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#MeToo and the Massage Envy Scandal

Looking Back and Beyond

“Massage brings all the weirdos out of the woodwork. I mean real sick people who have problems,” massage therapist Kathleen Dynes told the Los Angeles Times in 1978, explaining she could understand why a local homeowners association boycotted her fledgling suburban massage business, despite her best efforts to make the office, where her mother also worked, exude an air of “bright respectability” rather than the “red drapes” and “thirty watt bulbs” that would suggest a front for prostitution. [1]

Nearly thirty years later, Massage Envy, the largest massage franchise in the world, has been hit with 180 charges of sexual assault and prosecuting attorney Adam Horovitz sounded a similar note: “An inordinate amount of people are attracted to massage therapy because of sexual interest … there’s opportunity in the massage room. When you get a massage, your guard is down completely.”

The assumption that massage has a seamy, even criminal, underside clearly dies hard. Yet the Massage Envy case actually illuminates how much the place of massage in American culture has changed in the years separating these two scandals — from a small, unregulated pursuit of “activist entrepreneurs” passionate about the therapeutic power of a still marginal, vaguely suspicious practice to a professionalized staple of the booming wellness industry — and suggests how the #MeToo moment has particular urgency in the rapidly growing, body-oriented wellness world. [2]

Sexualization in the Past is Not the Same as Sexual Assault in the Present

The Orange County business and homeowners who organized to force Dynes out of business were hardly unique. Vice reformers in the nineteenth century warned of the “certain moral evils” attendant to a woman massaging a man, and concerned citizens’ groups in the 1960s and 1970s often targeted both legitimate massage establishments that provided complementary medical therapies and illicit ones that covered for brothels.[3]

The reputation of the field at large suffered accordingly when these lines were perceived as blurred. Describing an office that looked much like Dynes described her own, in 1975 a pair of sex researchers barely disguised their disgust at the deviant, clannish “hand whores” who worked at an establishment deceptively decorated with “attractive furniture” and “bright colors” that misleadingly suggested “modernity, semi-elegance, and respectability.”[4]

Today, as massage has joined acupuncture, yoga, integrative medicine, and even manicures and blowouts as widely embraced forms of self-care, the distinction between therapeutic and erotic massage is far more brightly illuminated. When the New York Post in 2017 warned massage parlors and their patrons to “watch out” for an imminent crackdown, it most definitely is not referring to the day spas (such as Massage Envy, at the mid- to lower-end) that have become fixtures everywhere from suburban strip malls to airports to luxury hotels. But the Massage Envy case is not about a throwback to an era when associations of eroticism permeated this diverse field; it’s about an abuse of power paradoxically enabled by the current popularity of its most sanitized, culturally acceptable forms.

That’s Massage Therapist to You

Legitimacy has been hard won. “That moment when a client introduces [you] as masseuse or masseur can be awkward or educational,” trade magazine Massage advised in 2015, offering advice on how to delicately discourage a term “hijacked by prostitutes” but still widespread even as the industry has devoted the last several decades to establishing professional legitimacy.

Established in 1943, the American Association of Masseurs and Masseuses changed its name to the American Massage and Therapy Association; in 1983 it dropped the “and” order to confer authority as healers. Throughout the 1990s, as massage grew in popularity, so too did scientific research on its benefits and a regulatory framework that today stretches to 45 states. The profession is often the strongest voice for stricter regulation, precisely to shed the association with sex work. In the wake of a 2015 bust of a massage business for trafficking and prostitution in unregulated Kansas, one massage educator commented, “that you can literally just hang a shingle up and call yourself a massage therapist is horrifying to me.”

When Body Business is Big Business

If standardization and size are bulwarks against abuses that can fester when an industry operates under the radar, Massage Envy in 2017 is the last place an epidemic of sexual assault should strike. Back in the 1970s when single proprietor Dynes set up shop, she reluctantly had to register as a dreaded “massage parlor” since the “day spa” designation did not yet exist. Like many entrepreneurs in the fledgling wellness industry, she had few established authorities to turn to. Today, the exploding demand for self-care services has not only driven professionalization and regulation but also the corporatization of what was once a scattered landscape of small shops.

Valued at $1 billion, Massage Envy employs 20,000 massage therapists, serves millions, and is owned by private equity firm Roark Capital. Like most large franchises, Massage Envy has a human resources and compliance infrastructure unfathomable throughout most of the history of massage, and yet it seems to have failed utterly in protecting 180 clients from sexual assault. Its required training video, “Behind Closed Doors,” never mentioned what to do in a case of sexual misconduct, a glaring omission given the history of the field.

On the contrary, the abuses at Massage Envy — and what appears to be its systematic failure to address them — raise questions about how safely and effectively big business can engage in the intimate realm of bodywork. The franchise model that has allowed rapid growth to keep pace with growing demand also decentralizes responsibility and lowers barriers to entry such that the immediate response to the allegations appears to have oscillated between incompetence and blame shifting. More broadly, the scale of the company’s expansion is apparently outpacing the supply of qualified massage therapists, a recipe for a dangerous atmosphere in the near term and for deskilling in the long term — a version of the inauspicious, under-the-radar environment that existed prior to professionalization and regulation.

Now What?

So perhaps a faraway Wall Street firm — or an overstretched franchisee — might not be the ideal overseers of this embodied, intimate work. But this industry environment seems inexorable. Since the coincident booms in fitness and franchising during the 1980s, this business model has driven expansion not just in massage, but also the rapidly expanding wellness industry at large. In the twenty-first century, these inherently physical pursuits — rare holdout realms resisting total digitization — are especially attractive investment prospects. Struggling brick-and-mortar retailers hold in-store exercise classes to create foot traffic, while real estate developers court gyms as “anchor tenants” as a last resort to resurrect the shopping malls dying nationwide.

The massage world’s #MeToo moment is unlikely to unmake decades-long industry trends that exacerbated the abuses at Massage Envy, but it’s an important occasion for those in the body-oriented business to articulate new and nuanced approaches to vital work that is inherently intimate, and thus especially fraught. Consider that it was the request for a massage that tipped off many of Harvey Weinstein’s victims to his nefarious intentions but that Lupita N’yongo was less sure, since massage was a legitimate technique she’d encountered at Yale Drama School. There’s a perverse irony that at Massage Envy, a business born largely of female consumer demand for self-care allegedly abetted assaults on 180 women’s very self-worth.

As consumer and political demands for both bodywork and bodily self-determination grow and converge, this reckoning has urgency. The yoga community, for example, has grappled extensively with these questions in light of recent scandals and its own equally complex histories of sexuality and power and apparently unavoidable corporate future. In 2006, an AMTA blog post laudably implored male massage therapists “to recognize boundaries,” explaining that “Women … can intuitively detect when motives are not of a healing nature.” A decade later, intuition and ambiguity are not enough.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Associate Professor of History at the New School. This article was originally published by Nursing Clio. 

Footnotes:

1. Steve Emmons, “Masseuse Gets a Cool Treatment in El Toro,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1978.

2. Joshua Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

3. “Immoral Massage,” British Medical Journal, 2, no. 1751 (July 1894): 145-46.

4. Clifton D. Bryant and C. Eddie Palmer, “Massage Parlors and ‘Hand Whores’: Some Sociological Observations,” Journal of Sex Research, 11, no. 3 (1975): 227-241.

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Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

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