Man Power

Male Therapists Talk About Discrimination

By Robert Chute

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, Aug/Sept 2007.

"Don Juan" used to be a good friend of mine. He was great to discuss religion and politics with over scotch in a dark bar at 2 a.m. We both collected comics (which in retrospect was a transparent metaphor for arrested development). We laughed a lot, but you wouldn’t trust him with your sister, your daughter, your girlfriend … maybe your mom. Women were his oxygen. In many ways, he was a great guy, but he would have made a lousy massage therapist: dangerous to clients, the profession, and himself. Good thing he was in sales.

When I went to massage school, he cut me off so fast I had to call around to make sure he hadn’t been killed in a car accident or murdered with a high heel shoe. But he wasn’t the one who died—I was dead to him. It was my first taste of discrimination because I chose massage therapy as a career and it didn’t fit with his idea of stuff a manly man would do. I bet his proctologist is a man, so what’s the problem getting a massage from a man?

Men Are From Earth. Women Are From Earth. Deal With It. —G. Soh

I wonder if there is a subtext left over from some New Age thinking that men, beaming in from Mars as we do each day, are somehow broken and incapable of nurturing. Women can channel their inner goddess from Venus and it’s sanctioned by the collective consciousness. Men are not generally seen as nurturers, perhaps because displays of our soft sides are suspicious. “He’s being tender with me, so what does he want?” As a group, we may have limited perceptions of ourselves, but individually we might just have to man up, express our feelings, and be nurturers without laboring under our own self-consciousness. That may not be easy, but it is necessary.

When women began shifting out of traditional roles, they had an iconic image to herald the change that was coming. Rosie the Riveter signaled a shift in consciousness for a generation of women who saw a world of possibilities open up to them as the men-folk went off to war. Women were suddenly building munitions, ships, and tanks, and the long journey to more choice began. They were no longer limited to a few occupations: mother, teacher, nurse, or nun. That generational shift in consciousness encountered resistance and growth was slow, but progress has been made.

“To be manly is to be sensitive to woman.” —Jane Harrison (1850–1928), scholar and feminist

Men have yet to have a role model to ease the shift to a nurturing persona. Alan Alda and Phil Donahue were prototypical sensitive men, but their influence didn’t penetrate the zeitgeist in a lasting way, and to a large degree they’ve been derided for the qualities for which they were briefly praised. John Wayne, Sean Connery, Rocky, and (God help us) Jean-Claude Van Damme remained our models for how we were supposed to be. Little boys dream up Rambo rescue scenaria, not Albert Schweitzer rescue scenaria. Every grown man I know really wants to be James Bond. We don’t want to be called wimps, which in itself is pretty wimpy.

Our culture doesn’t sanction male nurturers. Pop culture boils us down to stereotypes instead. Sitcom dads are dimwits who spend each episode trying to figure out where they went wrong, while their long-suffering wives (who always seem to have thirty IQ points on their hapless husbands) wait patiently for the men to figure out where they’ve so obviously erred. (Why do they get together with these boneheads in the first place?) The same prime-time propaganda is often broadcasting that to be a sensitive man is to be emasculated. Heroes take a flesh wound with stoicism.

It is not a mindset that serves us very well, and it’s not only men who think this way. A couple of progressive, smart women I know suddenly looked at me askance when I confessed that watching the end of the Hawaiian Ironman always makes me cry. They lost a little respect for me because I have this inexplicable weakness for insane athletes who crawl across the finish line just before midnight. I’ve shut up about it until now.

Bob Mottl is a therapist from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has worked on professional athletes, including a member of the Green Bay Packers. He has found that when men aren’t confident about receiving his work in a spa, he says, “I’ve worked with a Packer!” This reframes his service from something male clients are nervous about to a useful therapeutic session good enough for the big leagues. “Talking technically about things helps, too.”

Mottl suspects that female clients’ reluctance to work with him is often about body image. “I try to make sure they understand they’re in control of the session” to alleviate any fears, he says. When someone is particularly nervous, he has even suggested they bring a friend or relative into the room as an escort so the client can let go of concerns and relax.

Setting Up Expectation

If we simply had a title without the loaded word massage, would male therapists be easier to market to the world? When asked about their first massage experience, people are quick to say they had their first massage in a spa or perhaps once on their honeymoon in Jamaica. I suspect that many people associate massage with their sexual experiences where it was used as a prelude to sex and an act of seduction.

Victor Morin, a therapist from Victoria, British Columbia, has worked in resort spas and various clinical settings over a fourteen-year career. He concedes that men often don’t want to be associated with men in an intimate setting, but he thinks the reluctance many men feel might go deeper than sexuality. He theorizes that in an atmosphere where men are pampered and taken care of, they rarely project undertones of sexuality on the experience. It may be that they’re thinking of their mothers. “Women are better listeners and have that innate, caregiving sense.” Perhaps psychologically, the care they receive in a spa recalls the mother/son relationship, so they prefer to work with female therapists.

When Morin was a new graduate looking for employment, there was often resistance to hiring him because he is male. “Initially it’s a blow to your ego that they [employers] bring the male/female thing into it. It feels unfair.”

When Morin found work in spas, it was always the receptionist who put a brake on the speed of his practice by asking callers if they preferred a male or female therapist. He advises male therapists to encourage receptionists not to assume that gender is a problem for the caller. “Give people an option between two things—one is attractive and the other is unclear—they’re going to go with what they’re used to … they’ll go with a female every time. Don’t initiate the discussion and don’t make it a big issue … unless [the client] is hesitant.” If it’s an issue for clients, and they voice a preference up front, “then there might be a deeper issue, so then of course assign them a female [therapist].”

Now, years later and in a position to hire others, Morin understands the challenge as a clinic owner. “We were hiring recently and we already have one male therapist—me.” He doesn’t feel ready to bring in another male therapist. “As much as I railed against it when I was younger … women are really busy while male therapists seem to lag behind in retaining clients.” As his fledgling clinic grows, he’d like to hire male therapists in the future, but didn’t dare risk his investment by going with more male therapists than females at first.

Would it make a difference if the contractors paid a flat rent each month? “It’s one thing paying the rent, but it’s another keeping the therapist happy, too. It’s just easier to get a female therapist busy. Clients will have many more massages [with females] before they ever get to trying out a male therapist.”

“To be meek, patient, tactful, modest, honorable, brave, is not to be either manly or womanly; it is to be humane.”
—Jane Harrison

The Other Side of the Coin

Ian Kamm is a therapist from Toronto who teaches business skills to massage therapists in vacation destinations each year. Fresh from a trip to Puerto Vallarta, he’s optimistic about the future for men in the profession. He suggests that males can often thrive if they work in busy clinical environments, such as with physiotherapists. Men build clientele faster in that atmosphere because the emphasis is on technical skills and solving problems, but also, Kamm notes, many women feel safer with a male in an office where a lot of people are nearby. A solo practice out of a home office is the hardest sell for men just starting out, he adds.

“Some women will discriminate in favor of males,” he says, though he admits it’s a minority. “Their dentist and doctor will be a man, so it’s completely natural for them to see a male massage therapist,” he says. The view that men are more capable of giving a “forceful” massage is still prevalent and attracts people—men and women alike—looking for greater pressure. Perhaps for that reason, sports teams may prefer a male therapist, as well. Because of jealous spouses, men may patronize male therapists. Gay men often prefer male therapists, too, Kamm adds. “That’s not a sexual thing … it’s a comfort level thing.” They may simply prefer the company of men.

Though he concedes men are off to a slower start than their female counterparts in the profession, opportunities abound. Clients “discriminate based on location, price, experience, and gender. It’s not discrimination in the racial sense.” It’s opting for a female, rather than against a male. To succeed, men have to work harder on all aspects of their business, especially in developing rapport. Successful male therapists rise to that challenge, he says.

Can you get to the next floor by walking up the down escalator? Sure you can. You just have to climb faster.