When you call a spa to book a massage, the front desk usually asks, "Do you prefer a male or female therapist?" If they don't ask, there might be a good reason: they don't have any male massage therapists on staff.
Seventy percent of spa-goers are female, according to Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Association, and 88 percent of massage therapists in the United States are women, according to the American Massage Therapy Association.
The reason? Men have a strong preference for female therapists….and so do women. Getting a massage involves a degree of vulnerability and openness. You're taking off your clothes, getting between some sheets, and letting a stranger touch you for an hour.
It's not so much that guests think that something sexual will happen. It's just that most heterosexual men feel more at ease having a woman massage them. And most women feel more comfortable with female therapists, too. Guests don't want to do anything that raises any questions or increases their anxiety level even a little–so most guests ask for a female therapist.
For spas, that means it's a lot harder to keep a male massage therapist booked. Annie Arnold, Spa Manager for Mirror Lake Inn Resort & Spa in Lake Placid, New York, has just two male massage therapists on staff. "I make sure they are never on the same shift," she says.
What Your Missing Out On
But if you're avoiding male therapists, you might just be missing out on the best massage of your life. Some female therapists say that a good massage is not a question of strength–it's depends on good technique, using your body correctly and applying leverage. And while that's true, giving a massage is hard physical work.
When a therapist works at a resort spa or day spa, she can be giving five, six, or sometimes more massages. Lots of people want deep tissue work these days. And as the day wears on, therapists can get worn out, pace themselves by going easy, or use techniques that save their hands.
One technique is to use your elbows and forearms, but it can lack the sensitivity it takes to work out adhesions in muscle tissue.
Men are more heavily muscled, and it's easier for them to maintain consistency through a long day. I don't ever feel like they're pacing themselves so they can do five more massages, or that they're spent at the end of the day. "Men have strength," says Annie Arnold of Mirror Lake Inn. "They're made for the business."
Attitudes are beginning to change as guests get more comfortable with massage, and a younger, less self-conscious generation is starting to go to the spa "I do see a lot more people not caring," says Arnold. "Sometimes guests agree to have a male therapist because no females are available, and they come out and say, 'that wasn't so bad.'"
So next time the front desk asks if you have a preference for male or female therapist, give them a surprise. Say, "I prefer a male therapist." Find out what you've been missing.
Until we change, male massage therapists will have an easier time if they work in a medical or sports-oriented setting, where employers and clients are accustomed to male therapists. They can apply to fast-growing chains like Massage Envy Spa, which is built around the idea of getting monthly massages. And after some time in the business, entrepreneurial therapists can even start their own practice or become a spa consultant and trainer.