The Vocabulary of Massage Therapy

When I had to “fire” my first client, it was due to a unique set of circumstances, largely centered around the language used in text communications with me. He spoke of feeling the “love through my touch” and that he wanted me to “engulf and envelope” him with my “soft and sweet sexy hands.” To his credit, he had been a complete gentleman while in his very first session, and may, in fact, have meant nothing but honest and sincere, if awkward, compliments by the words. But the fact that I had been made uncomfortable, even if unintentionally, by that and other text messages he sent, was enough to cause me to refuse to rebook him. The brand new and still fragile relationship of trust and safety between us had been broken. Many people who aren’t massage therapists don’t realize what language and behaviors throw up huge red flags for therapists, since those people usually don’t have to worry about sexual assault from a client. However, the way you behave towards a massage therapist can be very important to establishing and maintaining a good working relationship. Good communication is everything. In this post, I’ll cover some of the most common phrases (and behaviors) that make massage therapists uneasy and better alternatives to use instead.

(I should also start out by saying that this blog post is not meant to be a way for unethical people to get what they want by smooth-talking a therapist. If you want a “happy ending” massage and simply don’t say anything to the therapist beforehand because you don’t want them to decline to book you, a professional therapist will still stop the massage when you request that and report you for illegal activity. This post is meant for honest people who simply want to avoid offending or alarming a therapist, especially when they first begin communication.)

The best term to use is “massage therapist.”

One of the most common terms I hear used is “masseuse.” While most people see nothing inherently wrong with this word, its roots lie in the days when massage (at least in the U.S.A.) was not always about therapy and more often tended towards seedy parlours and illicit sexual activities. Even today, some of those who practice said illegal activities will call themselves “masseuses” or “masseurs.” Hence, the industry as a whole has been very keen to discourage the term “masseuse” and replace it with the much less connotative “massage therapist.” If you tell a therapist that you have been looking for a good masseuse, the therapist might not know how to take it, especially if they don’t know you. From their point of view, it could simply be an honest mistake of language, since you might not know any better, or you could be subtly asking them for additional illegal services. Thus, calling them massage therapists (or “MTs” for short) is a much safer way to go. Most therapists will even find ways to politely correct a person who uses the term “masseuse” so that they don’t make the mistake with other therapists in future.

Be specific in asking for the kind of massage you want.

Another term that I frequently get is “full-body massage.” Most of the people who use this phrase simply mean that they want everything except their genitals massaged, but there is a select minority who use it as an indirect way of asking if the therapist offers literally full-body massage, genitals and “happy ending” included. Because of this, many therapists are trained to either avoid people who ask for full-body massage or to ask that person to clarify what they mean by “full-body.” If they dance around the answer or aren’t willing to give a straight one, then the therapist is very likely to turn that person away. It’s simply not worth the risk of having someone in the room that we cannot trust. For instance, someone texted me recently asking for full-body massage and when I asked them to clarify whether by “full-body” they meant that they were hoping or expecting genital massage, they responded, “Not specially genital massage, but more massage everywhere, soft and teasing touch.” This is a huge red flag for me as a therapist. For one thing, they did not respond with a clear and definite “no” to the genital massage, instead simply saying “not specially.” That language indicates to me that they would still entertain that as an option, if it were offered. This was further hinted at by the type of “soft and teasing touch” requested. Even though they replied later that they meant, “Not sexual, no worries,” it was enough of a concern that I refused to offer them an appointment and even ceased communicating with them altogether.

Appropriate alternatives to asking for a full-body massage are to ask if the therapist works on specific parts of the body. For instance, if you really want the therapist to massage your face or your gluteals or your abdomen, it is a much simpler and safer thing to just ask them if they do that as opposed to asking if they provide “full-body” massage and hoping that nothing is lost in translation. If you want massage that is a little more “personal” in nature, such as work in the upper adductors and connective tissues in and around the groin and genital area, just be up-front with them about it, provide a reason why you would need that kind of massage, reassure them that you are not expecting anything sexual in nature from them, and (most important of all!) don’t be offended or discouraged if they say no. Many therapists are trained to avoid the groin because of the risk of misunderstanding and sexual assault. However, if you spell out why you need that kind of work, whether it be to help recover from an injury or because you participate in an activity which makes that area tighter than normal, then many therapists will at least consider working with you, as long as you don’t push the boundaries of their comfort and trust too far.

(On a side note, avoid asking a therapist if they massage without a drape, especially for the first session. For one thing, it is illegal to massage without a drape in most states, and even in those states where it is legal, many therapists are not comfortable providing that accommodation for the very first session. It’s very much dependent upon how much trust they have with you as a client. Remember, a therapist that you have never seen before does not know the kind of person you are. A new client could be the nicest person in the world who would never consider laying a violent hand on another human being, but they could just as easily be a sexual pervert hoping to get lucky with a therapist who is too careless or naïve to screen new clients effectively. We have to be careful of whom we let into our practices and the accommodations we offer to make for them. At the very least, if you do hope that your therapist will not use the drape at some point in the future, express that you would like to have that accommodation someday, but that you understand that you will need to let the therapist build trust with you first. And again, don’t be offended if they refuse completely. The therapist has to be comfortable with allowing that accommodation and some simply aren’t and don’t offer it at all, even if it is legal in their state.)

Don’t use language that can be interpreted in a sexual fashion.

Other terms which ring alarm bells include anything that is remotely hinted to be sexual or even sensual in nature. The same conversation that I mentioned above actually started with the individual asking me if I provided “relaxing sensual massage.” Since some people do actually use the term “sensual” in the proper way, which is to say that they mean pleasing to the senses rather than sexual, I decided to ask for a definition of what was meant by “sensual.” The reply came back, “Full body relaxing, head to toe.” Again, that’s one of those unclear answers that appears to dance around the issue and also uses the term “full-body” which was already discussed. Terms like “teasing,” “sensual,” “soft,” “caressing,” “pleasurable” all can be potential warning signs. Thus, better terms to use (again, assuming that the client’s intentions are for purely therapeutic massage) are “light touch,” “relaxing,” “soothing,” “nurturing, “caring.” Basically, if it would make you uncomfortable or uneasy to have someone in a professional relationship request “soft and teasing” touch from you, then you shouldn’t use those terms with your massage therapist either!

Don’t be manipulative or demanding!

Finally, don’t be pushy and don’t attempt to offer more money for a service that a massage therapist has said they will not provide. This is less of a vocabulary issue and more of a behavior issue, but it still deals with communication. If a massage therapist declines to provide you services, it is all right to politely ask them why they have decided this and if you have offended or concerned them in some way. It may be the simple case that they don’t believe that they can provide you with the massage you need, such as if you describe having issues that are best treated by a sports massage and they don’t offer that type of service. Or perhaps there was a miscommunication somewhere that is easily cleared up, such as if you accidentally ask for a “full-body” massage and they take it to mean that you are hoping for sexual services. Whether or not they explain their reasoning, however, above all do not continue to demand an explanation or attempt to bribe them with large amounts of money in exchange for their services. Both will cause the therapist to shut down faster, as you are now attempting to manipulate them into something they are not comfortable with doing.

Massage therapy is not an “on demand” service. It is a therapy based off of the mutual trust of client and practitioner, and any attempts to force that service to be something other than what the therapist is willing to provide is a breach of that trust. Respecting the therapist as another human being with personal preferences, abilities, and ethics just like yourself will do much towards keeping you from being “blacklisted.”