You know it’s going to be an interesting day when a pretty lady puts her hand on your crotch while giving you a massage.
One of my massage therapy college classmates actually did this, and meant it, early in our first year of massage therapy college. She was a bit nuts in a fun-but-thank-god-we-never-dated way. Her groin grab has been one of my favourite massage school stories ever since.
I’m sorry to put massage and sex together — not too sorry not to do it, but sorry nevertheless — because it reinforces an insiduous stereotype. Please repeat after me: massage therapy is not sex work.1 This is a touchy issue for professional massage therapists, and I’m not making light of that, I swear. What my classmate did was, of course, outrageously inappropriate.
Also hilarious. And such a good story.
The pressure is good
We students were just getting used to massaging each other, and still learning the basics, like maintaining professional boundaries and “draping.”2 Mornings consisted of clinical classes and regular massage trades. One morning I was paired with one of the women and we landed in one of the only semi-private spots available for trades, one of two small rooms adjacent to the main, large classroom. The door stayed ajar, but it was relatively isolated and peaceful.
While massaging my proximal quadriceps, she strayed off course and started massaging really close to my groin. There was plenty of penis bumping. With breathtaking naïvete and earnestness, I assumed she was unaware of her repeated contact with my love noodle, my hardware, my spoot flute. I actually thought she was making an innocent beginner mistake! Completely preoccupied with earnestly trying to be professional and mature, I crafted a public service announcement in my head, and tactfully announced:
“The pressure’s good, but I do have some constructive criticism: you should probably know that you are definitely massage too close to my genitals. No big deal for me, but a real client would probably be quite uncomfortable with it.”
So professional. So clueless.
“Oh?” she said attentively. She placed her hand firmly and directly on my jolly roger and gave me a friendly squeeze. “I’d better be more careful!”
I’ve often wondered how many other guys in our class got that treatment.
Massage college and amateurism
My story is misleading: 99% of the time, all of us were striving to be professional, regardless of what other failings we had (so many). In my whole three years, I was only aware of a handful of hijinks of this sort. But “massage college” always sounds a bit like a joke to anyone who hasn’t been there, like the title of a crass comedy. And the painful truth is that it is kind of a joke, because — despite all the striving to to be professional — it’s a profession badly polluted with amateurism.
Amateurism is only to be expected in a profession that attracts quite a few people who believe that aliens probably built the pyramids, crystal have healing powers, and toxins can be sucked out of your feet by a special bath. Such beliefs are common in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). By no means are all massage therapists New Age flakes, but an alarming percentage certainly are. And a great many of the remainder are still CAM zealots. Or just casually, carelessly credulous about things like homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, and reflexology.
That amateurism — and its consequences — is the inspiration and provocation for about half of this book.
Massage is a profession everyone loves to love, but I am well known for being critical of massage therapy — and it started early. My three massage school years were a bit of a drag. I had serious complaints right away, and I was a breathtakingly arrogant oddball loner in an intensely social situation: years of spending several hours a day with the same three dozen people, seeing them half naked, lubricating them and rubbing them, routinely.
It was quite a thing. Shit got real. And weird.
No one wants you here
Many of my classmates never liked me, and the feeling was mutual. I showed up to a party in second year, attended by nearly the entire class, and one of them loudly confronted me: “Why are you here? No one wants you here. No one likes you.” An exaggeration. I did have some friends there, several of them even. But it was the most awful and unforgettable moment of the whole three years.3
And I’d probably earned it: I’d been looking down my nose at most of the people in that room for quite a while.
The ones I didn’t like were mostly just silly people, destined for mediocrity, studying massage because it seemed cooler than being a hair-dresser or a dental hygienist. Others I liked much better — a couple good friends — but even some of them were just hopeless with the science curriculum, especially physiology and pathology.
My earliest concerns about the profession of massage therapy came from watching so many of my students colleagues constantly botching even the most basic skills and knowledge, especially biology and clinical reasoning. I had many facepalm moments trying to help them.4
By the time we graduated, it was clear that these students did not comprehend physical examination procedures and principles and likely never would: their ignorance and incompetence was too profound, and they were doomed to go out in the world and launch themselves in an entire career of misdiagnosing and misleading patients.
Half my class was destined to fail their certification exams on the first try, and some of them never passed it. Most pulled it off on their second or third try. I remember thinking of one, “It’s a miracle! Or a fluke!” A nice young lady, but I’ve known sharper terriers.
See what I mean about the arrogance? Remember: you don’t need to be humble if you’re really awesome!5
I was supposed to be in New York writing novels! (I still am, I guess.) Despite my determination to secure a good day job, studying massage seemed like a tedious, low-brow necessity to me at the time. Even though I’d been humbled as a writer, I assumed (correctly) that massage training would be academically trivial for me. It was still a lot of work — there was plenty of time to put in with flash cards — but it was not the least bit difficult for me, and I love almost any intellectual challenge. So I plowed into the science curriculum with enthusiasm.
But the education (and indeed the whole profession of massage therapy in BC) exasperated and disappointed me from the start. There was something deeply pretentious, half-assed, and insincere about it. Supposedly destined to be the best-trained massage therapists in the world, what we were actually doing was an awkward imitation of serious training, almost childish compared to medical training. Our “elite” 3-year program and goal of being taken seriously as health care professionals was also seriously undermined by rampant, vehement anti-medical and anti-science attitudes, and irrational beliefs and faith-based clinical techniques can be found in half the clinics in the land.
In the chapters ahead, I’ll get into some of the specific issues I encountered in school — a few highlights, which set the tone for an exasperated career.
Next? This is the last chapter I’m going to make post for a while, as explained in Publishing strategery: how my blog-to-book plan went bad. But I will continue in a few months! Stay tuned.
Massage therapy is not sex work, massage therapy is not sex work, massage therapy is not sex work, massage therapy is not sex work, massage therapy is not sex work… ↩︎
Draping is manipulating the sheets to deftly preserve the modesty of your patient, only exposing the skin you intend to massage. ↩︎
Guess who it was? True story: the woman who said this to me was the same woman who had crotch-grabbed me. She later had an attack of extreme shame for her hostility — “I was drunk! I’m so sorry!” — and made a sustained and major attempt to make it up to me. Somehow by the end we were pretty comfortable with each other. ↩︎
One poor woman asked me for help with study methods. “I can’t prioritize,” she told me, and she was failing her classes. Within minutes of looking at her notes, it was clear why: she had highlighted 90% of her science texts, bookmarked four out of every five pages. Everything was treated as equally important, a vast ocean of undifferentiated facts to memorize. It was a learning disaster, corrosive to her spirit and curiosity. I remember feeling overwhelmed myself after spending an hour trying to help her prioritize. ↩︎
And if you don’t think my tongue is in my cheek when I write that, you are too stupid to be reading this. ↩︎