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A Touchy Subject

When massage therapist and acupuncturist Seth Popham went to meet new clients in the sitting room at the Seattle spa in which he worked at three years ago, he was greeted with a look of abject terror. I came to recognize this look and knew it indicated that the client was going to say, "I didn't think I was going to have a male therapist!"

Popham isn't the only male massage therapist who feels that he is terrifying clients. Dave Murdock, a nationally certified therapist working at a spa in Atlanta sums it up this way: "Your potential male clients are afraid you might be gay and your potential female clients are afraid that you are not."

Shawn True, a therapist in Batavia, Illinois, used to work at two spas where he was the only male therapist on staff. "The receptionist would field calls, and when no one else was available, even after assuring the client that I was experienced, most people would decline and wait for a female therapist," he says.

Massage therapy has been traditionally thought of as a female-dominated profession, and women do make up the majority of therapists. The American Massage Therapy Association estimates that 16 percent to 18 percent of therapists in the United States are male, roughly 41,240 to 46,440 of the 258,000 total.

But what can therapists like Popham, Murdock and True do when they encounter clients who prefer female therapists? Moreover, what is at the root of gender preference? Do men really massage differently from women? Is the preference something that amounts to sexual discrimination or simply personal preference of clients?

Gender Bias or Harmless Preference: What the Client's Say

Judith Kegan Gardiner, PhD, director of the Gender and Womens Studies Program at University of Illinois at Chicago, contends that there are several factors involved when it comes to gender preferences. Both clients and practitioners genders and sexualities come into play, she says.

Research results of a study by Marifran Mattson, an associate professor of health communication at Purdue University and Maria Brann, an assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, studied women's concerns about their gynecological exams. The results, published in 2003 in the chapter Reframing Communication During Gynecological Exams, which appears in the book Gender in Applied Communication Contexts, found that almost two-thirds of the 79 women surveyed expressed concerns about visiting a gynecologist, and those concerns included the gynecologist's gender.

Paula Daughtry, a yoga instructor at various locations in Chicago, is one such client. She has been getting massage for three years, and while she admits she has a therapist preference, it's not based on gender. It's concerning the style from practitioner to practitioner, not across gender boundaries. Daughtry adds that she's never requested a male or female therapist when she calls in for appointments. On the times when she has seen a male therapist, she's never felt uncomfortable either. They've always set a tone of professionalism.

The good news is there are lots of potential clients out there like Daughtry, even if you do face clients who have a gender preference, says Greg Hurd, a massage therapist himself and director of Career Development and Outreach at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, Massachusetts. "It's your attitude that will bring them to you or keep them away, whether you are male or female," says Hurd.

This is not to say that there aren't those clients who definitely do have a gender preference when it comes to their massage therapists. Gardiner suggests that the preference of female clients for female therapists probably arises from the intimacy of massage therapy, particularly in the exposure of the client's body. "Many women have experiences with violent men, may anticipate sexual or physical violence," Gardiner says. "Most women are conditioned to think that their bodies are less-than-perfect and that being seen by men involves the mens assessment and scrutiny of their bodies."

Carrie Peinado doesn't get massages as often as she would like to. So when she makes an appointment for one, she wants to feel as relaxed and comfortable about it as possible, and that means always requesting a woman therapist. "Being a woman, I'd feel more comfortable with a woman massage therapist. I'm very self conscious about my body and I think a woman therapist could relate to this as well as make me feel more comfortable," she says.

"Male clients," Gardiner contends, "may also prefer female therapists for socially conditioned reasons, including homophobia. Heterosexual men may enjoy a woman's touch even in nonsexual forms. They will find it less threatening and more appealing than a man's touch," she says.

Jeremy Schultz receives regular massage. While he has no problem receiving massage from either sex, he does admit to preferring a female therapist. "Massage can be a very personal experience. I always try to relax and get as comfortable as possible in order to fully enjoy the massage ... and that state of mind is more easily and quickly achieved when dealing with a female therapist," he says.

How Schools Address the Issue

Jeffrey Forman, PhD, massage therapy program coordinator of De Anza College in California, says tangible proof of employer's preference for female therapists is available on his college's online job site, where employers can post open positions and may request male or female therapists.

"Our postings show 11 employers requested females, 0 requested males and 13 had no preference," Forman says. He also says that students perform role-playing exercises to expose male students to possible situations. "We make them aware of different scenarios and tell them they have to communicate and that draping has to be impeccable," Forman says.

At De Anza College, in 2003, men made up only 37 percent of the total students enrolled in the massage therapy program for the year. At Allegany College of Maryland where therapeutic massage has been offered as an associate degree, 40 students have graduated since the programs inception in 2000, yet only four were male.

Paula Murray, director of Allegany Colleges program, thinks men may be dissuaded from pursuing massage therapy for several reasons, including the belief that its a woman's profession, its only for men who are strong and buff like Sven in the movies, or because of homophobia. "I [also] believe the cultural impact of touch in this country makes it even more challenging for men to consider the profession. I think those who are most successful have a very strong sense of commitment," she says.

Schools are in a position to help prepare male therapists for any potential gender bias they may face after graduation.

At the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, Hurd makes sure the school addresses problems therapists may encounter, male or female. "We don't tell males that they will have a harder time in the business because they might not. It depends so much on how proactive the therapist is and where he will go with his career. Female therapists have their share of problems and issues as well," he says.

Massage therapy can be a difficult business at times and it takes perseverance and a lot of work to develop the career that you want. Of course, the biggest help we give male students is how to communicate with clients themselves and how to have appropriate boundaries that will set their clients at ease.

Jan Schwartz, vice president of education at Cortiva Institute, says the classrooms focus more on consumer choices, rather than the issue of discrimination.

"In the classroom we discuss the consumers choices, why they might make those choices and what we can do as therapists and a community to respect those choices," Schwartz says, adding that they also talk about ways the therapists can educate the consumer about sexual stereotypes of men and women. "We suggest that the male student be extra careful about informed consent, about boundaries, about professional dress and about communication in general," Schwartz continues.

She also says they let male therapists know that they will probably have an easier time if they work in a medical or sports-oriented setting because employers and clients in both of those areas are accustomed to male practitioners. Schwartz says one school also suggests that the male students consider doing chair massage as an introduction to their table massage, so that the client becomes more comfortable with and trusting of the male therapist. "Other schools make sure to have a successful male therapist on business panels so that the students can ask specific questions about these issues," she adds.

What's a Therapist to Do?

Gender preference or bias, with its enigmatic origins and complex personal issues, does seem to be a roadblock for some men in massage therapy. Whether client preference for male or female massage therapists is based on past experiences, social norms or fears, many massage schools recognize that they need to prepare their studentsespecially malesfor what they may encounter after they graduate. However, schools can only do so much to prepare massage therapists for these issues when they start to practicethe rest is up to the individual.

"[At Bancroft] we let male therapists know the reality is that they may run into this issue of people wanting female therapists a lot but not to let it discourage them," says Hurd. He says the important thing is how you respond to that rejection, noting it often takes up to three years to develop the client base you would like. Hurd also emphasizes the importance of marketing to the clients you want to see. "You should also put your marketing efforts into getting the clients you want. When [you're] clear on that, seek that client. What do those clients do? Where do they go? What do they read?," he explains.

Scott Lesieura, a massage therapist licensed for nine years who works at a hot springs resort and spa in Washington, says he frequently encounters women who request female therapists at the spa where he works. So he decided to build good word-of-mouth by coaching the people who schedule the appointments. "They can say [to a hesitant client], You know, Ive had Scott work on me. Its easier when they are comfortable with my touch," he says.

Another invaluable tip Lesieur received was to start off with a less intimate massage, so he purchased a chair. "If you touch people with clothes on, they are more likely to feel comfortable and then come back. After five minutes of working on their shoulders, they think Well, maybe I will let a male work on me," he says.

Which may hint at the key aspect of all successful strategies: weakening negative perceptions about male massage therapists might need to be accomplished one client at a time. Female massage therapists certainly don't find working in the field effortless either, and of course, all lines of work have their own trials and rewards.

"If you're an independent contractor, no matter what business you're in, you will face obstacles," says Hurd. "They can either bring you down and destroy your business or you can get past them. If you really have the desire and drive to be a massage therapist, you will be one if you stick to it."

You Suspect You've Been Discriminated Against: What to do

Personal preference plays a large role when individuals select a massage therapist. But what if it goes beyond just an individual's choice? What if you suspect an employer didn't hire you because of your sex?

"The first thing to do is to make sure you have a case, speculation is not enough," says Robert Armstrong, general counsel for AMTA. "You can always start by filing a complaint with the employer, giving him or her the chance to respond. But it's often tough to challenge employers' hiring decisions, especially when they can simply say they hired the other therapist because she had a better resume and interviewed better."

If you are unable to resolve the situation with the employer, but you still feel you have been discriminated against because of your gender, you may want to file a charge of discrimination with the appropriate agency. If the company has 15 or more employees, you may file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the company has fewer than 15 employees, you may still be able to file a charge with the appropriate state or local agency. You'll need to check your state or municipality's website to find the agency who handles such complaints in your local area.

Don't start by going directly to the courts. In most cases, the law requires that you first file a charge with the EEOC or other appropriate agency and exhaust that process before filing a lawsuit. If you don't, the case will just get thrown out of court. Even if you file a lawsuit, very few cases make it to trial. Many are dismissed on motions made by the employer on various legal grounds, or for lack of sufficient evidence of gender bias. Cases that survive these motions often settle before trial.

"The best chance a male therapist may have against an employer would be if the therapist could establish a pattern and practice of gender discrimination," says Armstrong. "In these cases, it must be proven, based on statistical analysis, that a company has a historic pattern of hiring an inordinate amount of one gender when compared to the gender breakdown of the available labor pool."

Advice From an Expert

How can male massage therapists achieve success despite gender discrimination? Bob King, founder of the Chicago School of Massage Therapy, who has practiced more than 30 years, offers his best strategies.

Identify with clients. I like women...[and] feminine energy, and have worked on those aspects of my character that have helped me become a better listener and better understand the aspect of power in relationships, therapeutic and otherwise.

Recognize boundaries. Women ... can intuitively detect when motives are not of a healing nature, and men who do not understand this issue of power are really in the wrong profession.

Try different approaches. Men might consider starting a practice with women athletes, dancers, runners and high performance athletes who require and appreciate state-of-the-art body care, regardless of the providers gender.

Find support. Working in spa settings, it might be helpful to provide some comp work to the receptionists who can actively support your appointment book just by their experience of having worked with you.

Provide support. I have always had more women than men in my practice primarily because women will actively promote [you] if they trust you and respect your skills. But if [male therapists] think they need to fix vulnerable women, they will not be successful in this field.

Teach yourself. Teaching, even among family and friends, is helpful in articulating your values and your authority in a gentle and caring way.

Coaching the Receptionists

If you work for someone else, several of the therapists we interviewed suggested paying attention to how the receptionists scheduling the appointments speak about you on the phone. A little coaching might be in order. Greg Hurd gives the following example:

When clients say they would prefer a female therapist, when appropriate, ask the receptionist to say something along the lines of, "Clients are very pleased with [male therapist] and almost everyone he sees reschedules with him." Or something more fun such as, "Oh, you dont know [therapists name]. He's excellent and is very popular here."

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