I wanted to touch on the other side of being a male massage therapist. It is our job as massage therapists to create a safe space for our clients to receive massage in. This means paying attention to all the ways in which our clients might not feel safe.
The categories of safety that spring to mind as a male massage therapist (some of these I’m sure are shared with female massage therapists, but I can’t speak directly to what that experience is like) are as follows:
Safety from physical damage. As a massage therapist, you can injure people. Over-flexing or extending joints, bruising, abrading skin, and dislocating joints are just a few possible harms that might arise out of deeper work. If you are a stronger and/or heavier body type, you may be working on clients who are remarkably smaller than you are. All massage therapists need to pay attention to this, but for the larger bodied massage therapist (I include myself in this description), it’s doubly important to be aware and cautious.
The primary ways of protecting your clients from these types of injury are making sure they are comfortable giving feedback, introducing movements and techniques slowly so that they have time to respond if it’s not working well for them, and understanding the anatomy of the area you’re working on such that you aren’t performing actions that are contraindicated. A phrase I tell my clients often is “Remember, you’re the expert on your body…I’m pretty good at massage, but you’ve been in that body for x years and have a perfect feedback system, so let me know if you need anything to be different…deeper, lighter, go back and do that again, stop doing that…etc.”
Safety from emotional damage. This can be a tricky place in massage. You may have clients that want you to be an ear for them, and they will share many aspects of their life with you. Scope of practice is important here: don’t try to be an amateur psychologist or psychotherapist. Perhaps the rules are different for folks that are life coaches or have some other training as a counselor…even then I’d think mixing body work and therapy is a risky business. One phrase that I jokingly trot out when I feel that there might be some concern around this is “Sorry, I only do Deep Tissue, not Deep Issue” or some variant of that that comes off lightly and humorously.
I think letting clients get away with boundary violations (late cancels you don’t charge for, giving full time when they come late, squeezing them in when you’re already overworked, etc.) can also set up unhealthy emotional ties that may be damaging to both you and the client. It’s a fine line…we are in a profession that wants to care for and help people…but sometimes that help can be dangerous in and of itself.
Body Image / Non-sexualization: Getting a massage is an extremely vulnerable experience for some clients. There are few areas in our society where we go into a room with one other person, take off some if not all of our clothes and have them touch our bodies for an hour or more. Many in our culture have been getting a message for all or nearly all of their lives that they have a bad body, that there is something wrong with it, and that it should be less or more in some way. I’ve had clients apologize for being overweight, for being skinny, for having long hair, for having unshaven or stubbly legs and or armpits. I do my best to communicate to clients that there is nothing wrong with their body — (Well, when bodies are not clean and they come in for a massage, I admit to a bit of judgement…more on that later). Helping people feel better in their bodies is a huge part of what massage does, and it’s important to remember that helping the brain to feel better about the body is a part of that conversation.
Making sure that people are safe and feel safe in your space on a non-sexualized level comes down to draping, quality of touch, communication, boundaries and larger environment.
Draping allows you to work on the client such that they aren’t exposed while you are working on them. Conservative draping that tucks the sheets under the body to lock them in place and keeps wide margins from any potential exposure that might feel uncomfortable is a solid first step in creating a safe place for clients. (Not nearly as much of an issue for those modalities that work with the client clothed.)
Quality of touch, both how you touch clients and where you touch them, builds on that safe place. In the state of California, it’s never okay to touch your clients genitalia, and if a client needs work near or around breast tissue you are obligated to get written permission first…so those are the obvious first steps. That said, it’s important to remember that some clients will prefer you to not work on glutes, head and face, or any number of other body parts. Check in at the beginning of sessions to ensure you have a clear map of what work your client needs, and check in as you go through the massage to make sure you and the client are still in agreement about what work needs to be done. Quality of touch is a bit trickier to quantify. The intent of your touch (which should be to provide an excellent, professional and appropriate massage) will be communicated by your touch. Let me say that a different way: As long as you are working in appropriate areas and your intent is professional, the quality of your touch is likely to match that. One reason I enjoy doing deep tissue massage is that there is very little likelihood of confusing a deep tissue massage for any other sort of touch.
I touched on communication before, but it bears repeating. Checking in with clients before a massage, during the massage and after the massage are all helpful in creating a safe space. Everything from what work they need to how warm they want the table to be to how much light or what music they’d like to have playing. Previous medical history and current experience of their bodies are also awesome things to talk about. If there is work that I think needs to be done that I think might be new or a bit concerning for a client, I’ll often explain what I’m going to be doing and ask them if they are okay with the particular technique before implementing it.
The larger environment is everything else. Some things I’ve noticed that as a male therapist I do to make things safer for my clients are as follows: 1) I try to schedule new female clients at my location that has many other people around (at the hours that that location has many other people around) 2) I tend to start clients out face up, so they can see me if they need to while I work on them. I’ve even had clients ask me to ensure they make it safely to their cars after a massage.
Bottom line: if you’re a male massage therapist, it behooves you to pay attention to the fact that men are the most dangerous thing in many women’s world. Paying attention to the ways in which you can make situations safer for all your clients, and paying particular attention to the ways in which you as a male massage therapist can make a safer space and massage for your female clients not only makes you a better therapist, but makes the world a better place, I believe.