People and Places

Are “weirdos” part of massage therapy? Ottawa RMT on awkward moments, tips, and the value of human touch

“Be prepared to have weirdos. You will have weirdos. That’s the nature of the business…” This is the response of a Kirkland, Quebec police officer to a young registered massage therapist who recently reported a client for masturbating in front of her.

The attitude suggests that there is a perception among some that what registered massage therapists do is in someway sexual — that the client’s behaviour was to be expected.

If you’ve ever had a therapeutic massage before, you generally know what to expect — soft music, low lighting, nudity, touching. And while we’re not suggesting there’s anything more to massage therapy than therapeutic touch given by a well-trained, educated therapist, questions — and false perceptions — do arise: Is it sexual? Are “weirdos” really to be expected?

Here, a registered massage therapist with 13 years of experience in Ottawa talks about her career choice and innuendo on the table.

In the Door

I have a curvature of the spine — scoliosis. All through high school I had really bad back pain. I had episodes where I would be on the couch for days. I just thought, ‘I’m going to live my whole life with horrible back pain. That’s just the way it was going to be.’

I left university with a history degree and ended up working at a customer service desk [at a grocery store chain], which was awful.

My back got sore because I was standing all day, and my mom booked me for a massage with her therapist — a male therapist. As a young, 20something woman, I was terrified. So at the last minute I called and made up an excuse. After talking with my mom about it, she suggested I try again. Still terrified I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to get naked. There’s a strange man I’ve never met before, what’s going to happen?’

It was totally amazing. I felt comfortable, the man was very professional, and I walked out of that massage feeling so good. And that was the moment I decided that I was going to become a registered massage therapist.

‘I don’t know what his expectations were’

I did have a client who was [visibly] sexually aroused. When it happened, I simply continued to treat him in the way I would anyone. I don’t know what his expectations were and I didn’t ask, but after a few more sessions, I think he eventually realized that what he was looking for and the kind of treatment I was giving were two different things and he simply stopped coming.

I am touching people all day, but from my perspective, there’s nothing intimate or sexual about it. But just because I’m not thinking about it, maybe some clients are. But I find that sad. Because I’m a professional. I’m educated. From the client’s perspective, they may think that I’ve seen their entire naked body, but that’s not really the case.

There are clients who are very keen to get up on the table and while I’m giving my little spiel, they start undressing in front of me. That makes me uncomfortable.

In fact, massage is a really great way to explore non-sexual, therapeutic touch. Which some people don’t have. The elderly don’t get touched at all. Even if people are getting a massage just to feel the touch of someone, that’s amazing. Human touch is an important element of our mental and physical well-being.

Sound of Silence (and K.D. Lang)

I’ve never really found the long periods of silence during the massage a problem. Half of my clients talk and half don’t. I don’t have a problem with being in my own head.

I’m also so focussed that I don’t notice the music. Now, I would love if clients brought in their own music because it would take the pressure off me from wondering, ‘Does the client hate this music?’ The few times I’ve chosen [non-ambient] music, it’s totally backfired. I tried a K.D. Lang album once and the client said, ‘Oh my gosh, turn it off. There’s two voices in the world that I can’t stand and hers is one of them.’

Tip or Not To Tip?

The short answer is, no. But here’s the thing: think about the setting and the place where you are. If you’re at a spa where others who are giving manicures and pedicures and who are likely being tipped, then the therapist should be tipped too. But I work at a multidisciplinary clinic with nutritionists and chiropractors and no one really tips me. When someone wants to tip me, my response is, ‘If you really loved it then please come back and rave to your friends about me. That’s a better tip than 20 bucks.’ That said, when I first started I worked at a clinic that took a large percentage; back then I really relied on those tips.

Older is Better

The average lifespan of a therapist is five years. And I think it’s because they don’t make the money they think, and some have an easier time with the demands of the job than others. I think it would be hard to go directly from high school or university to the [massage therapy] school and into the workforce. They don’t have that life experience, which is necessary in order to empathize with someone.

I’m working on ‘holding space’ right now — that’s when you just allow another person to release what they need to release or dialogue without feeling the need to jump in and give your opinion. To hear them, sense them, without reacting to them. And you don’t necessarily know this when you’re 20.