Massage therapy = the scientific manipulation of the soft tissues of the body for the purpose of normalising those tissues. It generally consists of manual techniques that include applying fixed or movable pressure, holding, and/or causing movement of or to the body.
What does a massage mean to you? Relief from an achy back? Recovery after an injury? A long-awaited pampering in a day spa?
For many, a massage is a regular necessity or one-off treat to alleviate physical pains or emotional stress. For others, it is simply code for paid sex, and it’s giving massage therapists across the world a hard time.
It’s no secret that the sex trade has operated on the high street under the guise of massage parlours for centuries, and it makes sense. The healing art of massage can be both beautiful and sensual. Massage is exchanged between lovers, and oils are regularly found in sex shops as a prop for foreplay.
We all enjoy being touched in a loving way, and massage can be an entry point or accompaniment to a few hours of fun. As far as I’m concerned, sex is completely natural, and no judgement is passed to those who seek it, or offer it, professionally.
But what happens when this thriving erotic industry is sought through the means of a humble massage therapist who is out to simply offer physical or emotional healing, with absolutely no extra services available? Well, then it all gets a little awkward.
You see, as a qualified massage therapist, specialising in women’s health, most of my marketing is clear: I’m all about periods, fertility, pregnancy, menopause and emotional healing. Nothing too hot, naughty or exciting. Just some down and dirty women’s empowerment. I celebrate both the monthly and lifetime cycles we ladies experience, promote regular self-care to encourage optimum health, and shout about all the ways women can utilise natural healing techniques to lessen unwanted symptoms.
Despite that very clear demographic and objective, my work regularly gets confused for offering sex. Perhaps the word Wild in my business name - Wild Samsara (a reference to awakening wild women and connecting to natural cycles) - sounds racier than it is. But I assure you, it’s not.
This doesn’t always stop gentlemen enquiring about “additional services”. At best, it can be a little embarrassing for both parties involved. At worst, it can lead to threatening behaviour, fears for my safety and even times where I have had to drastically adapt my business to avoid malicious situations. Some men, regardless of how assertively I state that I am not that kind of massage therapist, can get pretty pushy or aggressive, and I have had more than my fair share of threats.
As someone who has studied hard to achieve my Diplomas in Massage, Pathology, Anatomy and Physiology, and then work day and night to build up my business from scratch, this is neither fun nor fair.
I have had to adapt everything I say publicly to clearly state that I solely work with women (which is due to the nature of my specialism, though recent harassment has made me more vigilant with this messaging) and remove my phone number from listings to avoid calls of a sexual nature. I have even had moments where I felt like packing it all in completely. You wouldn’t see this kind of risk assessment in a plumber’s business plan!
As with anyone in the profession of looking after others – whether a nurse, councillor, teacher or physical therapist – I am sensitive to the reactions of others. This is what makes me skilled and professional at what I do. I listen, observe and respond to people’s needs. So, when my work is misinterpreted for something else completely, it’s not just inconvenient, it brings a whole cloud over my choice of profession as a massage therapist.
This is a job which should be celebrated, respected, revered even. We can help ease many ailments. Though our training may not have been as long or involved as a doctor, dentist or optician, massage therapists aim to be primary care givers. To offer, in our own little way, a service which empowers people to live healthy, happy lives. But still, for so many, we are seen as either ditzy beauticians - who basically rub a bit of oil on people - or secret sex workers who simply use ‘massage’ as code for something more on offer.
Perhaps there will always be mix-ups and misunderstanding in this industry. Sexual harassment is indeed so recognised as coming with the territory, it is often found as a module of its own in therapist training programs.
But it begs the question: does massage therapy need a bit of a re-brand to help distinguish it from the ‘other’ kind of massage? Do we know what language is appropriate to use when seeking out massages of a more sensual nature? Should there be more support for those working in careers more prone to harassment? Perhaps there should be an official clamp down on the use of the word ‘massage’ where its clearly intended as more, or a clearer distinctive trademark for the therapeutic, health and healing services.
The sex massage trade isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, and I’m not necessarily saying it should. But how can we protect trained massage therapists – many of whom are lone workers at home or offering a mobile service?
It also seems a shame that so many men seeking therapeutic pain relief often find it difficult to find a female massage therapist (of whom make up the large majority of employees in the industry) willing to treat them due to the risks involved with working with the opposite sex.
I am proud to be a massage therapist, and find it so rewarding to bring health and vitality to people every single day. It’s not the most glamorous or well-paid job, nor is it one which instils awe and intrigue in others when they ask you what you do at a dinner party. But how many jobs out there offer you flexible hours, a chance to meet amazing people, and leave you feeling like you’re made a positive impact on lives? For me, despite the awkward mix-ups, it’s still the best job in the world.