One summer day I notice an ad for a massage therapy training school. A massage school. The idea enthralls me. What an antidote to the cerebral mortification of the University of Chicago! I can scarcely afford the $3,000 tuition for the yearlong course, much less the time I will need to carve out of my busy study schedule, but sign up I must, and I explode with excitement anticipating the course’s start in the fall. It completely eclipses my fading enthusiasm for academic work, and in the final days before the school’s orientation, I toss and turn with rut-swollen, limb-splayed dreams. Of course I am aware that we will be learning strictly nonsexual massage, but let’s also realize that there is no such thing as strictly nonsexual massage. Massage is always already erotic.
The course is rigorous: three two and a half-hour classes per week, a lecture followed by two practice sessions. The lectures deal exhaustively with the musculature and skeletal system – which specific muscles attach to which bones and how to manipulate one against the other. In addition to techniques in Swedish oil massage, we acquire a few Eastern methods like acupressure and the meridian system. The school is run by the ebullient Dave and Pete and a team of female assistants culled from among the program’s graduates. There are sixty of us in the class, fifty-five females and five males. Most are in the nursing or physical therapy professions and intent on expanding their repertoire of techniques or launching their own massage therapy practice.
The ground rules are laid out for us in the orientation. Massage therapy is sharply delineated from sex massage and prostitution. Chicago’s prostitution laws are so stiff that female undercover vice squad officers are known to pose as customers and dupe both male and female therapists into massaging their breasts in order to arrest them for prostitution. For our protection, a sheet and towel-draping procedure has been worked out so that unlawful areas of the body are never touched or exposed. We’re allowed to massage the chest between, around and under the breasts along the sides. We’re allowed to massage the inner thighs and belly up to an inch away from the pubic hair. Unless a customer wants to wear underwear, the buttocks and outer pelvis are normally massaged, with the exposed buttock worked on one leg while the other leg and the groin are draped.
For the practice sessions we divide into three groups on different days and work openly together in the room to facilitate group feedback. When it’s our turn to be practiced on, we disrobe and wrap ourselves in a sheet before mounting the massage table. There’s a screen and a bathroom for undressing in privacy, but we’ve been told that if anyone prefers to disrobe openly his or her right to do so is to be respected (tacitly sanctioned as well by the full nudity illustrated in the California-style massage technique books sold in the school’s front shop). We’re also warned that males are liable to get involuntary erections while being massaged, and everyone needs to deal with that fact and ignore it when it occurs. Finally, we’re required to pair up together on our own time for extra massage practice and turn in a quota of feedback forms.
The following May, eight months later, we break for a few weeks before the course’s final term. I receive a phone call from Pete that I need to come down to the school to discuss some matter. I wonder if they have a project in mind for which my research or writing skills are needed.
“Do you know why you’re here?” they ask when I sit down in their office.
“We have reason to believe that you have been sexually harassing some of the women in the school.”
“We’ve gotten complaints on separate occasions from five or six women. So there’s now the question of the ethics of your membership.”
“I haven’t harassed anyone. Who complained? When?”
“I’m afraid we can’t reveal their names.”
“What exactly are the complaints?”
“To begin with, it’s claimed you’ve exposed yourself with an erection when disrobing. You’ve touched the breasts and genitals of some of the women while massaging them. You’ve encouraged sex during massage by using provocative hand gestures or verbal suggestions, and you’ve encouraged some to touch your penis. Is any of this true?”
“Then how is that five or six women individually came to us with complaints about you? If there had only been one or two, it might have been due to some misunderstanding, but we’re seeing a pattern here. Are you denying that any of this occurred?”
“Yes, I am. I emphatically did not do any of these things I am accused of.”
“Well, Isham, this puts us in a rather awkward position, because we’ve got five or six people who have made complaints about you. Why don’t we start at the beginning, and you tell us about any incidents which might have given rise to these complaints.”
“Five or six people – no way. This is unbelievable. What do you mean ‘five or six’? Is it five or is it six?”
“Again, we can’t reveal names.”
“Okay, yes, I regularly undress openly during the practice sessions and I know I’m the only one who does so, but as you stated on the first day we’re allowed to disrobe openly. And I think you’re aware I always do it discreetly, facing the wall and away from everyone. I’ve never had an erection while undressing. Anyone who accused me of disrobing with an erection is lying.”
“At least one of the women claims you disrobed with an erection during massage practice at her apartment.”
“The only time I disrobed openly at anyone’s apartment was at Kate’s place, but I certainly did not have an erection. Yes, I did get an involuntary erection while she was massaging me. You know this happens. But it only happened after I got on the table.”
“You didn’t encourage her to touch you or insinuate anything with body language?”
“Absolutely not. I was embarrassed when I got the erection, and I apologized to her for it. She said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I went to her place twice. I got an erection on the first visit. If she was so upset about it, then why did she invite me back again? It was during the second visit that I undressed openly, figuring she was cool about it. I again got an erection while being massaged, and like the first time it went away after a few minutes. Then after massaging me she openly took off her clothes and got on the table topless, with the sheet covering her lower half. At no point did I do anything to encourage sex.”
“You didn’t touch her sexually when massaging her?”
“No, I did not.”
“Did you massage her breasts?”
“No. I massaged between and around them in the usual way, exactly as if they had been covered with a towel.”
“Did she get excited?”
“If she did, she didn’t show it. And that was that.”
“Did you get an erection while massaging her?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember. I might have, but my clothes were back on when massaging her, so she hardly would have noticed. C’mon, you’ve never gotten a hard-on when massaging a woman?”
“Did you press your erection against her while massaging her?”“No, I definitely would not have done that. Look, she had a big scary Doberman pinscher shut in her bedroom that was barking during our massages and I was going to start harassing her? I just wanted to have a nice massage with her. I liked Kate. She even invited me over to her friend’s place afterwards for coffee, and the three of us talked about going camping together.”
“You mean to say, if she didn’t have that dog there, you would have been more aggressive with her?”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Another woman says you touched her vagina while massaging her.”
“That was probably Trish and Mable. They came over to my place once. I can tell you exactly what happened. I was massaging Trish on the inner thigh. She has a lot of pubic hair. It extends way down, like a beard, and I accidentally brushed the edge of it with my fingertips. I touched it so lightly I wasn’t even aware of it until she mentioned it. I apologized and was careful not to do it again, and that was that. She really complained about that?”
“She claims you touched her vagina.”
“That’s not true. I touched her hair, not her vagina. Who knows, maybe in her mind it felt like her vagina was being touched. I’m sorry if she got upset, but I didn’t intentionally do anything. I know we’re supposed to be careful not to graze someone on the wrong place, but she needs to go to you to complain about a single trivial occurrence? Speaking of accidentally touching the genitals, I can tell you about how I’ve been touched by some of the women at this school. And I haven’t complained. Once during a practice session here one of the female assistants – I won’t mention her name since I don’t think it’s worth complaining about – was showing some of us how to do effleurage on my torso. When she brought her strokes down over my belly she stuck her hand under the sheet all the way to my penis – several times. I was actually rather shocked, since I never suspected a trainer of all people would go that far, but I wasn’t upset. So what if she touched my penis? And she really did touch me, deliberately – unlike these accusations against me. It was done in a playful way. It was no big deal. It was funny. It was like we had a little secret, and the others had no idea. I’ve got better things to do with my time than cause a fuss over it.”
“Did you get an erection?”
“No, that time I did not. And that reminds me of the time I got together with Martha for massage practice. Do you know what she did? She was massaging my stomach, and her hands were also going down under the sheet to my pubic hair. This time I did get an erection, which stuck out from under the sheet. With each circular stroke she bent my penis sideways before releasing it and letting it spring back. She did this repeatedly, as if fascinated. True, I didn’t stop her, but why should I have? We’re adults. I didn’t feel any crime was being committed. I didn’t do anything to discourage it, but I didn’t do anything to encourage it either. My erection went away anyway and nothing came of it. Was she one of the ones who complained about me too? Oh, my god. Okay, that’s Kate, Trish, and Martha. Who else?”
“Perhaps you can tell us?”
“I really can’t think of anything else that happened. There was one other woman who came over once and we got sexual during the massage and made love, and it was completely consensual and she initiated it and wanted it. But I don’t want to go into that, as it’s a private matter and there’s no way she could have accused me of anything.”
“How do you know it was consensual?”
“Oh, my goodness. I got hard and when she finished massaging me she said she had wanted to take me in her mouth. And when I was massaging her back, she turned over naked and said she’d never had her breasts massaged before.”
For hours we go over and over the same details. I think they are finally won over by the consistency of my account, as they seem to soften up a bit by the end. I tell them I’m willing to meet face to face with the women in a group session to try to thrash out what gave rise to the misunderstandings and see if we can make amends. They agree that this sounds fair. They will ask the women if they’re willing to do this and then get back to me in a few days.
For several days afterwards I am shocked and depressed and confused by the accusations. A week goes by with no word from the school. I wonder if the women are too embarrassed to confront me, now that we’re getting down to brass tacks. In any case, what’s clear by this point is that there is no way I can work with these people again, even if things did get resolved. I’m thoroughly disgusted by the experience, and accordingly I inform Dave and Pete that I’m quitting.
The facts: I undressed openly but circumspectly. I got the occasional brief erection under the sheet while being massaged. I never actively encouraged sex with my massage partners in any manner, whether through verbal or bodily insinuation, nor touched any of them lasciviously (as some did with me).
But toss their accounts together into a juicy mix and the facts recombined to turn out conveniently and compellingly against my favor. I was the class pervert, the male lout who compulsively exposed himself and leeringly brandished his hard-ons, who took advantage of female classmates by molesting them while vulnerable and helpless on the massage table and egging them on. It must have seemed like they had a pretty strong case against me, especially after much gossiping and whipping everything up into a frenzy, with all the elements – flagrant exhibitionism, erections, rumored sexual come-ons – falling in place with a sophistic and syllogistic logic to establish a perfect scenario of depravity beyond any reasonable doubt. Men who undress openly and get erections are guilty of sexual harassment. Isham undressed openly and got erections. Therefore Isham is guilty of sexual harassment.
I scour my memory for any other incidents that might have contributed to my selection as a scapegoat for the class’s surplus of sexual guilt. Nobody enters a massage school unburdened with some brand of sexual baggage. It’s what draws one to massage, just as psychologists are drawn to their profession as a way to work through their own mental issues.
It is a strange activity, this “therapeutic” massage. Effective though it is in treating inflammations of the muscles, the ultimate purpose – as with all massage – is to train sensuous hands on oiled flesh in order to drive and release intense feelings of bliss. We learned to work the trapezius muscles along the spine to roll out the endorphins, the body’s natural narcotic, to induce a drug-like high, and to dislodge embedded memories from the pectoral muscles of the upper chest. This caused some of the women on practice nights to break down in tears. A thorough massage of the inner thighs and buttocks fires up the sexual hormones, spraying the room with pheromones and pungent odors and dripping secretions and perspiration on the sheets. How long can they keep up the pretense that it’s only just physical therapy? Was I the only one dealing with fantasies? I was practicing on Keith once, the other male in our group, when I noticed he had neglected to wipe off the remnants of the morning masturbatory jism encrusting his belly hair. Now what if I had been cited for that?
The massage class was a boiling cauldron spewing emotions like lava, lava that began to flow my way. Then there was the Carol incident, which didn’t involve anything sexual yet couldn’t have helped my case. Chummy with Trish and Mable, Carol disliked me from the very start. Hers was an icy aspect that made me to understand how reprehensible and unforgivable my act of unveiling in the open was (though it is curious that Trish herself undressed out in the open with me on our first practice session, only to desist thereafter). I hesitate to pass judgment on others who may have their own justification for their biases, but I have to say she wasn’t the nicest of women. This was apparent in the capacious boundary she established around herself, so that not even the mild-mannered Keith dared approach her for conversation, to say nothing of massage practice, while she and I avoided each other like timeworn enemies, taking up positions at opposite ends of the room.
One day I brought some eucalyptus-scented oil to class and was massaging my partner with it. The sharp invigorating fragrance shot through the premises more aggressively than expected, and a hyper-allergic condition that none of us knew about caused Carol to faint and collapse. She soon revived and was okay, though shaken and had to be taken home, but not before she and her cohorts strafed me with fierce glances on the way out.
Now, whereas the eucalyptus episode was an accident, however susceptible to misconstruction and possible repercussions, I must concede several miscalculations on my part that clearly enabled the scandal to take root. First, of course, was my undressing in the open. I had long celebrated nudism and naturism. The big mistake was to reveal this enthusiasm where it not only had no place, but was incendiary – a massage school. American society has a hard enough time accepting the natural human body; nudity and massage are volatile enough on their own terms. How could I not have anticipated the affront of trying to combine them?
The problem was my being thrown off by the official invitation to unveil openly. And the more I considered the reason why, the more alarmed at myself I became. In short, I betrayed an inability to distinguish between the literal and the figurative, the denotative and the connotative – despite all my years of study in English literature and poetry, where such distinctions form the basis of our working vocabulary. When Dave and Pete announced that the right of anyone who wished to disrobe openly was to be respected, they didn’t really mean it. On the contrary, it was taken for granted that no one would dare do so. But as they were reluctant to appear overly dictatorial by forbidding it outright, they had to come up with a way to hint at what they could safely assume everyone would plainly understand. So they teased the idea.
Likewise their advice to take any male erections in stride wasn’t meant literally but figuratively, metaphorically, as if the erection was a normal and natural physiological response. This was their form of advertising, of self-promotion, and who knows, they may genuinely have been sympathetic to the idea in a utopian sense. But just as nobody takes ads at face value, nobody would have failed to register their words as a mere rhetorical gesture toward New Age sexual “wellness,” when the reality was that under no circumstances could an erection be countenanced. This was simply understood. As for so-called “involuntary” erections – the male’s inevitable excuse for a willful erection – the problem was quite easily solved: any male harboring even the remotest suspicion he might be susceptible to an involuntary erection on the massage table had a moral obligation not to attend the course. His sense of decency and responsibility to avoid at all cost the traumatizing of his classmates should prevent him from ever enrolling in the first place.
My final blunder is more mystifying, and to this day I can’t understand how foolish I could possibly have been. Before the start of our orientation on our first day, I had had a brief chat with Pete and handed him a short story of a lubricious and witty massage seduction scene by the French erotica author Anne-Marie Villefranche. I just had to give it to him, figuring he would appreciate its humor. He finally got back to me about it: as more evidence against me in the harassment charges.
* * *
Read the book in which this chapter originally appears: LUST & PHILOSOPHY