Ethics

Sexual discrimination and the male massage therapist

The typical stereotyped view in the massage industry is that female clients want female massage therapists because they do not want a strange male massaging them; and male clients want female therapists because they do not want men touching them. Neither females nor males frequently object to having a female massage therapist and female therapists are rarely involved in sexual misconduct cases during a legitimate massage session. Therefore, why shouldn’t spa owners hire exclusively female therapists? Is only hiring females, sexual discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces this law and others. According to the EEOC website it is discrimination, and therefore illegal, to make “employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex…”

Male and Female Massage Therapists Working Together Providing a Couples Massage

There are very limited exceptions in the law including a provision in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e) that states,  “Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, (1) it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to hire … on the basis of his religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” Title VII only applies to employers. It is not illegal for individuals to choose to go to a male or female massage therapist regardless of the reason.

With that background in mind, is it illegal for day spas, massage clinics, and others to hire only female massage therapists? After all, if massage clients have the legal right to choose a male or female therapist, and many choose female, why would it be illegal for a spa employer to hire only females? The answer to this very specific example may not be decided until and unless an action is brought against a spa on behalf of the male therapist who believes he was discriminated against.

However, questionable legality aside, there is a more important ethical issue that must be considered; Do day spa owners, resort hiring managers, and massage franchise owners, have an ethical and professional responsibility to promote gender equality among both sexes of massage therapists? Should we, as spa owners, simply yield to the stereotypical beliefs of clients without trying to educate them?

Spa managers and owners who actively work to get clients to try a male massage therapist for the first time know that it benefits their spa to do so. Once a client expands his or her horizons by trying a male massage therapist for the first time, the client is often elated. Some clients will switch to a male permanently, but most will use both male and female massage therapists going forward. This makes it easier to schedule the client going forward, providing better customer service while also improving the workplace environment.

Assuming that a client wants a female massage therapist when he or she calls for an appointment is stereotyping by definition. Acting on those beliefs by automatically scheduling only female massage therapists is discrimination by definition. It may be illegal, and is certainly unethical, and it takes us backwards as a society instead of forwards.

Business owners have an obligation, both legally and ethically, to help promote equality and create a workplace environment where their staff can thrive. While owners can’t force clients to try a male massage therapist they certainly can offer the option to their clients and encourage clients to give it a try. The recommendations of the desk staff go a long way in influencing a client’s decision of massage therapist. A trained staff, armed with the good intentions of the owner, can do a lot to promote equality, move our industry forward, and create a happy and healthy environment filled with positive energy for the benefit of the staff, clients, and the business.

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14 Comments

  1. I am a Chiropractor in Reno, NV and I would just like to say that I agree with your blog. I have hired both female and male massage therapists in my office and the overall acceptance of male therapists has been good. Many of my athlete patients prefer male therapist for some of the deep tissue work due to their increased strength and ability to exert the pressures necessary for them to experience the most benefits from a deep tissue massage. There are a lot of stigmas in the medical/health industry that need to be challenged (male nurses, male dental hygienists, etc.) keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for writing this great commentary about a very sensitive subject with is holding back the massage industry from growing further. I’ll be sharing with my clients, fellow LMTs and the Spa owners I know!

  3. Great post and an issue that I have addressed before myself. I hire males. I have a part-time Rolfer in my office who is a male, one MT who has worked for me a couple of different times who is a male…he’s young and keeps taking off to travel the country but I always make room for him when he comes back. I had one other one who moved away. And the only person I have ever had to fire was a male….not because of anything inappropriate but just because he had a terrible negative attitude.

    I’m in a small town and there are many homophobic males here who won’t be with a male therapist. There are some females who feel uncomfortable with a male—but there are just as many who wouldn’t mind having a male but their spouse objects. Still a hard row to hoe.

    However, if you look at the people who have reached the very top of our profession, males outnumber females by a long shot. There are very few females who are as well-known as Erik Dalton, Ben Benjamin, Whitney Lowe, James Waslaski, Leon Chaitow….a few that come to mind are Anita Shannon, Ruthie Piper Hardee, Ruth Werner.

    My husband is about to take his licensing exam. He gives a great massage, but it will be interesting to see whether or not he struggles, too. He is my co-owner in the business and a lot of people already know him, but I figure he’ll have the same hurdles to jump as most of the other males I know.

    Businesses should not refuse to hire males. They are not only practicing discrimination, they are also cheating themselves out of some great talent. Good luck to all the male therapists out there. Just do what you do and be professional and keep plugging away. Word will get out and you’ll be successful!

  4. Scott Hoggard says:

    I am a male massage therapist in a small town, and run into the idea that women will not go to a male therapist and the men will not have another man give them a massage, now i do have a few clients that are male so they are the exception for me at right now anyway, however one reason for the day spas, owners of day spas, and clinics hiring the female therapist is that there is not enough men in the massage industry now there is more and more men getting in to this field, but still not enough, I for one think that the men that are in this field can do a very good job at promoting and giving massages, look our primary job as therapist men or women is to relieve the aces and pains of our clients, so why should it matter if the person giving you the massage is male or female as long as they are certified, licensed, ethical, professional, and know exactly what they are doing and how to workout the pain.

    great blog thanks.

  5. I think think part of this problem boils down to client and community education. Massage therapy is still plagued by the sexual stigma, which is unfortunately (unfortunate on many levels) acceptable with women, but not with men.

  6. This is a great issue and an issue that I have been swimming up stream against my 10+ years in the industry. Communication and education are essential parts to any successful business, so it stands to reason it will help here. I work in large, high-end spas as well as own a massage and bodywork clinic. The hiring practices of the different facilities is reflective of what the demand is. I have been in the management circle of coporate America and don’t care for it.

    One of the main issues for the spas comes from their ranking evaluators, Mobile and AAA. In order for them to meet the criteria for higher ranking the reservationist MUST ask if they have a gender preference. Based on how this is asked will dictate which gender is selected. Most of the people in the reservation position have little experience getting massage and are younger in age. This allows them to put their bias in the question, even if unintentional. Over the last 5 years, I have worked with several spas to bring homeostasis to the question and what we have sorted out is this, “We have both male and female therapists available, are either acceptable?” This has reduced the geneder bias seen in the appointments, but not balanced by any means.

    I am glad to see the discussion on this issue outside of our little ecosystem where I work, live, and practice. Success is possible, and will happen. Play to your strengths and the strong survive.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful and reasonable article. This issue IS troublesome. I have never been more grateful for a gender-neutral name, as it gives me more awareness preference issues. A preference in either direction is demeaning to the skill of the practitioner.

  8. I am a massage consumer. I get a weekly massage and have for about 3 years. For me it is for reasons of health and pleasure; approximately 50/50. I am male and choose to use female therapists. I am not “homophobic” (I hate that word). I just like the pleasurable side of the massage to be provided by a female. I have used several therapists and every female has performed the massage very adequately, strength has not been an issue. Sex is not an issue either, my regular therapist is currently very pregnant. So I think much of this discussion is missing a key point, it is customer preference that matters. I simply prefer a female therapist and would not appreciate efforts to try to convince me to use a male. As far as legalities, it is common to require females for various jobs based on customer preference. What about Playboy Bunnies, Las Vegas showgirls, cocktail waitresses, etc. Please do not ask me to be serve by some guy in a bunny suit!

  9. To respond to Jim’s comment…My question is WHY do you choose only female massage therapists? You say you are not homophobic, but then why would only a female MT be able to provide a pleasurable massage? If sex isnt the issue, then what is? Clearly you in fact ARE demonstrating blatant homophobia! You probably *hate* the word *homophobic* because that’s what you are!

  10. In response to John’s response to Jim’s comment…
    Jim, it’s o.k. to have a preference of working with female practitioners and no one has the right to ‘shame’ you into changing your preference and I, for one, certainly do not think it makes you a homophobe. While skill should be assessed in hiring an MT regardless of biological make-up, as MT’s it is our duty to respect our clients wishes for care regardless of whether or not we agree with them. For example: I don’t care for shiatsu treatment, but I don’t begrudge those that choose this modality. Name calling is such a belittling and hurtful act. I would no more call Jim a homophobe than I would criticize his choice in religion.

    I’m an MT and have worked with many clients that have very clear preference for their treatments, whether it be technique, office location, or MT preference. My practice is not always right for someone and I gladly refer out. I feel it’s more important to empower my clients to find the care that works for them than to feed my ego. Let’s help our community get the care they need, not the care we think they need.

  11. Bravo Gea for taking a stand for non Judgmental practice of Massage i agree with you 100%

  12. correctivetherapyuk says:

    I have to say that I have more male clients than female – I work as a mobile therapist and have never found any issue with male or female clients.
    It`s all about the job not the person who is treating you …. yes if you want a relaxing rub then I seem to have more females than males as I am a male therapist.

  13. Robert Meadow says:

    I believe in the freedom to choose and a business has the right to stay in business. If you want to change the nature of men or women it should not take place in the business environment. Demand should determine who as a business owner I hire. Not social programming. We also have to accept the humans are genetically programmed to have specific gender preferences and they should be honored if jobs are to grow and not destroy the industry. I know that a lot of people will never acknowledge that men and women are different, have different needs and desires, and we have to stop pretending they are the same. Not less equal just not the same. No one should be denied the right to pursue anything but no one should be allowed to mandate my choose either. Let free will, and chose prevail and change the world outside of the business environment. If there is a need for women only facilities let them exist and the same with men only facilities.

  14. In response to JIM. Massage is NOT sexual like Playboy Bunnies Vegas Showgirls..Etc All those things are sexually pleasing to the eye of men,BUT massage is medical and relaxing NOT to be sexual unless you go to a undercover massage/prostitute place.
    You cant tell who is touching you when your face down anyway.
    I have won several awards for my work and have a plethora of both male and female clients. Its sad we sterotype some of the greatest therapist all cause of their gender. Wow… are you people missing out!

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