Why Can't Male Massage Therapists Get Hired?

male massage therapist
••• In the early days, most massage therapists were male, and called masseurs. Getty Images: Keystone France

When you call a spa to book a massage, the front desk usually asks, "Do you prefer a male or female therapist?"  But the last few times I scheduled appointments at major resort spas, no one asked.  I thought that was a little strange, and asked whether it was a new "gender neutral" policy.  

Nope.  These spas only hired female massage therapists.  They didn't ask because there wasn't a choice.  

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 -- wanted or unwanted -- will happen. They know they will be draped during a massage, and that it's strictly professional.   It's just that most heterosexual men naturally feel more at ease having a woman massage them.  And many women are more self-conscious about their bodies with a male therapist.  

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.  

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.

 

How I Came To Prefer Male Therapists

I can relate to the anxiety about having a male therapist.  When I first started going to spas I always asked for female therapists just because it felt more comfortable.  One day I just happened to be booked with a male therapist, and it was one of the finest massages of my life. He was so highly skilled, and so strong.  He got a lot more done in an hour than the typical female therapist.

From that point on, I stopped expressing a preference either way.  That meant I started getting booked with men much more often.  I'm open to any great therapist, and of course there are wonderful male and female therapists.  But at this point I actually prefer male therapists.   

I know that many female therapists say it's not about strength, it's about using your body correctly and applying leverage.  Still, giving a massage is hard physical work.  When you work at a resort spa or day spa, you can be giving five, six, or sometimes more massages in a row.  Lots of people want deep tissue work. And as the day wears on, many therapists get worn out, pace themselves by going easy, or use techniques that save their hands.  

For one thing, I've noticed that women use their elbows when you ask for deep work.

 I find elbow work is painful, and lacking the sensitivity it takes to work out adhesions in muscle tissue.  Women also seem fond of using their forearms, another technique that is easier on the therapist but doesn't feel that effective to me.  

Men are more heavily muscled, and it's been my experience that 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." 

Women also make up 88% of massage therapists in America.  So I think the 12% who are willing to buck the odds are particularly motivated and passionate about their work.  They're massage therapists because it's what they really want to do.

 

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's 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 probably 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 start their own practice or become a spa consultant and trainer, like Sean Jordan.