A masseuse is a woman who gives massage professionally, but it is considered an out-of-date word in the U.S. Professionally trained men and women now call themselves massage therapists -- and they would rather you do, too. The reason is that in the 1950s, sex workers started using the word masseuse to describe their work and calling the place that they did it a massage parlor. Both terms became code words for sex workers and sex for hire.
In fact, the words masseuse and masseur still carry the connotation that there will some kind of sexual contact. Someone who advertises that they are a masseuse or masseur usually give indications of what they are offering by using phrases like "sensual massage", "massage by men for men only," and "tantric massage." These services are usually illegal.
Masseuse comes from the French verb, masser, to knead or to rub. The words masseur (a male who gives a massage) and masseuse (a female) were in common use in North America by the end of the 19th century. But why did America start using French words to refer to massage in the first place?
This probably had to do with the fact that Swedish massage was developed in Europe. The basic movements of Swedish massage were developed and given French terms that are still used more commonly than the English equivalents: effleurage (stroking); petrissage (kneading); tapping (tapotement). It would be natural to extend the French terms to describe the people who were employing those movements. The terms masseuse and masseur were commonly in use by the end of the 19th century.
Of course, massage or "rubbing" as a folk art to make friends and family feel better has a long history, even in America, where people who specialized in it were called "rubbers." In contrast, Swedish massage was a systemized series of movements that were used in a more professional, medical context. (Remember that most people went to spas for the health in the 19th century.)
Masseurs and masseuses were trained in the medical sciences and had highly developed skill sets, according to Patricia J. Benjamin, Ph.D., L.M.T., a massage therapist and educator who is the author of many massage textbooks. "The use of French terms gave the practice a European and upmarket flare," she says. "The occupation of masseuse became a legitimate and upright one for women in Victorian times, often linked with the nurse, providing a respectable means of livelihood outside of the home."
Here Come "The Rubbers"
There was no official accreditation, however, and the quality of massage education varied widely. People without any training -- the "rubbers" -- began calling themselves masseurs and masseuses. And just as today, it was an easy cover for prostitution.
Some masseuses, many of whom were nurses, set up their own businesses and called them "parlors" which was consistent with the language of the day. They did start professional societies, but as the 20th century went on, the 19th-century spas centered on mineral springs were losing their reputation for healing, and there began a disconnect between "medical treatment" and hands-on healing. By the 1950s, “massage parlor” was inseparably associated with a house of prostitution.
Common Misspellings: masseusse, massuese, massuesse