” I’ll know who to thank when his business comes my way.

What your typical massage therapist DOESN’T look like!

Thankfully, a petition was created and has been circulating via FACEBOOK to address this giant step backwards for my profession. Take a minute to read it and then sign in to your Facebook account to add your support for this.

http://www.change.org/petitions/lifetime-television-111-8th-avenue-new-york-ny-1001-do-not-air-the-client-list#