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Male Bodyworker Issues
Bridging the Gender Gap

By Thomas Claire

Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, August/September 2004.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.


During my 15-year career as a massage therapist and 10-year career as a bodywork author, I've had the opportunity to explore many types of bodywork, gain insight into a variety of somatic approaches, and meet a number of gifted practitioners. I've also discovered I'm in a distinct minority as a male bodyworker. Fortunately, the experience has afforded me the opportunity to be extremely attuned to issues facing male practitioners of various approaches to bodywork.

So, when the editors of Massage Bodywork approached me to write an article exploring topics of particular concern to male bodyworkers for this special men's issue, I enthusiastically accepted the assignment. In addition to prompting me to reflect further on this subject, it also allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with some exceptional colleagues who agreed to share their thoughts with me. This article draws not only on my own insights, but also the collective experience and wisdom of some very highly-respected male bodyworkers. And, not least important, it offers the collective thoughts of these practitioners on how we as professionals might help to bridge the gender gap, enhance our personal practices, and contribute to the evolution of our profession.


The Gender Statistics
It is difficult to obtain exhaustive and complete statistics on the number of male versus female bodywork practitioners. Massage and bodywork are broad professional terms that encompass a wide spectrum of practices. The lack of one universally-recognized national professional association to which all bodyworkers belong, as well as inconsistency of credentialing requirements from state to state, and even from municipality to municipality, make it even more difficult to obtain statistics on the profession as a whole.

Notwithstanding this complex situation, however, it is possible to obtain an overall sense of the gender gap among bodywork practitioners by looking at the statistics that have been compiled by some of the largest professional bodywork organizations -- namely, Associated Bodywork Massage Professionals (ABMP), the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), and the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB). The most recent statistics from these associations underscore a surprisingly consistent, and disproportionately wide, gap between male and female bodywork practitioners and client bases.

ABMP reports that 83 percent of its members are female; 17 percent male.1 According to the AMTA's "2003 Member Demographics," 84 percent of AMTA members are female, with the remaining 16 percent male.2 These figures are almost exactly the same as those compiled in a survey by the NCBTMB in 2003: Approximately 82 percent of the population that NCBTMB has certified is female (63,851 certificants) versus 17 percent male (13,237) -- the figures are just shy of 100 percent because some certificants didn't respond to the survey.3 Figures from ABMP point to a disproportionate gender gap between male and female bodywork clients as well. According to the most recent ABMP statistics, its associated members report that 69 percent of their clients are women, with the remaining 31 percent men.4


Discrimination?
The most readily available statistics point to a very wide gender gap between the number of male and female bodywork practitioners and clients. One might well raise the question: Does gender difference result in any type of gender discrimination toward male bodywork practitioners? While I am not aware of any "hard" figures, anecdotal evidence points to a strong undercurrent of discrimination against male bodyworkers -- both in the areas of hiring and client relations.

Mark Dixon is a massage therapist with a private practice in Newport Beach, Calif. He has been practicing massage for more than 16 years, which includes 11 years of experience working in the spa setting at such well-known facilities as The Sports Club/Irvine and the Hyatt Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. He is a member of three official Olympic sports massage teams and is the chair of the government relations panel of the NCBTMB. Given Dixon's extensive experience in massage, he proved a valuable resource on issues related to male practitioners of bodywork therapies.

When I asked Dixon if he has ever felt discriminated against as a massage therapist because he is a man, his reply was immediate and candid: "Yes, indeed. As part of a significant minority, I find it very interesting and frustrating to lose work because of gender. I'm denied business just because I'm male. This is the most unpleasant part of the work."

Other male massage therapists echo Dixon's feelings. Jeff Shevell is a New Jersey massage therapist whose practice includes reiki and craniosacral therapy, in addition to traditional massage. Shevell entered the field of massage after a successful business career as a computer database administrator. His recent experience in the job market indicates that gender discrimination is still a real and current problem for male bodyworkers. "My No. 1 issue is the rampant gender discrimination I've found in both hiring practices and client relations," he says. "In hiring, many spas and other employers simply refuse male applicants. In one instance, I responded to an advertised massage therapy position and was told outright, 'Sorry, we're looking for a woman.' I simply don't understand how this is any different than if that employer said, 'I'm sorry, we're only interviewing white candidates,' or 'Sorry, no Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, etc.'" As far as client relations are concerned, Shevell feels that issues related to sexual tensions and concerns further bias potential clients against men. "Many men won't consider a male therapist due to apparent homophobia; women won't due to a distrust of the man's intention."

Are male bodyworkers experiencing the kind of sexual discrimination that women have long decried in the overall workplace? Dixon thinks so: "Potential clients are not interested in my experience, education, and other qualifications. Just my gender. Now, I understand the kind of gender discrimination that women in the workplace have experienced for years." Both Dixon and Shevell believe that professionalism and education of the public -- both by bodywork practitioners and professional bodywork associations -- are the best ways to eliminate this discrimination.

Elliot Greene is a state-certified massage therapist in private practice in the Washington, D.C., area. A former president of AMTA, he has more than 31 years of experience in massage, including teaching at his alma mater, the Potomac Massage Therapy Institute. He, too, has heard laments from male massage therapists about being unfairly discriminated against.

"This is the No. 1 issue I hear from male therapists," he says. "There is a bias against male therapists in the population in general. Some men even leave the profession because of it." This bias seems to be particularly true of practitioners who have not been in the field very long. It may also be truer of male bodyworkers who practice in areas that are not so large or metropolitan. Greene further explains that this problem is hard to handle. "This is a very difficult issue to deal with because clients who have a bias frequently won't tell the practitioner about it."

Rick Sharpell is a New York state licensed massage therapist, was recently featured as a "guru" of massage therapists by New York Magazine, and is the owner of Relax, at the Integrative Care Center -- affiliated with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Sharpell, who routinely clocks 25 hours of private sessions a week, suggests that any men interested in becoming massage therapists carefully consider the potential job market before embarking on their studies. "The general public is biased toward women massage therapists," he says. "This is something that potential male therapists need to look at before they go to massage school. If someone doesn't think they can make it in this atmosphere, they should reconsider their career goals. The market bias toward women isn't going to change before the next rent check is due."

Art Riggs is an advanced certified Rolfer and certified massage therapist. With more than 18 years of experience in private practice and 15 years of teaching experience, Riggs feels that male bodyworkers can be at a disadvantage to female bodyworkers, particularly in spa settings. "A typical client -- man or woman -- would be more likely to request a female practitioner than a male because of issues related to sexual fears or misconceptions." One suggestion he offers for helping to eradicate the misconceptions that surround male practitioners would be for spas to have portraits of bodyworkers who work on staff prominently displayed so potential clients could see them. "Actually putting a face to a practitioner, rather than just thinking of the practitioner as a man or woman, could help potential clients feel more comfortable with a specific individual practitioner," he says.


Nurturing Versus Structural Bodywork
Seasoned male bodyworkers point to a distinction between massage and bodywork that might be referred to as "nurturing," or a general wellness massage for relaxation, as contrasted to that which might be described as more structural, or geared toward a medical model. This distinction reflects the varying knowledge base, skills, and therapeutic goals of bodywork practitioners.

While Dixon devotes much of his current energy to private practice in deep tissue massage, much of his early experience was in the spa setting. "The spa market," he says, "is not so knowledgeable and sophisticated about the benefits of massage and bodywork." The massage industry is exploding, booming, and becoming a big business. Often that means an increase in the number of bodywork treatments given at spas and health clubs. "While the number of spa clients is expanding, the knowledge base of these clients is not," Dixon says. "It is in spa settings in particular that misconceptions about massage, and discrimination against male practitioners, are greatest."

In his current practice focusing on more structural bodywork, Dixon finds that his clientele are better educated and less biased toward a practitioner based on gender. "Those clients seeking private treatment seem to be better educated about the benefits of massage and more aware of its professional and therapeutic status."

Sharpell, whose work is orthopedically-geared, feels that in the more medical approach to massage, clients seem to care less about the practitioner's gender than skill level. "I've always worked on a more medical level because the work is rewarding. If a professional healthcare practitioner prescribes massage, clients are less likely to care who is doing the session. They are following doctors' orders for rehabilitation."

Riggs, who practices deep, myofascial tissue release to help clients with specific physical problems and conditions, agrees that sexual issues are less prominent in structural bodywork. "In this type of bodywork, the issue of sexual innuendo or misunderstanding is less likely to occur because a clear intent is set from the beginning to work with quantitative therapeutic goals." Riggs also feels that men are at less of a gender disadvantage in practicing deep tissue massage and may at times benefit from a type of reverse discrimination. "Since there is a perceived gender advantage toward men when doing certain types of work -- such as deep structural bodywork -- and fewer male practitioners doing bodywork (in general), male practitioners may actually benefit from a kind of perceived reverse gender discrimination and gain clients."

Dixon's experience bears this out: "Clients seeking deep tissue massage sometimes request a male practitioner because they believe a man is stronger and can apply deeper pressure." In this respect, female practitioners may suffer from what Riggs explains are two common misconceptions that need to be debunked about structural bodywork: first, that structural work needs to be deep; and second, that women are not strong enough to do deep work.


Working from the Heart
Bob Lehnberg is a yoga teacher and bodyworker who lives in Bayside, Calif. His background in acting, dance, and ballet drew him to explore yoga. His interest in energy and the mind/body connection led him to explore qigong and t'ai chi, as well as Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's Body-Mind Centering.

Lehnberg is especially sensitive to qualities of energy, and he notes that it is perhaps natural for the field of bodywork to be dominated by women. "Bodywork is by its very nature process-oriented, rather than form- and structure-oriented. It draws upon qualities often thought of as feminine -- such as the ability to nurture, receive, and be intuitive. Male energy is often very end-goal oriented."

Does this mean that men can't make good bodyworkers? "Not at all," Lehnberg explains. "It just means that some men have to make a shift in consciousness, to realize they don't 'have' to make something happen. They can just let things be. They can let their caring sides come through. Obviously, there are some very successful male bodywork practitioners out there -- men like Tom Myers, Dean Juhan, Whitney Lowe, John Barnes, and John Upledger, to name just a few."

According to Lehnberg, one of the greatest obstacles male bodywork practitioners face, as well as potential male clients, is a hesitancy that comes from a resistance to being vulnerable. "Men are often culturally trained to think in a business kind of way, which means being non-emotional, rational, and calm. But they can also be successful while being heart-centered."

What are some of the best suggestions for men to overcome this obstacle and grow both personally and professionally? "It can be very helpful for male bodywork practitioners to find some support mechanism," Lehnberg says. "Often, men tend to think 'I can do it on my own.' Allowing yourself to show vulnerability and reaching out to get and receive support can be an important step in your growth process." This support could come from professional associations; former teachers, role models, or fellow students; other health professionals; or even a trusted friend. "It's important to have the support of at least one other person to confide in," Lehnberg adds. "It doesn't have to be a bodyworker -- it can just be someone who will stop and listen to you."


Practice What You Preach
John Lawrence is a licensed massage therapist in private practice in Seattle, Wash. He is a pioneer among contemporary bodyworkers. As a psychiatric technician working in a California hospital in the early 1960s, he had the rare opportunity to receive his first massage training at the hospital. Since that time, he has studied various forms of bodywork, graduating from the Brenneke School of Massage in Seattle. His practice has included geriatric, deep tissue, and sports massage.

Lawrence also holds a doctorate in anthropology, and his work is complemented by his active interests in shamanism, psychology, and spirituality. This senior statesman of bodywork has been a role model to some men -- not the least of whom is his own son, Lindsay, who has followed in his father's footsteps to become a second-generation male bodyworker.

Drawing on his rich experience, Lawrence emphasizes the importance for male bodyworkers to care for themselves: "If you're not taking care of yourself, how can you take care of others?" Lawrence raised the provocative issue of why, as statistics seem to show, so many more women than men become both bodywork practitioners and clients. One possible explanation is that women may have a greater tendency to take better care of themselves, while men may be more resistant to doing so. Lawrence underscores that males need to make self-care a priority, too, and massage therapists in particular need to take care of themselves to avoid burnout.

Developing a personal wellness program that includes self-care practices appropriate to his needs can be especially helpful for a male bodyworker. In addition to placing attention on such various elements as diet, relaxation techniques, exercise, and sound sleep, among others, such a program might also include psychological or career counseling. Lawrence suggests that some men may encounter professional difficulties because of their own unconscious feelings about touch. "We can put people off by our own attitudes about being touched socially," he notes. "If we are uncomfortable touching, it can make others uncomfortable." Lawrence explains that men can be just as loving as women, but "our hearts have to be tender. This may require getting personal therapy to get at deeper issues. If men want to overcome any unresolved discomfort with touch, they can get help to become more nurturing."

To be a caring and effective healer may require today's man to objectively consider, and perhaps resist, some pressures that come from the trend toward dispassionate professionalism that characterizes some massage therapy training programs, as well as the commercial proliferation of a wide variety of massage therapy techniques, apparatuses, and devices. Lawrence summarizes his advice to other male bodyworkers in these words: "We as massage practitioners do not need to, and should not try to be, professionally cold, distant, and dispassionate technocrats in a model derived from the medical system. Doctors have a lot to learn from us. We should not become too dependent on the latest techniques and technology, as advertisements in trade magazines try to persuade us we should. This direction may be good for company sales, but not for human healthcare."

Greene agrees that men who are psychologically centered have a better chance of being successful bodyworkers. In addition to being a CMT, Greene holds a master's degree in counseling, which is reflected in his strong interest in the connection between the mind and the body. He maintains that most massage schools need to do more to help massage students deal with sexual and gender issues. Greene says that these issues are a "blind spot" in massage education.

"There is an imbalance between male and female energy. The large majority of faculty, as well as students, are female," he says. "Men need male role models in their education, and certain issues regarding sexuality and gender -- male and female energy -- need to be addressed. Current massage education is not adequately addressing them, as well as psychological issues related to bodywork in general. This area represents a new frontier in bodywork education. Faculty are often unprepared for, or afraid of, dealing with these issues. Schools need to acknowledge and respond to the need for this."

Greene feels that bodyworkers could benefit from having supervision -- for instance, in a group -- or having guidance from a more experienced practitioner. Among the best things a person can do is to grow himself. To be a good massage therapist, you have to know who you are. A superior, excellent male therapist can be strong, but does he work with warmth and nurturing? This task is not an easy one, according to Greene. "Most American males will need to do personal work to do this. But when they do, it makes their work much more profound."


Defusing Sexual Issues in Bodywork
With issues related to sexual tensions and boundaries contributing to gender discrimination against male bodyworkers, what can be done to help defuse this tension? In addition to educating the public about the profession and the therapeutic nature of bodywork, most of the bodyworkers I interviewed emphasized the importance of the practitioner's demeanor and attitude in setting an appropriate professional tone that dispels any ambiguity or misconceptions regarding the sexual nature of a massage treatment. While most acknowledged that sexual feelings toward others are a natural part of human interaction, appropriate professional boundaries need to be established in massage and bodywork.

"Maintain your professionalism and boundaries firmly in control," Dixon says. "Let the massage client know this is a massage, not a date, and that the massage will end if this boundary is not respected." He advises massage therapy students to grasp these boundaries from the very beginning of their studies. "Learn to be very professional. Be careful about joking with your clients. While you want to be friendly and cheerful, too much joking can make clients suspicious, and they might misconstrue your behavior as allowing for more intimate contact. Massage students need to learn to sublimate their sexuality when doing massage. They need to become grounded, mature, and professional before they leave massage school, not after."

Riggs says, "It's especially important for men to establish boundaries when working with clients because it's easier for a man to be subject to accusations of sexual harassment, or perceived sexual advances, than a woman. For this reason, men must be particularly careful when working on clients, especially female clients, so as not to be misinterpreted."

Lehnberg suggests that men may find it easier to establish clear boundaries than women. "I find that males generally have clear boundaries, and in this respect it helps them professionally as massage therapists. It is important when training massage students to reinforce that sexuality is part of our nature, but we need to be clear as therapists and practitioners to channel and redirect the life force and carry professional respect through the work process."

Drawing on his training, Lehnberg maintains that one of the best ways to ensure we maintain appropriate boundaries is to establish a personal practice of centering. "I have to have a personal practice of centering so that I don't rely on other people, places, and things for fulfillment," he says. Such centering practices might include yoga, qigong, meditation, breath awareness, or any of many other time-tested techniques. "Classes, books, and videos can help to give you a sense of centering, but an actual practice of centering is crucial to a bodyworker," he adds.

And indeed, centering is perhaps the most important tool for dealing with nearly any issue that may arise in bodywork -- whether for a male, or female, practitioner.

Thomas Claire is a New York state licensed massage therapist and a graduate of the Swedish Institute of Massage and the Ohashi Institute. A reiki master and yoga teacher/practitioner, Claire maintains a private practice in body/mind integration. Additionally, he facilitates workshops in body/mind practices around the world. Claire is the author of Bodywork: What Type of Massage to Get -- and How to Make the Most of It (William Morrow, 1995). His most recent book is Yoga for Men: Postures for Healthy, Stress-Free Living (Career Press/New Page Books, 2004). More information about Claire is available at www.thomasclaire.com.

References
1 Associated Bodywork Massage Professionals.
2 Available at: www.amta.org.
3 National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.
4 Available at: www.abmp.com.





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