A massage therapist by any other name . . . might be a prostitute. Although technically “masseuse” and “masseur” are legitimate terms for a person who provides massages—albeit dated in their gender-specificity (“masseuse” being female and “masseur” being male)—“masseuse,” in particular, has come to be associated with not-so-legal practices.
When massage was first “imported” to the United States from Europe by two American brothers, physicians who had studied in Sweden, it was not a regulated profession. Therefore, the French terms for someone who practiced the “friction of kneading” could legitimately be applied to anyone who offered massage. And from the 1850s, when the Doctors Taylor introduced massage to address their clients’ health issues, until mid-twentieth century, massage therapy was viewed as a valid medical practice in the United States. It was even used to treat World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock (what today we’d probably call posttraumatic stress disorder). But as medical advancements were made, massage—along with other natural healing methods—fell out of favor. At that juncture, massage became a luxury that only the wealthy indulged in. This contributed to one view of massage, still held by many, that massage is a form of pampering.
The other persistent image of massage originates with the advent of so-called massage parlors, which had become a cover for illegal sex trade. This connection began, actually, with public baths during the Roman Empire. According to Noah Robert Calvert, author of The History of Massage, “Massage was an established part of the ancient public baths, and it was part of the growing historic relationship between bathing and prostitution as well.” In the early part of the twentieth-century, however, cities started clamping down on prostitution, notably with the passage of the Mann Act in 1910. Technically, the Mann Act targeted forced prostitution in response to the “white slavery crisis” that had been engendered by the sensationalized stories of muckraking journalists about innocent girls kidnapped off the streets by swarthy foreigners. The Mann Act, however, was so broadly worded that courts often used it to prosecute all manner of consensual sex. Individual states also passed antiprostitution laws. With this crackdown, bathhouses and other places where prostitutes were known to practice their trade were under scrutiny by authorities, and thus massage parlors were created as legal fronts for the protection of prostitution.
Because prostitution became so firmly associated with massage parlors and because those working at these parlors were termed “masseuses,” the negative connotation of that term became fairly firmly entrenched in the public imagination in this country. Around 2007, in fact, when I was in massage therapy school, I would still get snickering questions about “happy endings.” One reason this connection has been able to persist is that while prostitution was regulated and/or closely monitored in most states, massage was not. In fact, even a late as 1985, only ten states had passed laws regulating massage statewide. It was therefore relatively easy for those with less-than-altruistic intent to set up a massage business that had very little to do with addressing health issues. Consequently—because of the impropriety enduringly suggested by “masseuse”—just as most of us would no longer use the word “cripple” to describe someone who, owing to a disability, is unable to walk or move properly (even though that’s exactly what the word means) because it is now seen as offensive, so the use of the word “masseuse” (and, consequently, “masseur”) should be avoided.
It isn’t only the long-standing link between “masseuse” and “prostitute” that makes using this term problematic, either. As I alluded at the start, there is the issue of gender specificity, something that is generally avoided in this day and age—much as terms such as “policeman,” “stewardess,” “male nurse,” and “comedienne” have fallen out of favor. No doubt some would chalk this up to political correctness, but the real point is that professionals should be judged by how well they do their job and not by their gender. We don’t refer to our physicians as “doctors” and “doctoresses” because anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that what really matters is how knowledgeable and skillful that physician is and not what his or her anatomy might be. (Well, that and the fact that “doctoress” is not an actual word!) Along these same lines, I’m not particularly concerned with the comeliness of my doctor or any other health care provider, for that matter. Just the other day, however, on a morning run through my neighborhood, I spotted Pretty Girls Massage Spa. Attractiveness is not the feature by which a massage therapist should be selected. Rather, what counts most is whether he or she is an educated practitioner who knows how to apply their knowledge in the skillful easing of muscle aches. I suppose it’s possible that the name means to imply it is a massage spa for pretty girls rather than one staffed by pretty girls, but frankly that doesn’t make me feel much better! And need I mention that it is entirely possible that “massage” might be at least partially beside the point?
In addition to concerns about illicit sexual associations with the word “masseuse” and its gender specificity, there is the fact that “masseuse” can rightfully be applied to any woman who does massage, with no training inherently implied. The term “massage therapist,” in contrast, not only connotes the therapeutic value of this treatment but also alludes to some measure of training for the person who goes by that title. Most states (43 out of 50 plus DC), in fact, now require purveyors of massage to be licensed, further ensuring that legitimate massage providers are properly educated. Sticklers for absolute accuracy might insist that massage therapists be identified as licensed massage therapists or certified massage therapists—terms that specifically reference the legitimacy and education bestowed on these professionals by their state or local governments and by their professional organization. Personally, though, I would be happy simply to be called a massage therapist since that acknowledges not only that I manipulate a client’s skin and muscle tissue but, more important, that I do so in a manner that draws on my study of anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology.
When someone refers to me as a “masseuse,” I don’t immediately assume that his or her intention is to denigrate me in some way but, rather, that he or she is unaware of the nuances of that word choice. Consequently, I don’t berate them for their word choice—although I do cringe a little inside. Ultimately, I would like to find a way tactfully to educate such people—in a way, that is, that will neither embarrass nor belittle. That’s the nurturing nontechnical side of the massage therapist in me.