American massage

Painting by Wang Yingying (汪莺莺)

Painting by Wang Yingying (汪莺莺)

Last November the largest massage chain in the U.S. got the biggest marketing boost of its fifteen-year career with a dour BuzzFeed story, “More than 180 women have reported sexual assaults at Massage Envy.” The findings, from interviews and testimony of aggrieved customers, exposed undoubtedly appalling behavior. Many had their breasts or genitals casually violated while being massaged, but there were more egregious incidents, such as one masseur who held down a customer’s mouth as he fingered her vagina, and another who raped a customer with his fist and ejaculated on her face. The offenders in these two cases have been convicted, but few of the other accused have, what with the difficulty of pressing charges amidst conflicting allegations over what took place in private massage rooms without witnesses. The masseurs named in the complaints have apparently all been terminated and blacklisted in the industry, and there are ongoing civil lawsuits. Massage Envy is expected to ride out the crisis, though the chain has come under heavy fire for having been slow to respond to the complaints until the scandal broke and not previously having in-house investigative protocols in place to deal with them at the outset.

As I write this, I’m seeing news stories on the next troubled domain to fall under the #MeToo movement’s roaming searchlights, namely the “silent epidemic of sexual assault and harassment aboard airplanes.” Now, I applaud the outing of harassment and assault wherever it has heretofore lurked. I am cognizant of the opening of the spigots of sexism and racism under Trump, and the need for a collective progressive stance to oppose it. But I make it a matter of principle never to take media outbursts or social hysteria at face value, above all regarding sexual politics and practices. I have no vested interest in Massage Envy, but in defense of the chain, the occasional slip-up or worse at the hands of a few bad apples was only to be expected, given the sheer scale of their nationwide operation. I don’t believe they would knowingly have employed sexual predators. Rather, displaced responsibility ruled by default, combined with denial in the face of the truth before it finally took a scandal to reveal the extent of the problem. I also suspect many offenders were otherwise decent people whose only real failing was their inability to grasp the matter of workplace compliance. Not wholly clear about their role or simply badly trained, they gave in to human weakness while oiling the naked flesh of a hot body. They then may have repeated the behavior once they saw they could get away with it, or deluded themselves into thinking their customers were into it too.

I would ask not why they succumbed but how the chain has managed to pull off a relatively impressive success rate. With 25,000 therapists at 1,200 branches nationwide performing literally tens of millions of massages every year (with a typical load of five to six customers per day per therapist or up to 100 massages a day at each shop), there have only been 180 reported complaints. True, for every reported complaint there are likely many more unreported incidents — 25 more on average according to Massage Envy’s own guesstimate. At the same time, there must be many false reports: customers who imagine they have been inappropriately touched when they have not. Protocol generally allows stroking up to an inch away from the breasts, genitals, and pubic hair, but some recipients may perceive the therapist’s fingers being more intrusive than they actually are (e.g., while being massaged along the sternum between the breasts, which is generally permitted). Further complicating matters is ever-present contradictory signalling and misplaced body language, leading to honest miscommunications and mistakes. Without videotaped evidence, the presumption of guilt in most cases will probably lie with the therapist. Meanwhile, massage therapists may be sexually harassed by customers as often as the other way around. Thus for their own protection, a strict, indeed hyper-paranoid professionalism is the rule, and this out of greater concern for their own job than any loyalty toward the company.

If you’re a female customer looking to be manhandled erotically, you’d probably have to spend thousands of dollars on massages before encountering a single masseur willing to take that risk and fast-track himself to termination, not to mention his risk of being arrested by an undercover cop posing as a customer. Or if, on the other hand, absolute safety is your concern, you can always ask to be massaged by a masseuse. (A note on the words “masseur” and “masseuse,” which have historical connotations of the old prostitution massage den and are rejected by the industry. I find “male massage therapist” and “female massage therapist” unwieldy and freely employ all available terms.)

If you’re a female customer looking to be manhandled erotically, you’d probably have to spend thousands of dollars on massages before encountering a single masseur willing to take that risk.

I am not expecting any erotics for my own session at one of the many Massage Envy branches in Chicago, my hometown. They are booked up when I walk in and I schedule a session a few days later. They have several 60-minute and 90-minute blocks open with different therapists. I get a first-timer discount from the regular $100 to a mellower $70 for a one-hour session. They inform me, however, that the 60-minute massage is actually only 50 minutes, since five minutes at the start and end are set aside for disrobing and getting dressed (this was a first). If we adjust to a full 60 minutes of hands-on service plus the expected 15-20% tip, their regular rate then amounts to more like $140 an hour — twice as much. Not cheap, particularly if you’re used to massage in Thailand, which offers the same quality of service (in fact better, it will turn out) for $10-15 per hour.

In the lobby, they hand me the “intake” form on a touch-pad screen, and I tick off a list of ailments (which absolves the company if I get a heart attack during the session) and the body parts on a map requesting the most attention. The groin area of course is untickable. I next join two White female clients in a waiting room with New Age decor. My masseuse, who is Black, arrives and leads me down the hotel-like hallway to a room. The typical American massage chamber is decked out in a pleasant, indeed dramatic fashion, with gentle lighting, hushed music (a vague mash of Middle and Far Eastern), fresh taut sheets folded open at an inviting angle, and U-shaped face pillow and cylindrical knee pillow at the ready, the massage table itself positioned diagonally to increase the room’s sense of space, or to forestall any associations with the rectilinear operating table. I slip under the sheet face down naked. One nice thing about American massage, as in Thailand, is you are invited to disrobe completely — none of those loathsome disposable shorts compulsory in many other Asian countries. Though as we shall see, draping procedures in the US are so strict and prudish that one might as well be wearing shorts. And there’s the rub.

Massage must be recognized in all its singularity as at once the most ordinary and bizarre of professions. Despite the polite massage industry’s insistent claims to the contrary, the practice inexorably thrusts up against the sexual. It’s simply not like other forms of bodywork — physical therapy, hair dressing, nail salons — which need not encroach on this territory. A fitness trainer may place his hands a bit lower on his trainee’s hips than called for; a hairstylist may brush her boobs against her male customer. These are extraneous acts, not essential to the job. By contrast, the massage therapist cannot avoid approaching the sexual zones. The more thorough the massage, the more these zones loom up. As the therapist’s sensuous hands glide repeatedly inward over the belly, thighs and buttocks, with each potentially disastrous stroke he or she must decide when to pull back. Some push the envelope and go right up to the allowable inch because that’s what most customers want, at the risk of the rare customer who doesn’t and a false accusation of molestation. Others stay a safe three to four inches away to forestall the slightest possibility of a customer complaint. My masseuse is at the more conservative end of this spectrum: she seems to keep a good six inches away from my body’s hazard zones. While she is admittedly skillful on the sanctioned parts, I can’t help feeling shortchanged, though not so far as to be upset, as I scarcely expected anything else from an American massage.

I’m curious about her job, eager to compare working conditions here with China where I’ve been living for the past two decades, and we chat a bit. When I ask her how much she earns, she replies, “I definitely can’t tell you that.”

One of the receptionists dashes up to me when I’m dressed and back out in the lobby. “Well, how was it?”

This exemplifies a cultural difference between the U.S. and China, a country where customer service is less refined and you are seldom queried about your experience in massage shops, restaurants, etc. It’s nice to encounter these stock yet reassuring acts of kindness again. But the way she asks the question is odd and disarming. Rather than cheery and routine, there is concern in her eyes, as if something might have been amiss and she’s inviting me to lodge a dreaded complaint. Perhaps this particular masseuse has problems I’m not aware of? Or all of them do? The massage was fine, I respond. I chat with her for a few minutes, about my experience being back home after living in China for so long. She’s attentive and friendly. In fact I find my interaction with her more worth my time and money than the massage itself.

As the therapist’s sensuous hands glide repeatedly inward over the belly, thighs and buttocks, with each potentially disastrous stroke he or she must decide when to pull back.

But it’s a friendly massage I’m after, and I try a place that should be able to deliver, a massage shop for men in an upscale, predominantly gay neighborhood in north Uptown known as Andersonville. They are also booked up though one therapist has an open slot an hour later and the same therapist again later in the evening. I worry he’s the least popular of the lot but take a chance on him anyway and reserve the first slot. They hold my credit card number and warn me they reserve the right to charge the full amount even if I cancel ahead of time. After a coffee at a sleek cafe across the street, I return to the shop and fill out the intake form in the lobby. A receptionist points out the waiting lounge down the hall, which has sofa chairs and a mini fridge stocked with free beer. He shows me the locker room. There’s an electronic code to open the locker, a sauna and a shower. Once I’m cleaned up and wrapped in the provided robe, I head over to the lounge. My masseur, a tall gay White guy, is waiting for me, shakes my hand and leads me to the room before I have a chance to try the beer.

I’d call it a replica of my Massage Envy treatment, except it didn’t quite manage that. On the one hand, the slow graceful stroking that is the hallmark of the so-called Swedish or “deep tissue” technique (some venues now differentiate between the two, charging higher for the latter due to the more intensive labor). On the other, the very particular draping, which has the sheet tucked taut under the inner thighs, and the prudishness. No matter it’s a gay place. Twice he asks me if I want more work on certain parts of my body. “Yes,” I twice reply, indicating my buttocks, thighs and stomach. “No problem.” Each time he proceeds to disregard them. With only a few minutes left he finally turns me over, works my chest a bit and time’s up. Does he ignore these parts because my request is naughty code for the libidinous? Or because I don’t have the torso of a twenty-year old athlete? Even chatting seems an imposition; he doesn’t invite conversation. Cleary, I’m not the point; his job is. If massage is an architecture, his is earthquake proof. By staying a good hand’s length away from my body’s danger zones, he makes himself inviolable against any accusation of impropriety. At the receiving end, the massage is expensive, perfunctory and disappointing, so much so I wonder if I’m the butt of a joke, as if, “You knew the massage would fall short of your expectations yet you went ahead and blew $100 on it anyway. How lousy does our service need to be before people like you get it?”

A puritanical society expresses its conflicts over the body in mocking ways, and massage is a good example. As I write in my book Massage & the Writer, this is why the art so confounds, fascinates and frightens. There is the seedy, carnivalesque tradition, like the foreboding “Thai” massage parlor I once visited in San Francisco which operated in a basement behind a steel door with a peephole, middle-aged Vietnamese masseuses and rats in the rooms. And there is the virtuous answer to this — the polite tradition of New Age massage. Many governments see the schizophrenic absurdity of massage for what it is — a sex business trying to pretend it’s not — and ban it outright, or place heavy restrictions on it, such as permitting only fully clothed massage or only on the back and feet, medically approved procedures for muscle ailments, specially designed robes with flaps to access certain body parts (as I experienced in South Korea), etc. Where full body oil massage is allowed, therapists in the U.S. are expected to internalize the strictures on pain of career disaster. The massages that result are paltry distortions of the ideal, a twisted practice shaped not around prescriptions but proscriptions. (For a sense of the extreme hostility and paranoia the massage industry in the U.S. is now facing, see for example Responses and Solutions to the Spread of Storefront Massage Parlors.)

In Chicago, massage was long effectively outlawed through a combination of community intolerance and police intimidation. In the 1980s dedicated training schools began to crop up and licensed therapists worked in luxury hotels or did house calls. Street-front shops were few and far between, but the business was able to thrive unseen. Only in the past decade or so has it taken off in a visible way, and I refer not just to Massage Envy but its main competitor, the Chinese, who are branching out from their restaurant niche and rushing to fill a vacuum, given their legacy of knowledge on the massage arts. With each visit back to Chicago, I see more new massage shops cropping up in almost every neighborhood, though they remain vastly outnumbered by less ominous forms of bodywork, the hair and nail salons or “nail spas.” Apart, again, from the Massage Envy chain, most massage establishments in Chicago are run by the Chinese (and to a lesser extent the Koreans).

I try one at random in another upscale neighborhood, Lakeview. (You’ll note that for the sake of preserving anonymity I provide no names or addresses; this is not a travel guide but a general analysis of the American massage scene, and readers are at liberty to do their own investigating.) In her 40s and attractive, the proprietor is confident in English and has a cultural grasp of the quirky needs of the American client. She’s got the business formula down and the stream of mostly female customers suggests it’s working: the New Age music and decor — the lobby coffee table has a toy Japanese rock garden with little rakes for drawing patterns in the sand — competitive pricing at $60 per hour, and experienced masseuses. At this shop they hail from China, Vietnam, Mexico, and elsewhere. Mine is from Mongolia. She performs a respectable treatment, edging a bit closer toward my erogenous zones than I received from the previous two venues but not quite enough to incite me to come back. After decades of massage experiences in numerous countries, I’ve become picky and have high standards. However, all that matters from the business’s perspective is that most of the customers come back.

Evanston is an upper middle-class suburb at Chicago’s northern edge. It’s known for its antique street lamps, lovely churches, and wealthy Republican voters. The town was long dry despite the presence of Northwestern University, and until recent times alcohol could only be found in restaurants. It’s the last place you’d expect to find a massage shop. Or maybe not. Things appear to have loosened up and I now see several have come out of the woodwork, evidently to accommodate bored housewives migrating over from the hair and nail salons. The one I happen upon is wholly Chinese run and staffed. My masseuse is in her 40s and speaks no English. She becomes effusive when I start speaking Mandarin. From Dalian, she’s been here for a year and a half. She works every day from 10am till 9pm, similar hours to massage workers in China (who tend to start at noon and work till around midnight), but with tips obviously pulls in more income in the U.S.

It’s the glancing moves while attending to the massage itself that electrifies things, the finely calibrated erotic massage that stops just short of sexual massage.

Despite their previous experience, America-bound Chinese massage workers have to be retrained in the polite massage routines and the slower, deliberate stroking favored by customers here. Her training seems not to have wholly succeeded, for she pushes all the way down over my belly to my pubic hair and the base of my penis. She stops short of grabbing me outright. It’s just affectionate teasing of the sort I’ve frequently encountered in China and Thailand. She repeats the move. My cock jumps to life and pokes out from the edge of the sheet as a result of her lax draping. If this were taking place at Massage Envy and I was the sort to grow outraged, she’d probably be out of a job and her massage career wrecked. Working in a Chinese-run establishment, she’s considerably safer. In the unlikely event a male customer ever complained, they’d deny everything and quietly shunt her to another massage shop in the extensive Chinese network. And she’d likely have wondered what the hell went wrong in the first place. All she was doing was intuiting the kind of treatment her customer wanted and delivered it. Inadequately schooled in U.S. massage etiquette, she was simply doing the job she assumed she was hired to do. Moreover, by inciting male customers to come back with these little erotic gestures, she is precisely the kind of masseuse the shop wants.

I have similar titillating treatment at a larger venue in Lincoln Park. From Changchun, this Chinese masseuse is in her 30s and attractive as well as technically skilled, a rare combination. Actually only the latter is important but a pretty face does sweeten things. She too allows her fingers to slide under my penis while working my hips and continues to do so once I become erect, though again without overtly caressing me. There is a second, more subtle line that’s not to be crossed: too deliberate and it’s not only dangerous for them, it’s boring for me. It’s the glancing moves while attending to the massage itself, the collateral stroking as it were, that electrifies things, the finely calibrated erotic massage that stops just short of sexual massage. I return to try another masseuse there who, in contrast, plays by the rules with a prim and proper treatment. Most of the customers I see coming and going at this shop are White males. Perhaps the place is acquiring a word-of-mouth reputation and there are finer masseuses I have yet to sample.

Meanwhile back in Uptown, there’s a parlor which offers a different sort of encounter. It’s decked out like your typical New Age massage shop but I have to be buzzed in the front door. An attractive but stern-faced Chinese in her 30s scrutinizes both my credit card and driver’s license — to ensure I’m not an undercover cop intending to entrap her into offering extra services and then bust her. The last time I was required to show my ID for a massage was in Singapore, where the police require parlors to record customers’ identification to protect the masseuses from violence. Here it’s to protect masseuses from the police. Satisfied, she lets me proceed. Once on the table and draped, I start speaking Mandarin. Now wholly reassured, she whips off the towel and goes for my privates without formalities. I don’t like this approach, as again I find handjobs boring and it will double the session’s price. We chat as she listlessly kneads my flesh. She’s from Shenyang and has been here for four years. I suppose if she were more technically adept she could garner more customers. On the other hand, there are surely enough male patrons who only want a handjob to bring in decent business — unless she gets nabbed by the police. They are taking a risk: any parlor locking you out so they can look you over calls attention to itself. And they will almost certainly get busted. Do a Google search of the word “massage” and most of the results turn up Chinese massage parlors across the U.S. getting busted on an almost daily basis, as though they presented some kind of terrorist threat.

There is no typical Chinese massage. If you can get anything at the hands of Chinese masseuses in Chicago, from an unadorned handjob to the fussiest no-nonsense therapy, it’s because the same range of services already exists in China. They too have big massage chains run top-down a la Massage Envy (such as Liangzi in Beijing and Yu Massage in Shanghai) which can dispense a standardized product for customers who want that. But Chinese massage in the U.S. is different in one important respect. It eschews branding and keeps an intentionally low profile, so that it can flexibly adapt to the latest trends in the bodywork business. It is also increasingly venturing out of the Chinatowns and setting up shop throughout urban areas. Chinese massage will only be able to supplant lingering stereotypes of the old Cantonese-run prostitution parlor by breaking into the polite massage industry. Chinatown still seems to be the main terminus of the immigrant pipeline, but they’re spilling over into other communities. Whereas the masseuses at the Lincoln Park shop live in Chicago’s Chinatown seven miles away and are bused in every day by company van, those I met at the other shops on the North Side and Evanston live near O’Hare airport. And they’re coming from different regions back home; all those I queried are from Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces in China’s northeast, rather than Guangdong and Fujian in the south as they long were.

America’s relationship with its Chinatowns has traditionally been fraught, when not hysterical (as in the riots and massacres in the 1880s stemming from the Chinese Exclusion Act). They continue to lurk at the edge of respectable society, not the abject poverty and destitution of the ghetto, but the gray area in between, a distant country ever trying to get a foothold in our own, never wholly welcome but one which serves up a cuisine we’ve developed a taste for. The Chinese know how to present you with only what you want to see, and if it happens to be Chinese food, then that’s all you will see. They are conscientiously discreet to a fault (if not inscrutable) and stay out of the way, apart from the blank-faced waitresses serving your food. The more intrepid and curious, however, can seek out evidence of darker goings-on not immediately evident to the eye — massage or sexual services perhaps — down side streets, unmarked passageways, labyrinthine basements, trapdoors, and smoky rooms. America sweeps its vice into Chinatown where it conveniently disappears yet is accessible to those with patience and persistence.

America sweeps its vice into Chinatown where it conveniently disappears yet is accessible to those with patience and persistence.

The polite massage industry remains a challenge for the Chinese. For many American customers, there is something slightly sinister and scary about a Chinese massage shop, however comfortably decked out in New Age trappings. This partially accounts for the success of the Massage Envy chain, with its reassuring suburban-mall design motifs; and you don’t see too many Chinese receptionists in their stores. In order to secure legitimacy, the polite massage industry has struggled over the decades to divest itself of prior associations with licentious massage, and as we have seen, necessarily adopts sweeping zero-tolerance policies toward the latter. Yet loathe they would be to admit it, they need their uneasy Other, the Chinese. They aren’t competitors so much as codependents, playing different roles in the industry’s distribution of labor, from which they both benefit. As the polite massage business grows and generates demand, more customers in turn expect a greater range of services than the conventional business can provide, but which can be conveniently outsourced. To customers who merely want a more affordable alternative to the big chains, the Chinese are happy to offer that. And to customers of more exclusive tastes, there are adepts at the ready to offer up sought-after services on an invisible menu — at a shop coming soon to your neighborhood.

Now that we are venturing back into erotic territory, there is another veiled region I cannot leave out of this discussion without presenting an incomplete picture of the American massage scene. I refer to noncommercial massage: what hobbyists do in their homes and at parties because it’s not for sale. This includes such skilled practices as internal massage. I was fortunate enough to receive an introduction to this extraordinary art at a private club holding monthly gatherings on Chicago’s North Side, attended by over 30 guests who performed it on each other. Americans don’t have any particular claim to this art; it can surely be found in Europe and elsewhere. But these kinds of wondrously weird phenomena have a tendency to crop up in this country first, and the U.S. surely has the largest number of practitioners, concentrated in New York, San Francisco, LA and Chicago.

I arrive a bit early and watch the guests trickle through the backdoor kitchen. Since not everyone is known to each other, there’s a safe for storing our valuables. We certainly won’t need anything on our person. I relax with a beer and watch a video of internal massage in the living room. Most of the guests are middle-aged or elderly White males, a few Black and Hispanic males, and only two or three guys in their 30s. It’s an acquired taste. There are no women, though there’s no reason why they couldn’t participate. It’s not a gay party exactly but a divine activity, one that should transcend gender and sexual orientation. One guy my age that I chat up turns out to be a “virgin.” That’s a relief. Not only am I a virgin, I’m not even familiar with the parlance. He’s looking for someone with smaller hands, but most of the guys are on the burly side. I also realize I need to find a set of small hands too. One of the hosts has smallish hands and agrees to massage me.

We start congregating in the basement. There are seven slings bolted to the ceiling with chains (a smaller “play room” off to the side has a cushioned floor and fridge stocked with ice-cold Bud and Miller Lite). Everyone is either naked or dressed in jockstraps or leather gear. Everyone is assigned their personal can of Crisco vegetable shortening, which cannot be shared for obvious sanitary reasons. People are quietly circling and negotiating their choice of partner for a bit before the first guy mounts a sling. I watch as his masseur puts on latex gloves and liberally smears Crisco around the anus. Gradually, he works in two, three, then five fingers. Finally his whole fist disappears inside his anus and rectum and continues sliding in up to the elbow. I am told some take the arm in all the way up to the shoulder.

“Where does the arm go? I mean, you’re going to end up massaging the heart, aren’t you?” I ask in disbelief.

“Pretty much,” one of them tells me.

If your massage therapist can extract as much pleasure out of giving you a massage as you get from receiving it, that’s the one you want.

Two septuagenarians are now going at it in a second sling. The guy being massaged is overweight and well past any semblance of male attractiveness, and the guy massaging him is slight and ordinary looking, though with a kindly mien. If this gathering had a more competitive purpose, he would probably have been hoping to latch onto a more agreeable physique. But it’s evident that is not the point. His only concern seems to be that the man receiving his hands can extract as much pleasure out of it as he gets from delivering it. Flattened together as if in prayer, he pushes his hands in and out of the anus one after the other, rhythmically rocking on his feet in unison with the rocking of the sling. Trance-like he stares straight ahead like a priest or shaman performing a devotional offering. Whatever his spiritual purpose or lack thereof, he’s clearly having some kind of mental orgasm. It’s awesome to watch. If your massage therapist can take as much pleasure out of giving you a massage as you get from receiving it, that’s the one you want.

Now my masseur is ready and it’s my turn to find out what internal massage feels like. I get on the sling naked and hook my feet up to the outside of the chains in cuffs, my legs spread wide. He knows I might not be able to take his whole fist into me the first time, but what I need to do (short of inhaling poppers), he stresses, is to keep breathing deeply. He applies more and more Crisco as the spent Crisco falls onto sheets of newspaper spread out on the floor, and he wipes me off with paper towels torn from a roll on a post affixed to each swing. Something like the practiced, cyclical procedure at the dentist’s, involving pain as well, but with a more ecstatic purpose. He manages to get three fingers inside before I’m exhausted. I will certainly be able to take in more next time, but I’d probably make faster progress in a private session with just two of us. I have nothing against exhibitionism. In fact the massage party is really something everyone who likes massage should eventually try. But it’s a kind of theater, and the many pairs of eyes on me are giving my rectal muscles stage fright. Let’s just say it’s a lot to take in at one time (pun intended). And I will try it again.

*    *    *

This essay will appear in Sexual Fascism: Essays (forthcoming, January 2022)

Related posts by Isham Cook:
The sewage system
Toilet terror
American fascism: The sexual rage of the state
Sexual surveillance in the Covid-19 era
Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

Of related interest:
MASSAGE and the WRITER: Essays on Asian Massage
Available in paperback and Kindle
See Contents

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