It’s Massage Therapy Awareness Week and I’m going to share what might be an unpopular opinion, but by the end of this piece you may have a new appreciation for the perspective I’m about to illuminate.
Have you ever heard someone say that they’re a Massage Therapist by trade and then someone else responds with a joke about sex? These innuendos are so common it’s almost expected in conversation or even as the entire representation of the massage industry in pop culture. It seems harmless and sometimes even funny…until you’re the person in a situation where a client has confused your services for something very, very different.
In my personal experience, there are several reasons why a massage client would try to initiate or ask for sex, but I’m only going to talk about one right now, and that is that the client has booked a session at a private practice or boutique business and they genuinely think that a “happy ending” is on the service menu. Again speaking from personal experience, this type of client is usually harmless in that they are not looking to coerce, force, or intimidate the therapist into a sexual service. They are trying to initiate a consensual transaction.
This mix up isn’t entirely the clients fault. The terminology we use regarding massage is often highly charged if not completely overlapping with both the sex industry and the realm of human trafficking. Licensed Massage Therapists are trained to never use the words “masseuse” or “parlor” because they have long-ingrained connotations, but many people still use these words when talking about massage therapy. If you search for “Massage Parlor” on google you’ll first get a disclaimer that you might see nudity or sexually explicit content, and then you’ll see a list of “erotic spas” and “happy endings.” Merriam-Webster has even updated the definition of massage parlor to include sexual services. So we start to see how a client looking for sexual services finds their way to a private or boutique massage practice.
In 2018, in an effort to curb human trafficking, congress passed FOSTA/SESTA, two bills that made it much harder for sex workers to market to clients online.
I want to pause here to underline that human trafficking and sex work are two very different things, in the former the person is being coerced or forced into sexual services, and in the latter the person is consensually making a transaction.
You can read more about FOSTA/SESTA if you’d like, but I’ll give you the broad strokes. Websites that were dedicated solely to making sexual connections were deleted entirely, and websites like Craigslist that had specific pages like the personals dedicated to these connections, had to delete those pages (though, interestingly enough, you can now find them in the health/wellness page of Craigslist disguised as massage). This meant that sites that were knowingly or even unknowingly enabling sex trafficking were being taken down, but it also meant that sex workers and their clients could not find each other online either. Because these laws were created by the US government, it pushed the ownership of these pages to international territories and they are now run anonymously. So while there was a hot minute when the sites had been taken down, they’re back now and if someone is trafficked through these them we have no way of finding anyone involved. Also, with the online arena more or less unavailable, sex workers and clients now have to go back to the days of finding each other in person. In short, both human trafficking victims and sex workers are more in danger now than they were before. Additionally, it forces sex work to disguise itself under the umbrella of a different industry…and massage therapy is set up beautifully for this. Our terminology is already mixed up, our society is comfortable with making sexual jokes about massage therapists, and culturally many of us miss the nuance of physical touch so we just mash it all into one category – sex!
It is naïve and incorrect to assume human trafficking and sex work are one and the same. Human trafficking is a terrible thing that should absolutely be erased entirely from existence. Sex work is work, even if you are uncomfortable with it. These laws endanger more people by forcing them into unsafe situations and criminalizing the workers (clients usually face little to no repercussions). I am in complete support of decriminalizing sex work for these very reasons.
And there’s also this: Decriminalizing sex work would mean that it could operate within its own industry. Clients who are looking for this work could easily find the services that fit their needs. If any confusion remained I (and my colleagues) could refer people out and not have to endure that awkward-at-best dance of figuring out that a new client wants sexual touch and not therapeutic touch.
Things to note:
- Decriminalizing is not the same as legalizing. Legalizing is an entirely different option that leads to conversations about regulation, unions, retirements, etc.
- If human trafficking is the real thing that we (as a country) are trying to combat (and I want to believe that it is), it needs to be explicitly separated from sex work.
I truly hope that this short piece of writing has brought a new awareness to Massage Therapy and the web it is connected to.
- If perhaps you thought that sex workers and trafficking victims were the same, I hope that you see the difference and the importance of separating the two.
- If you’ve made jokes about massage therapy being sex work, I hope you see the damage this causes.
These are extremely broad strokes. I could have veered off into several tangents and expanded on many parts, but I want to start here. And if you have thoughts, please share them in my contact form (please, no abusive commentary).
Originally published October 28th, 2022