Seriously, what's the big deal?
If you're a word person, you might notice the lovely sound qualities of masseuse, the way saying the word can feel like a warm shower cascading on your shoulder, a feeling not unlike some of the relaxing effects of a massage. It's a beautiful word. It feels like it fits.
It is derived from the French word masser: to massage. Masseuse is the feminine version of the noun, a woman who gives massage. Now, perhaps you're wondering, "What about a male masseuse?". That would actually be a masseur, a man who gives massage.
But lovely and specific as the words themselves may seem, both masseuse and masseur are frowned upon in the field of massage therapy. Why?
It brings up all sorts of complicated history, concerns of questionable conduct, and prostitution.
Massage as a professional service has, in various eras, locations, and contexts, included sexual favors. The term massage parlor is often understood to suggest a place of prostitution. We've all seen flashing "Massage" lights on dark streets late at night and thought, "Yeah, I bet I know what goes on in there." And, yeah. That probably is what goes on in there.
Whether we agree with it or not, sex as a commodity is part of the world we live in. There is a general assumption and probably no small amount of fear that this is the presumed space that a masseuse works in.
In the U.S., each state sets education guidelines and licensure requirements for professional Licensed Massage Therapists, the LMT. In Oregon, Licensed Massage Therapists are required to post their license # on all marketing documents.
I'm Mary Kibbe, LMT, OR license #12326.
If I don't include my licensing information, the Oregon Board of Massage Therapists can fine me, investigate me, potentially suspend my license. This supposedly helps the law identify practices that are offering erotic or sexual massage vs. trained practitioners offering therapeutic massage.
These licensing requirements and the specificity of massage therapist over masseuse are an attempt to separate the practice of erotic or sexual massage from the practice of therapeutic massage.
A Licensed Massage Therapist has been through hundreds of hours of training in Anatomy, Physiology, and Kinesiology. They've got cred, a certificate, examination scores, a license number, probably even student loans.
They work at health centers, wellness centers, spas, and in private practice.
The Word Masseuse Has Become a Flashing Red Light.
I'm not a masseuse. I'm a massage therapist. Many Licensed Massage Therapists recoil from any suggestion of inappropriate conduct and mark their territory firmly in the Therapeutic camp. In my own massage practice, my mission statement talks about massage therapy as a health practice.
Given that the other end of the spectrum is considered prostitution for which both parties can be arrested, the desire to be separated out as health professionals is, I think, understandable.
What We Really Want
A Licensed Massage Therapist would like the safety of knowing when a new client walks in the door, that there is an awareness and understanding of the profession, of what will and won't be offered. There's a hope that terminology alone will help create a clear boundary.
Massage Therapists generally really like their jobs. Bodies are awesome, interesting structures and when you come in for a massage, we geek out a little bit. The things causing you pain become super intriguing and we are generally pretty stoked to work with your body, your structure, your muscles. We want you to relax because relaxing is good, but also because your muscles are much more receptive to the work when you do.
The Flip Side
There's a down side or maybe just a negative side effect to the legal and professional construction. Some Massage Therapists, especially new ones who are still finding their confidence and their individual boundaries, can be extremely harsh on any misuse of terminology or the slightest subtle suggestion that the massage felt good.
Many elements of receiving a massage, a very therapeutic, legal, and professionally appropriate massage feel good. There is relaxation, there is pleasure, there is an intimacy of being touched and cared for. These are all good things. Non-sexual things.
Sometimes, in the desperation to be clear, to protect the ego, to stay physically safe, there is a misunderstanding of a person's experience or comment and a therapist can be quick to step in and set down a line.
A client may get off the table, and in their totally dopey massage haze say something like, "Wow, you're a really great masseuse." And then the therapist may launch into a lecture on why they are most definitely not a masseuse and it can lead to embarrassment, confusion, and a jarring interruption to the safe therapeutic space that the client had been totally grooving on.
But with years of practice, even a few short months of practice, most Massage Therapists relax. We understand that positive, non-sexual touch and intimacy are absent in many individual's lives. That connection with someone is as much a part of the therapeutic encounter as digging into the knots in someone's shoulder. And that's really ok.
We'll still let you know the preferred terminology. We're massage therapists. We still want to be respected. We still want to feel safe. We'll still list our license number on every piece of marketing material. But the edge wears off. We're professionals.
This is the second in a series on Things That Are Okay to Say to Your Massage Therapist.
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Previous posts in this series:
#1 Is it Normal to Experience Pain After a Massage
The photo is by Tony Webster and used in accordance with Creative Commons Licensing Laws.