by Keith Loria
When Michael McAleese launched his massage career in 1992, he was given this piece of rather unhelpful advice from the first person he worked for in the field: “Men cannot make it as massage therapists.” McAleese didn’t listen. He continued to massage clients, and later opened his own massage practice—which has been successful for 14 years.
Like McAleese, Michael Wolfes had a hard time finding employment when he first started out in the massage field in the mid ’80s.
“It wasn’t an accepted therapy for men 20 years ago, and so I couldn’t do it full time, Wolfes says. “I decided to start part time as an out-call therapist.” Today Wolfes owns Michael’s Mobile Massage, in Palm Desert, California.
Robert Mabe also ran into difficulty getting started as a massage therapist when he graduated last year.
“It did take time for me to get a job because I was male,” says Mabe, who has been practicing for less than a year at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Some of the advertisements that I [read] very specifically asked for female therapists.”
Male massage therapists are oftentimes stereotyped as being a sexual threat, maybe gay, or not a good listener. Then there are those who have faced challenges from both men and women.
“I’ve gotten discrimination by men and women,” says Gail F. Rosendahl, owner of Masso-Thai Traditional Therapeutic Massage in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. “Some women wouldn’t want a man to massage them for fear that the male therapist might try something, and some of the men wouldn’t want a man to massage them for a homophobic fear. Some married women would also discriminate, because if their husbands knew that their wives were being massaged by a male, that could lead to trouble.”
These sorts of inaccuracies have hampered some males’ attempts at making a career of massage—to the extent that females make up 85 percent of massage therapists working today.
Overcoming sexual stereotypes
The news often contains stories of males posing as legitimate massage therapists who engage, or attempt to engage, in illicit or predatory behavior directed at unassuming clients. These men don’t make it any easier for professionals to grow a clientele—because female clients are often fearful that men are just looking for a way to be sexual with them. The way to counter this is to be up front about the nature of services.
“I stress that therapeutic massage is not a sexual service,” says John Balletto, owner of The Center for Muscular Therapy, Inc. in Providence, Rhode Island, and immediate past president of The Massage Therapy Foundation. Balleto has been a massage therapist for more than 20 years. “I also stress that it is the training and experience of the practitioner that should be the major decision factor in selecting a therapist.”
“We have to earn the trust of the female, or even male, clients, and we need to make everyone comfortable and let them know they are in charge of the massage,” McAleese says.
Balletto always talks with his clients about any fears. “If a female questions my practice, I simply ask them if they would be more comfortable receiving bodywork from a female practitioner. If they say yes, I simply refer them on to a female practitioner that I trust.”
It’s also important to communicate before, during and after the massage, the men say.
“If you’re not taking an intake form before your sessions, begin to do so. Find out if they’ve had a massage before, what did they like about it, what didn’t they like. Empower your client to be in charge of their massage and let them know that if for any reason they are uncomfortable they can stop the session,” says Scot Maitland, who has been working in spas around the country for three years.
“Explain draping to them, and together establish what areas of the body you’ll be focusing on. Check in with them throughout the massage and ask for feedback after the massage.”
Reassuring female clients
Male therapists also need to persuade females that they can handle the job just as capably as a woman can. Not only in the actual work, but also in listening and talking with them.
“A male therapist must be sensitive to a female’s needs in order for the female client to accept their touch and not give the initial impression he is there just to rub a body,” says Wolfes. “He must gain her trust.”
Some massage therapists have encountered clients who have had some type of abuse or trauma, or have some other usually unexpressed fears or anxieties that are activated by working with a male massage therapist.
“When I encounter individuals with these issues, I happily refer them to a practitioner with whom they would be more comfortable,” Balletto says.
Dealing with homophobes
Homophobia is probably the biggest issue that male therapists deal with when it comes to finding male clients. No matter how much experience a male LMT may have, some men just don’t feel comfortable with another man touching them.
“Some people thought you had to be gay to want to rub people, especially other men—and the societal fear of men touching other men, at least outside the athletic training room, [was an issue],” says Larry Warnock, owner of The Center for Health & Athletic Performance in Reading, Massachusetts. “By that, I mean people thought the only place where men could touch other men was in a medical situation.
Maitland says it’s been his experience that men are willing to overlook his gender if they are coming to him regarding pain management or are in training for an event. “If they are looking for a relaxation massage, they may prefer to go to a female therapist,” he adds. “I don’t take this personally because the issue isn’t about me, it’s about them.”
Phrasing can also be highly important. Using the term “therapeutic massage” may be better than “full-body massage,” for example. But many male massage therapists don’t think that they should have to issue some sort of safety defense.
“I personally think it is very demeaning to put something like “non-sexual” on a business card, or in an advertisement,” Balletto says. “I know of no other health-care providers who advertise themselves in this way. Why should practitioners of therapeutic massage and bodywork?”
The spa challenge
Many say that spas are one of the toughest places for males to succeed, primarily because clients expect—and request—female therapists. This makes landing a spa job a challenge to begin with.
“Working in the spa industry has been the biggest challenge for me due to the high number of [requests for] female [therapists],” says Maitland, who has been working in spas around the country for three years.
Maitland suggests that male therapists working at spas should communicate well with the co-workers who book massage sessions. “As a male therapist in the spa, I’ve probably spent more time getting to know the front desk and offering complimentary services to them so they know the quality of my work and can speak to that firsthand,” he says.
Massage therapist Jody Hutchinson has also run into roadblocks at spas. “Most places wouldn’t hire me—and when I did get hired I had very little work, as there were more females who performed more massages and occupied all the treatment rooms in the spa,” he says. “It’s easier to look for work in a sports clinic or medical setting when you are a male.”
Choosing a clientele
One group that doesn’t appear to have problems with male therapists—and even prefers male therapists, in many cases—is athletes. Because athletes understand that their bodies are their lives, many of them believe—whether correctly or not—that a male can better help their bigger muscles and frames.
“They do not care [if a male massage therapist] helps, as long as the person can get them back to the playing field,” says Warnock. “More than 90 percent of my clients are athletes.”
A therapist can begin to build an athletic clientele by volunteering at a local high school, community college and sporting events.
“You can also look at running clubs or triathlon events and find people there,” Warnock says. “When you are dealing with athletes, it’s a big word-of-mouth community.”
Times are changing
Not every male therapist believes that they have it tougher than their female colleagues do. Plus, the tide seems to be changing. Many are finding it less an issue than it has been in the past.
“When I started, practically every call that came in was looking for a female therapist. Some tried me just because they were hurting and needed something right away. Now, it’s not even questioned,” says Rosendahl. “They call me, probably thinking I am a woman because of my name [Gail], hear my voice, find out I am a man and still book the massage.”
Once potential clients give them a chance, the clients realize that any fears based on the therapist’s gender are unfounded.
“I never considered it more of a challenge to be a male massage therapist,” says Bob McAtee, owner of Pro-Active Massage Therapy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I’ve worked in many settings, including spas, health clubs, doctors’ offices, physical-therapy clinics and private practice. Experienced massage clients are usually more concerned about the quality of the massage than the gender of the therapist.”
Therapists of both genders encounter people who say things like, “‘I could never let a man (or woman) work on me or see me naked,'” McAtee says. “It’s only through receiving massage that such concerns prove to be unfounded.”
Newcomers to massage may be more concerned about whether the therapist is male or female, but experienced massage receivers usually are more concerned with the quality of the massage then the gender of the therapist, he adds.
“I would say that clients that often receive massage do not have a preference [of gender],” Maitland says. “In some instances, being a male therapist has worked to my benefit because of the perception that men are stronger than women. The main obstacles to overcome are fear and ignorance.”
With persistence, males can be successful massage therapists, with fulfilling and profitable careers.
“If you are male and want to make it in the field, you should never give up,” says Michael McAleese, the therapist who was told that “Men cannot make it as massage therapists.” Today he owns and operates Holistic Massage and Reflexology Center & School of Holistic Massage and Reflexology in Downers Grove, Illinois. “We have to work a little harder at trust issues, and you may have to start at some smaller health clubs—but if you are honest, sincere and do a great job, you can make it.”
Expert advice for male LMTs
“Don’t rely on training initially received. Continue taking more classes and improving techniques.”
—Michael Wolfes, Palm Desert, California
“Try not to get caught up in the gender-preference issues in the world.”
—John Balletto, Providence, Rhode Island
“Work hard and be sincere.”
—Michael Mcaleese, Downers Grove, Illinois
“Don’t carry business cards. Develop a couple of good 30-second commercials. When someone expresses interest in massage, deliver your commercial.”
—Bob McAtee, Colorado Springs, Colorado
“Don’t personalize rejections, or employer or client bias. Show how much better you are or can be.”
—Jody C. Hutchinson, Pacific Grove, California
“Learn different modalities. Doing the exact same thing over and over again gets boring. Changing it gives it a fresh spin.”
—Gail F. Rosendahl, Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
“Wear appropriate clothing. Don’t prance around in a T-shirt and shorts.”
—Lawrence Warnock, Reading, Massachusetts
“Have a plan for your career. What do you want today, next year, five years from now? You’re more likely to reach your goals if you have goals.” —Scot Maitland, San Francisco, California
“Be aware that so much of the marketing material in the industry is targeted to the vast majority of female therapists.”
—Wendell Dyck, Columbia City, Washington
“Keep your intentions clear and be professional.”
—Robert Mabe, Cambridge, Massachusetts
About the Author
Keith Loria has written for a diverse collection of publications, including Hockey Digest, Big Apple Parent, The Cooperator, NailPro and The Westchester Business Journal.
This article was originally printed in MASSAGE Magazine‘s November 2006 Issue