Massage therapists rubbed wrong by sex talk

A Jennifer Love Hewitt show and the Travolta allegations have masseuses tired of being confused for sex workers

Published May 22, 2012 3:15PM (EDT)


Joe, a licensed massage therapist, knows what it’s like having a famous client who expects something extra. He had an Academy Award-winning actor begin gyrating on his massage table before raising his hips in the air to show off his erection. “He was hoping that I would play with him in some shape or form,” he says.

Needless to say, Joe isn't surprised by allegations by two masseurs that John Travolta got handsy during massages. (Travolta's attorney has denied all the allegations, and called them "ridiculous.") “It happens all the time,” he says, and not just with celebrity clients. He frequently encounters men who try to fondle him, usually while he’s working on their glutes or lower back and their hand happens to be level with his crotch. “They think they’re so original, but they’re all so much the same,” Joe says, his voice rising. “They all use the same tactics, the same body movements, the same gyrations and grinding my table, the [heavy] breathing.”

Usually it’s men, but he’s had a couple of women do it, too: One grabbed his crotch and then pulled his sweat pants down before he could stop her. Then there's the woman who had an orgasm just from him massaging her thighs. “All of a sudden her knees locked and her legs became straight and I thought, ‘Oh no, maybe I hurt her, maybe she has boundary issues.’” Afterward, though, she made it clear what had happened -- and that it was the best massage she’d ever had.

Even massage therapists who haven't personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse on the job are fed up with the need to constantly reaffirm the fact that they are licensed medical professionals. Shows like Lifetime's "The Client List," which stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as a single mom trying to make ends meet by providing happy endings, certainly don't help to diminish the nudge-wink side of massage, nor does the ubiquity of euphemistically driven ads for massage parlors. And, for the record, many object to the use of the terms "masseuse" and "masseur" because they leave too much room for misinterpretation.

Even still, some question the legitimacy, or at least earnestness, of the allegations against Travolta and suggest that it's the massage therapist's responsibility to avoid sketchy situations. Barbara Joel, a massage therapist and former president of the New York State Society of Medical Massage Therapists, tells me, “I disagree how he is being portrayed as the brute and the therapists as the innocent victims ... I doubt that the therapists were unaware as to what they were walking into.” Joel says experienced massage therapists understand that “many male politicians, celebrities and men of power feel a sense of self-righteousness and that they are above the law.”

To others, that sounds too much like blaming the victim. Turning down clients -- particularly high-powered clients that could make your career -- is challenging. Joe was voted the best masseur in New York several years in a row, but when the economy tanked his business did too, and he moved to Kentucky for the affordable rent. Now he finds it hard to reject new clients during the initial screening process because he sorely needs the gigs. “It’s difficult when you're a therapist trying to make money in this economy,” he says. Usually, he simply tries to dodge the wandering hands. “I move my legs away from the table and after a while they’ll mellow out,” he says. “If it starts to get really bad, I’ll grab their hand and press it firmly down onto the table and say, ‘C’mon now, I’m a licensed massage therapist, this is not about sex.’”

Like Joe, Cameron Richards, a massage therapist in New York, describes encountering inappropriateness from both genders. He recently had a male client ask to be undraped during the massage. “This was all red flags,” says Richards, who's only been in the business for four years. “To make a long story short, he wanted me to fondle him.” Once, he had a female client try to urgently book a session within the hour and then she attempted to get him to massage her breasts. “She told me when she went on a cruise they massaged everything, which I knew was a lie,” he says. Richards also knows a massage therapist in Florida who is thinking about quitting the industry because “she is getting lots of phone calls from men looking for happy endings.”

In over a decade of massage therapy, the worst Eva Pendleton has ever encountered is a client grabbing her butt. "I just quickly stepped out of the way," she says. But Pendleton had plenty of clients get "a little frisky or flirty" when she worked in a health spa. Now she specializes in geriatrics and end-of-life care, but still she’s encountered a hospice client who asked flirtatious questions like, “Who massages you?” He was also “really into having his abdomen rubbed, hinting about wanting me to work lower.” (That's an example of the hospice saying, "You die as you lived.")

Massage therapists often become accustomed to the hint of an erection under the sheet. “It's tricky because the male body sometimes sends a signal just as part of the relaxation response," says Pendleton, "not because they're having a sexual reaction, so I learned to ignore erections and I usually gave the client the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “It's rarely as obvious as perhaps some of Mr. Travolta's massage therapists experienced.”

On the whole, the female massage therapists I spoke with reported less frequent in-person sexual harassment, maybe because they are more motivated to screen aggressively. Whenever she gets a call from a potential client, Denise mentions that she offers both massage and martial arts classes -- which is not easily confused as a sexy euphemism. Most people who are looking for sex hang up after that, but the ones who stay on the line usually send up red flags by asking for “adult” or “full body” massage, or asking what she looks like or what she wears during the treatment. Recently, she had a man call to ask if he could “confess his bad behavior.” She suggested that he seek “psychological or spiritual counseling” and he hung up.

Elise Constantine has been working as a licensed massage therapist for 14 years and only once had a client cross the line: He kept asking to be naked during a Thai massage, which is usually done on a clothed body. "I was infuriated,” she says, “but did not engage in any further discussion beyond saying, ‘There is the exit. No payment is expected. Do not contact me again.'" Since then she's developed strict policies to avoid inappropriate clients and dangerous situations. She only books new male clients when one of her colleagues will be in her office suite and never does outcalls for men unless they come with a direct, reliable referral. Constantine also makes a point of dressing "modestly" and not posting photos of herself on her professional website.

The erotic plagues the industry for some of the same reasons that massage is a good cover for sex work: the intimacy of nakedness and the sensuality of healing touch. We have a hard enough time separating nudity from sex, let alone naked touch. So it's no surprise that there's a genre of porn that eroticizes the tension between the legitimacy of massage therapy and the naughtiness of a paid-for hand-job. "Some people don’t get touched very often, they don’t have a love life, and to them it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this feels so good,'" says Joe. "It’s synonymous with sex or foreplay to them." Of course, there's a crucial difference between the occasional boner on the massage table and trespassing on another person's body. One represents a natural physiological response, the other a raging dick.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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