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Masseur, massage therapist and the elephant in the room

Updated: Apr 8

Us massage therapists have regularly come across this problem. To educate or not to educate someone who just used the word ‘masseur’ (or ‘masseuse’ for women) when referring to us. Like that time I was at the coffee shop and my friend introduced me as ‘This is André; he’s a masseur!’. Do I say that’s not actually neither who I am nor what I do? As it turned out, I had no choice but to clarify when confronted with the question of whether or not I gave happy endings - meet the elephant in the room.

Sometimes it feels ok to clarify why I’m really a massage therapist and sometimes I don’t correct people at all because I don’t want to come across condescending, patronising or that I’m fighting for social credit. In full knowledge that almost always people use the term ‘masseur’ or ‘masseuse’ in innocent ways and with the best intentions, the fact remains that most use the terms unaware of the term’s history.

Masseur and masseuse have been used since the 1800s to refer to people who did massage professionally at ‘massage parlours’. Things changed when in the 1980s the terms started being used in the UK and the US as a guise for sex work and sex trafficking happening at ‘parlours’.

Since then, the field of professional massage has been making Herculean efforts to extricate itself from a complicated picture of abuse and illegal activity. Massage professional bodies such as the Scottish Massage Therapists Organisation in Scotland, have worked tirelessly to ensure massage professionals are working free of sexual harassment and are not confused with sex workers. Part of that work is to ensure that professionals never use said outdated terms, that the profession is as regulated as possible (in the UK it is a self regulated profession which means the government hasn’t yet protected the use of the title ‘massage therapist’), that therapists are encouraged to enter professional organisations and sign up to their code of conduct and ethics as well as their complaints and safeguarding policies. Member massage therapists also have to undergo accredited massage training including anatomy and physiology modules as well as complete a minimum number of continuous professional development (CPD) hours every year.

Recent surveys tells us that up to 70% of massage therapists experience sexual harassment from their clients. Once upon a time, I experienced sexual harassment every single week which caused a considerable amount of distress at the beginning of my career. Women identifying colleagues of mine experienced sexual harassment from clients every day, leading several to run women only practices and never work with male clients again.

Of course, my belief is that sex work is work. As a queer therapist it is important for me to not shame those doing it professionally nor shame those paying for it. Sex work is valid and is valuable in a society where people struggle to express their identities and desires. I personally believe important things can be explored through intimate touch but this is not what I or my colleague massage therapists do.

I do want to provide some further clarity about what I - we - mean by sexual harassment in the context of massage therapy. A lot of people will be familiar with how intimate massage can feel. Being in touch with another human can be deeply connecting and sometimes arousing for the client - this is neither wrong nor constitutes sexual harassment. It’s not something a client needs to apologise about. If anything, it’s evidence of a healthy body that responds and connects.

Sexual harassment is not defined as whether or not you fancy someone or feel aroused by them. It is defined as unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other social situation.

On a final note, it’s important to acknowledge that not every massage therapist chooses to self-refer as massage therapist. Some older generations (and others) still use the word ‘masseur’ or ‘masseuse’ (which, yes!, confuses things further) perhaps unaware of the term’s history. Others will use integrative therapist, touch therapist, bodyworker, complementary therapist or a variety of other permutations to allow for the breath of skill and focus that exists in the holistic therapies industry. Most of you will know me as a massage therapist even though I am also a yoga therapist, an Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant and soon to become a trauma bodyworker.

If you are a massage therapist reading this and would like to know how to navigate the world of massage with an elephant in it, then have a look at Respect Massage, a campaign launched by Joyce Gauthier to empower therapists and educate the public. You can also reach out to your professional organisation (join one if you aren’t a member of one), other fellow therapists or get in touch with me!

If you are a client reading this, then I thank you for taking the time to read it. Choosing a therapist who self-refers as massage therapist is one way of ensuring that you are receiving a therapy from a qualified professional with a strong code of conduct that will make you feel comfortable and safe so you can enjoy just that - a massage!

Comments or thoughts? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

Thank you for reading,


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