Sexual discrimination and the male massage therapistEthics — By Steve Ibach on July 22, 2011 at 8:15 am
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…”
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.