American massage

Painting by Wang Yingying (汪莺莺)
Painting by Wang Yingying (汪莺莺)

Several years ago, the largest massage chain in the U.S. got the biggest marketing boost of its fifteen-year career with a dour BuzzFeed News story, “More than 180 women have reported sexual assaults at Massage Envy” (Baker). The findings, from interviews and testimony of aggrieved customers, exposed appalling behavior indeed. Many had their breasts or genitals casually violated while being massaged, but there were more violent 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 were convicted, but few of the other accused were, what with the difficulty of pressing charges amidst conflicting allegations over what took place in private rooms without witnesses. The masseurs named in the complaints were all terminated and blacklisted in the industry, and there may still be ongoing civil lawsuits. Massage Envy was expected to ride out the crisis, though the chain came under fire for having been slow to respond to the complaints until the scandal broke and not having in-house investigative protocols in place to deal with them at the outset.

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 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 combined with denial in the face of the truth ruled by default before it took a scandal to reveal the extent of the problem. I also suspect that many offenders, at least not the very worst of them, were otherwise decent people whose only real failing was their inability to understand workplace compliance. Not wholly clear about their role or just 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.

Uncomfortable as it might seem to those unfamiliar with the massage business, it’s a fact that many customers are drawn to massage due to the powerful urge to be erotically teased, manipulated, even violated. At the same time, of course, many more have no such fantasies and are deservingly outraged if it occurs.

I would ask not why they succumbed but how the chain has managed to pull off its overall 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. There must be many false reports as well: customers who imagine they have been inappropriately touched when they have not. Standard protocol (at least during my own massage therapy training a few decades back) allows stroking up to an inch away from the breasts, genitals, and pubic hair. Some recipients may perceive the therapist’s fingers as being more intrusive than they actually are, for instance, while being massaged along the sternum between the breasts, which is generally permitted. Further complicating matters is the ever-present contradictory signaling and misplaced body language, leading to honest miscommunications and mistakes. Without videotaped evidence, the presumption of guilt in most cases will lie with the therapist. Meanwhile, massage therapists may be sexually harassed by customers as often as the other way around. 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 less than professionally, you’ll probably have to spend thousands of dollars on countless massages before encountering a single masseur willing to take that risk and fast-track himself to termination, not to mention the risk of being busted 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 employ all available terms.


I am not expecting any erotics for my own session at one of the many Massage Envy branches in my hometown of Chicago.[1] 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 kindly inform me, though, 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. If we adjust to a full 60 minutes of hands-on service plus the expected 15-20% tip, their regular rate 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 at ten to fifteen dollars per hour.

In the lobby, they hand me the intake form on a tablet computer for ticking off a list of my known ailments—to absolve the company of responsibility in the event of some kind of seizure or heart attack—and a map of the body for indicating the parts requiring the most attention, apart from the groin area which is of course blacked out. I join two white female clients in a waiting room. 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 briefs compulsory in many Asian countries. Though as we shall see, the draping procedure in the U.S. is so strict and prudish that one might as well be wearing briefs. And there’s the rub.

Massage must be recognized in all its singularity to be at once the most ordinary and the most bizarre of professions. Despite the polite massage industry’s insistent claims to the contrary, the practice inexorably pushes into sexual territory. It’s 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, gratuitous acts, not essential to the job. By contrast, the massage therapist cannot avoid approaching the erotic zones. The more thorough the massage, the more these zones loom up. As the therapist’s sensuous hands glide 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 away because that’s what most customers want, at the risk of the rare customer who doesn’t—and an 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 stays a good six inches away from my body’s hazard zones. While she is skillful on the sanctioned parts, I can’t help feeling shortchanged, though not so far as to be upset, as I scarcely expect 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.

“Can I ask you how much you earn?”

“I definitely can’t tell you that.”

A very pretty receptionist with subtle Latin features 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 service is less refined and you are seldom queried about your experience in massage shops, restaurants, or other establishments where customer service matters. 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 casually. She can see I wasn’t blown away by my massage, but I don’t wish to complain. A single customer complaint in China can get the masseuse fired. More than once has a masseuse I was looking forward to seeing again been dismissed after another customer had complained about her. If I’m really disappointed in the service, I just won’t ask for the same person again. After literally thousands of massages throughout East and Southeast Asia, I’ve become a bit jaded and impatient. While my Massage Envy masseuse was adept enough and I’m not about to endanger her job, hers was a generic, underwhelming, one-size-fits-all massage.

The pretty receptionist sits down with me in the lobby, and I chat about my being back home after living in China for so long. She’s attentive and friendly, and I’m finding my interaction with her more worth my time and money than the massage. I’m tempted to ask her why she herself isn’t a masseuse, but I leave it at that.

What I’m after is a friendly massage. I try a place that should be able to deliver, a massage shop for men in an upscale, 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 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 café across the street, I return to the shop and fill out the intake form in the lobby. The receptionist points out a 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 gay white guy, is waiting for me, shakes my hand, and leads me to the room before I can have a beer.

What I receive is a replica of my Massage Envy treatment, except that it didn’t quite manage that. On the one hand, the slow graceful stroking, the hallmark of the so-called Swedish or “deep tissue” technique (some venues now differentiate between the two, charging higher for the more intensive labor of the latter). 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 turns me over, works my chest a bit, and time’s up. Does he ignore my requests because they’re 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. 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 not the butt of a joke, as if to say, “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 customers like you get it?”

A puritanical society expresses its conflicts over the body in mocking ways, and massage is a good example. 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, New Age massage. Many governments see the patent 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 body parts (as I experienced in South Korea), and so forth. 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.

In Chicago, massage was long outlawed through a combination of community intolerance and police intimidation. In the 1980s, dedicated training schools began to appear and licensed therapists sprung up in luxury hotels or did house calls. Street-front shops were few and far between, but the business thrived unseen, while a few Korean-run handjob parlors lurked in the dingy far West Side of the city. Only in the past decades has it taken off in a visible way. I refer not just to Massage Envy but its main competitor, the Chinese, who are branching out from their restaurant niche and rushing in to fill a vacuum, given their legacy in the massage arts. With each visit back to Chicago, I see more new massage shops sprouting in almost every neighborhood, though they remain vastly outnumbered by less ominous forms of bodywork—hair salons and nail “spas.” Apart, again, from the Massage Envy chain, almost all massage establishments are now run by the Chinese.

I try out one of them in another upscale neighborhood in the Lakeview community. In her 40s and attractive, the Chinese proprietor speaks confident 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 though not quite enough to incite me to come back. Then again, all that matters from the business’s point of view 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 constituents. The town was long dry despite the presence of Northwestern University; until recently 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. I now see that several have popped out of the woodwork since my last visit here, evidently to accommodate bored housewives migrating over from the hair and nail salons. The one I happen upon is Chinese-run and staffed. My masseuse is in her 40s and speaks no English. She becomes effusive when I use Mandarin. From Dalian, she’s been in the country for a year and a half. She works every day from 10 am till 9 pm, similar hours to massage workers in China (who tend to start at noon and work till midnight), but with tips can pull in much more income in the U.S.

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 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 common in parlors in China and Thailand. She repeats the move. My cock jumps to life and pokes out from the edge of the laxly draped sheet. If this were taking place at Massage Envy and I was the sort to take offense, she might now be out of a job. Working in a Chinese-run establishment, she’s a bit 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 whatever the hell went wrong; 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 thought she was hired to do, or the boss expected her to do. By inciting male customers back with these little erotic gestures, she is from the shop’s perspective the ideal masseuse. When things go wrong (and they do go wrong) it’s more often a female customer who has been inappropriately handled by a careless masseur, compounded by a communication breakdown when he doesn’t speak English.[2]

I get 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. Only the latter is important but a pretty face does sweeten things. She too lets her fingers slide under my penis while working my hips and continues to do so once I become erect, though again without caressing me. There is a subtle line that’s not to be crossed: too deliberate and it’s not only dangerous for them, but it’s boring for the customer. It’s the glancing moves while attending to the massage, the collateral stroking 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.

Back in Uptown, there’s a parlor that 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 scrutinizes 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 she whips off the towel and goes for my privates without formalities. I don’t like this approach, as again I find handjobs unexciting and it will double the session’s price on top of it. We chat as she listlessly kneads my flesh. She’s from Shenyang and has been Stateside for four years. I suppose if she were more technically adept, she could garner more customers. On the other hand, there are surely enough handjob patrons to bring in decent business—unless she gets nabbed by the police. She is taking a risk: any parlor locking you out so they can look you over calls attention to itself.

There is no typical Chinese massage. If you can get anything at the hands of Chinese masseuses in the U.S., from an unadorned handjob to the fussiest no-nonsense therapy, it’s because the same range of services 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 dispense a standardized product for customers who want that. Chinese massage in the U.S. is different in one respect: it can only supplant lingering stereotypes of the old Cantonese-run prostitution parlor by breaking into the polite massage industry. Yet even as it ventures out of the Chinatowns to set up shop throughout urban areas and adapts to the latest trends in the bodywork business, it eschews branding and keeps an intentionally low profile. Chinatown is still the main terminus of the immigrant pipeline, but they’re spilling over into other communities. Whereas the masseuses at the Lincoln Park shop reside in Chicago’s Chinatown seven miles away as they traditionally have 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, Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces in China’s northeast rather than Guangdong and Fujian in the south as Chinese immigrants have traditionally hailed from.

America’s relationship with its Chinatowns has long 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 grey 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 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.

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 partly 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 business has struggled over the decades to divest itself of prior associations with licentious massage, and as we have seen, 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 outsourced. To customers who only want a more affordable alternative to the big chains, the Chinese are happy to deliver. 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.

The March 16, 2021, mass shooting by a white gunman of eight massage workers and customers at several Atlanta spas threw a momentary spotlight on the Asian-dominated massage business. It also exemplifies how the bugbear of “trafficking” only opens up more crevices for law enforcement to insert its tentacles. The media attention did little to advance the public’s understanding or sympathy for these immigrants from China and Korea—here we see racism at work—who struggle in a limbo of widespread suspicion and a hypocritical, schizophrenic fascination that at once pulls them in and pushes them away, while police conduct raids on their workplaces or more duplicitously, ferret out sexual activity through entrapment (the practice of undercover police posing as customers and encouraging a sexual transaction on the massage table as grounds for arrest).

The renewed interest turned sour as major media outlets, blinkered by an operative vocabulary limited to the words “trafficking” and “prostitution,” cast aspersion on the entire massage business and the many immigrants trying to make an honest living in the grey economy. In one irresponsible investigative piece, USA Today found purported fraud at certain cherry-picked massage businesses and implied by extrapolation that all massage businesses were fraudulent (Quintana). There is no denying sex work goes on in many massage parlors, consisting mostly of innocuous handjobs, and why not? What’s wrong with erotic massage, which is legally tolerated in many countries? But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of massage workers in the U.S. do not engage in sexual massage. There is much corrective journalistic work on the topic to confirm this (e.g., Lam; Macmillan & Bhattarai).


In the U.S., where massage is often regarded in pejoratively lascivious (if not criminal) terms, the very idea of going for a massage can be a frightful prospect. In China and other Asian countries, the practice is identified in most people’s minds with the ancient art, even as it partakes of the sex industry; therapeutic and erotic massage may sit happily together in the same shop, while only the customers vary. But there is a third approach, one that views erotic massage as fully compatible with the traditional art, and the two shouldn’t be sundered to begin with.

Americans are among the most innovative people on the planet, and I now turn to a more creative community, to be sought out in the noncommercial sphere, in clubs and people’s homes. Although Tantric sexual yoga originated in India (and analogous Taoist sexual arts in China), Tantric massage supposedly developed in Germany in the 1970s. With all due respect to the Germans, this is as much to say that it developed in California, incubator of everything weirdly hip and cool, from Eastern spirituality to personal computers. Erotic massage in one form or another has been an American pastime for decades. The latest fad (I was always wondering when someone would come up with the idea) is “bondassage”—being shackled to the massage table.[3] A related and more established practice is internal massage, otherwise known as anal fisting. I received an introduction to this exotic art form at a private club holding regular gatherings in Chicago, attended by some 30 participants performing it on each other.

I arrive a bit early and watch the guests trickle in through the kitchen backdoor. Not everyone is known to each other, and there’s a safe for storing our valuables. I relax with a beer and watch a fisting video in the living room with a few other guests. Most are middle-aged or elderly white males, a few Blacks and Hispanics, and a couple guys in their 30s. It’s an acquired taste. Though I suppose there’s no reason why they couldn’t participate, it’s a gay event and there are no women. One dude I chat up turns out to be a “virgin.” That’s a relief. Not only am I a virgin, I am not even familiar with the lingo. He’s looking for someone with smaller hands, but most of the guys are on the burly side, bears. I realize I need to find a set of small hands too. One of the regulars has smallish hands and agrees to initiate me.

We proceed down to the basement. The space would lend itself well enough to a BDSM dungeon. There are seven slings bolted to the ceiling with chains. A smaller “playroom” off to the side has a mattress on the floor and a fridge stocked with industrially appropriate beer—Bud and Miller Lite. Everyone is naked or in jockstraps or leather and is assigned their personal can of Crisco, which cannot be shared for sanitary reasons. People are quietly circling and negotiating their choice of partner, before the first fistee mounts a sling. I watch as his fister puts on latex gloves and smears vegetable shortening over his anus. He proceeds to work in two, four, then five fingers, before his whole fist disappears into the 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 ask in disbelief. “I mean, you’re going to end up fisting the heart, aren’t you?”

“Pretty much,” says one.

Two septuagenarians are now going at it in a second sling. The fister is slight and ordinary looking though with a kindly mien; the fistee is fat and well past any semblance of male attractiveness. Had this gathering a more competitive purpose, he’d surely have hoped to latch onto a more agreeable physique. But it’s evident that is not the point. His only concern seems to be that his partner extracts as much pleasure out of the ceremony as he gets from delivering it. Flattened together as if in prayer, he pushes his hands all the way 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, like a priest or shaman performing a devotion. Whatever the spiritual purpose or lack thereof, he’s having what can only be described as a 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.

My fister is ready. I get on the sling naked. My ankles are hooked up to the chains by cuffs, my legs spread wide. What I need to do, he stresses, is breathe deeply. One finger slides in with no more difficulty than the doctor’s jellied finger during a prostate checkup. Two fingers don’t present a problem either. Things start getting jammed when he beaks four fingers together, thumb tucked in. Crisco is liberally applied, the spent white gunk falling onto newspaper spread out on the floor, as he wipes me off with paper towels torn from a roll on a post next to the sling: something like the practiced, cyclical procedure at the dentist’s, involving pain as well, but with a more ecstatic purpose. I have to stop, exhausted.

I later contemplate the aborted initiation. Though I’d certainly be able to take in more on a second try, I’d make faster progress in a private setting, as an apprentice to a master. I have nothing against exhibitionism, on the contrary. But the thing about theater is that your body—the rectal muscles to be precise—experiences stage fright even if you consciously don’t. I felt a bit like what the virgin bride must feel in those proverbial wedding ceremonies where the groom’s friends are allowed to barge in and witness the consummation in the bed-chamber. In order for everything to go off without a hitch, she needs to be forced, and the sheets plentifully stained with her blood. My failure to be fisted was a failure to do my homework, to practice with someone somehow, on myself if necessary, with tools to break myself in to the point where I was ready, to experiment with the required aids and implements—prostate vibrator, dildo, poppers, whatever it took. Yet it was also a communication lapse on my part: I should have insisted from the start that he not stop. I should have better communicated to him my patience and the latitude to continue and the scope to push myself harder.


[1] To preserve anonymity, I provide no names or addresses. Readers are at liberty to do their own research.

[2] A Google search of “massage” turns up a mixture of massage websites promoting their services and the latest among a constant stream of police busts of massage parlors around the country. Most of those arrested are Chinese.

[3] I proposed the idea (if not the term) in my Massage and the Writer: Essays on Asian Massage (Magic Theater Books, 2014).

Works cited:

Baker, Katie J. M. “More than 180 women have reported sexual assaults at Massage Envy.” Buzzfeed News, 26 Nov. 2017.

Lam, Elene. “Anti-racism: Asian massage and sex workers should not be left behind.” Ricochet, 28 Mar. 2021.

Macmillan, Douglas, and Abha Bhattarai. “Police crackdowns on illicit massage businesses pose harms to the women they aim to help.” The Washington Post, 3 Apr. 2021.

Quintana, Chris. “We found two dozen massage schools tied to prostitution or fraud. Here’s what to know.” USA Today, 12 July 2021.

*    *    *

This essay appears in Sexual Fascism: Essays, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.