Rubdown Nation

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From her new perch at The Atlantic, former Reason editor Virginia Postrel profiles the massage industry. As with any good piece of business reporting, it's the details that make the article interesting. To see them, you'll have to read the piece; I'm just gonna highlight two broader lessons.

First:

The massage industry's product is invisible, less "real" than a hamburger or a video game. It doesn't contribute to national power or prestige the way semiconductors or aircraft do. It doesn't create world-famous stars like sports or the movies. Its establishments are small, often run by a single individual, and most of its practitioners lack a college education. It is literally touchy-feely.

When Americans think about the economy, we tend to focus on familiar, "serious" businesses–computers or autos or high finance. We don't notice Starbucks until there's one on every corner, changing not only what we drink but also how we live and work. Massage may not be the biggest new industry or the most influential, but it's a microcosm of how commerce and culture interact.

Second:

I don't buy the medical line, and I don't think it's necessary….Humans are sensory beings. Massage doesn't need to justify pleasing our muscles and skin any more than music has to justify pleasing our ears. Chefs don't have to call themselves "nutritional therapists." Hairstylists don't have to pretend that gray hair is a disease. Enjoyment is a perfectly fine reason to get a massage.

The piece is online for only a couple of days, so read it while you can. (Or just buy the damn magazine!)

NEXT: Is Modern Civilization Fragile?

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  1. But Palmer?s dissatisfaction and determination have already changed the world. Twenty years ago, after all, no airport traveler looked for a chair massage. Especially in Indianapolis.

    It’s nice to see that this article had a happy ending.

  2. I demand a Defense of Massage amendment.

    And grey hair is a disease. I’ve been self-medicating myself for years.

  3. I worked at a place a few years back where they had a masseuse come in once a month… I never knew that just having someone work on your hands and feet for thirty minutes could feel so goddamned good.

  4. This is one luxury I’ve recently been fighting against myself to get. I’m afraid if I try one, I’ll get hooked and wind up in an alleyway, homeless, and begging for change so I can get another massage fix.

  5. I’ve had exactly two massages in my life. Both were done by these petite hotties who were good at it. As relaxing as it was, I dreaded the part when they asked me to lie on my back.

  6. Hey, smacky, I might have to try that… it’d almost be worth the indignity.

    I imagine that I’d probably get small change from folks who are tired of the “HomelessVetNeedsHelpGodBless” signs held up by bored-looking kids with the obligatory mutt at their feet.

  7. Greatest rubdown I ever got was from a large Armenian man who twisted me into unnatural shapes and forced by body to produce sounds I hope never to hear again. It turned out he worked with the Russian Olympic team back in the 60s. I just remember him driving his elbows into my kidneys and shouting “Feels good, yes?”

  8. Jeff P:

    You’re anecdote is almost as disturbing as those Halls cough drop ads where the “menthol action” transports the geeky-looking cold sufferer to a Turkish sauna:

    “BREATH MY PASTY FRIEND… BREATH!”

  9. Akira:

    agreed. good call, Sir Knight!

  10. I have trouble accepting the massage as a non intimate act. That sounds harsh, and its not exactly what I mean. Let me try again.

    There is a latent intimacy associated with massage from where I’m sitting. I’d not let Jeff’s Armenian fellow bend me around, and I’d be really uncomfortable with an Armenian fellow giving my wife a massage.

    I kind of think that massage, and certainly the less professional back rub, is a kind of intimacy with plausible deniability built in. Of course, this could be my psychoses bubbling over again.

  11. There is a latent intimacy associated with massage from where I’m sitting. I’d not let Jeff’s Armenian fellow bend me around, and I’d be really uncomfortable with an Armenian fellow giving my wife a massage.

    I kind of think that massage, and certainly the less professional back rub, is a kind of intimacy with plausible deniability built in. Of course, this could be my psychoses bubbling over again.

    Not at all. I totally agree with you, Jason. Then again, I could be suffering from the same psychoses.

    Anyway, I definately agree that there may be a deniable intimacy built-in, as you so eloquently put it.

  12. Of course, this could be my psychoses bubbling over again.

    Its certainly no more inherent in massage than in any other activity where you touch someone else.

    So yes, I would say that either your psychoses are bubbling over, or you need to broaden your experience beyond the “Swedish Massage Institute” where you can get all those extras for cash.

  13. Its certainly no more inherent in massage than in any other activity where you touch someone else.

    Ha! Another denial.

  14. “Its certainly no more inherent in massage than in any other activity where you touch someone else.”

    with oil.

  15. To clarify, I don’t think there is anything whatsoever wrong with intimacy of the sort I associate with massage. There’s nothing wrong with engaging in it, seeking it out, or paying for it.

    I’m just saying that you raise an eyebrow at your Platonic friends who give each other back rubs.

  16. Jason,

    I agree. Some guy gave my wife a foot massage and I threw his ass out a fucking window.

  17. I’m just saying that you raise an eyebrow at your Platonic friends who give each other back rubs.

    I have a straight, male, married friend who gives me (not straight, male, not married) back rubs once in a while. He’s really good at it. I must have gotten 2 or 3 every year for the last 18 years. There’s definitely something “intimate” about it – for me, at least… Anyway he’s the only male I’m not dating whom I would allow to do this. Make of that what you will I guess.

  18. marcellus:

    That was beautiful.

  19. rhywun,

    Your comment illustrates my and Jason’s opinion, I think. I mean, if half of everyone thinks that there is nothing intimate about massages, and the other half believes there is, there is still a higher than 50% chance that one of the two people involved will find something intimate about the situation.

  20. On second thought, perhaps the math is submitted is a bit shady, but still, my point being that it doesn’t require reciprocal intimacy to be an intimate situation.

  21. Gahh! Typo! Should have read:

    “On second thought, perhaps the math I submitted is a bit shady, but still, my point being that it doesn’t require reciprocal intimacy to be an intimate situation.”

    Maybe it’s naptime.

  22. I get a massage on a monthly basis. My masseuse is a friend who runs her own 1-person massage business.

    There is nothing “intimate” about it except for the nudity and the rubbing.

    Now that you have digested that particular sentence, there is no sexual activity involved by which I mean that no-one’s genitalia are involved. Not that there would be anything wrong with that if that were the agreement, but in this case she does not sell “happy endings”

    That we Americans are at all squeemish about massage says loads of sad things about us as a society.

  23. That we Americans are at all squeemish about massage says loads of sad things about us as a society.

    I don’t get it. How is it “sad” that I don’t want someone else’s hands on my significant other? Please explain what it is I’m not getting.

  24. I’ve only had one professional massage and I really didn’t care for it.

    It is a different kind of intimacy, and one I don’t really enjoy, perhaps because of its ambiguity.

    I was dating the masseuse at the time, so maybe this is my own psychosis as well. (shrug)
    I don’t like the idea of getting waxed by some stranger, either.

  25. Two christmases back, I bought a portable folding massage table as a present to myself. My friends received cards entitling them to free massages.

    By definition a massage has to be intimate. However, it is possible to be intimate without being sexual. The best massage I ever recieved was from my 80 year old aunt who is a reiki master. It was healing. It was relaxing. It was intimate. It was sensual. But, it was NOT sexual.

    On the other hand, I cannot deny that skills at massage could easily be used as a disarming technique in seduction.

  26. Smacks: Do you have a problem with your sig other seeing her doctor? Probably not… and I guess bcse you consider the doc a professional but you don’t have the same opinion of a masseuse. How about getting a facial, a manicure or a pedicure (whether for a male or female): these are also pleasureable but are they not as problematic for you?

    Is it the nudity? Insist your s.o. wear underwear: many people do.

    But then here’s the rub: why is it that we have such an aversion to seeing nudity in any other way that sexual? Other cultures do not have this taboo. Other cultures are mush more blase about a little skin and they boggle at our reaction to Janet Jackson’s nipple-slip. (whether it was planned or not)

    I think that our pathological response to the naked human form is one of the under-pinnings of lots of things that are wrong with our society. I think it is ultimately why we have such a reaction among conservatives to anything sexual and especially gay. It isn’t gayness itself they react badly to, it is the implied cocksucking and buggery that drives them mad bcse both things are “dirty” — At least hetero sex, as nasty as it is to them as well, has the goal of making babies.

  27. his= his/her, or course
    that = than
    mush = much etc etc
    Typos be damned

  28. There are so many massages because enterprising folks realized a long time ago that there are millions of federal student loan dollars out there unclaimed, mainly because all the people with brains and drive were already using their share. These entrepreneurs realized that in order to tap the non-matriculated masses, they would have to offer a skill that a) a trained monkey could master and b) provided a second benefit as an easy cover for the world’s oldest profession. 🙂

    Really, some of you seem a bit clinical for a Friday.

    Caveat: I like a good massage, but preferably from my naked wife while I sip on a frosty IPA and tug on a fattie.

    On another subject, after I got over to LGF yesterday to look around, I appreciate this web community more than ever…love you all!

  29. Greatest rubdown I ever got was from a large Armenian man who twisted me into unnatural shapes and forced by body to produce sounds I hope never to hear again. It turned out he worked with the Russian Olympic team back in the 60s. I just remember him driving his elbows into my kidneys and shouting “Feels good, yes?”

    I’ve had one of those and while bizzare and not always pleasurable, you feel like a million bucks afterwards. Everyone should get one of those at least once a year. I go the less-brutal route more often than that, and it’s about the best non-sexual treat a man can have, but I still prefer the deep tissue and the bend me/crack me approach for lasting effect.

    As for the industry itself, it does have an awful reputation, especially when the parlors are asian-owned.

  30. I don’t get it. How is it “sad” that I don’t want someone else’s hands on my significant other? Please explain what it is I’m not getting.

    Do you mind when your significant other goes to the doctor? Gets a manicure? Gets a pedicure? Shakes hands? Hugs?

  31. I have no idea if it is true but I’ve heard that for “proper” therapeutic effect men should get massages from men. The idea is that most women are not strong enough to exert the forces that are required.

    I am of course referring to a massage for the relief of pain and stress not the fantasy of dealing with the lovelies in the Japanese or Swedish public bath (something that those cultures do not consider a sexual experience).

    It’s been so long since I’ve heard it that I can’t give a source.

  32. Smacks: Do you have a problem with your sig other seeing her doctor? Probably not… and I guess bcse you consider the doc a professional but you don’t have the same opinion of a masseuse. How about getting a facial, a manicure or a pedicure (whether for a male or female): these are also pleasureable but are they not as problematic for you?

    Damn you Garth.

  33. RE: the idea that massage is not sexual

    Americans universally seek a massage therapist of the same gender that they want to sleep with. There’s nothing “pathological” about that. Rather, it’s proof of the sensual nature of massage.

    RE: the idea that massage is just like a manicure or a facial

    I’ve never received a manicure or a facial during foreplay.

  34. I’ve never received a manicure or a facial during foreplay.

    Well put, Rhywun. Plus, somehow I think the chances of sexual arousal during a manicure, pedicure, or doctor’s appointment are much lower.

    Do you mind when your significant other goes to the doctor? Gets a manicure? Gets a pedicure? Shakes hands? Hugs?

    No. No. No. No. Sometimes.

    Garth,

    It’s not the nudity. It’s the touch that bothers me. But there’s really no conflict of interest in my case since my SO doesn’t get massages.

  35. Though I feel guilty about being a Neaderthal, I can’t help but be bothered by a male ob/gyn. Luckily, the wife feels the same way.

  36. I’ve never received a manicure or a facial during foreplay.

    My ex-wife was an Aesthetician. I used to get facials with “happy endings” all the time. I highly recommend it if you can get it.

    Sorry, if I’ve brought the discussion down. I just wanted to brag about that. I seldom get the opportunity anymore.

  37. Well put, Rhywun. Plus, somehow I think the chances of sexual arousal during a manicure, pedicure, or doctor’s appointment are much lower.

    Never had one myself, but I have a male friend who loves getting pedicures – and absolutely prefers them being performed by women.

    Mind you, this guy has a handicap that encourages him to do everything with his feet, so he may have a reason for such a fixation. 😀

  38. Pedicures are nice. I rarely get them, but once in a blue moon the wife and I will get them together.

    I prefer a woman’s touch in general though if I am making last minute reservations, makes no difference to me. While this may be TMI, I periodically also get my Neaderthal back waxed and last time it was a gay fellow.

    Everything was going swimmingly until he found out I was staight and then he got all quiet and uncomfortable. That was a real first.

  39. Yeah, if there’s a facial involved, foreplay is definitely over.

  40. Garth – Now THAT’S funny.

    Oddly enough, I even prefer to have my hair cut by an attractive female rather than a hairy Armenian guy.

    Sadly, the best haircuts I ever got were from a 60 year-old guy who’d been a barber since he was about 15. Even so, I still preferred the Honduran girl who would cut, wash and brush my hair and then follow it up with a shoulder rub.

    I tend to agree with smacky and go with (Pulp Fiction) Vincent’s take on massage:

    “I’m not sayin’ he was right, but you’re sayin’ a foot massage don’t mean nothing, and I’m sayin’ it does. I’ve given a million ladies a million foot massages and they all meant somethin’. We act like they don’t, but they do. That’s what’s so fuckin’ cool about ’em. This sensual thing’s goin’ on that nobody’s talkin about, but you know it and she knows it, fuckin’ Marsellus knew it, and Antwan shoulda known fuckin’ better. That’s his fuckin’ wife, man. He ain’t gonna have a sense of humor about that shit.”

  41. Goddamit, Steve, I’m trying to work in an office here! Where people can hear me laughing! Where uncontrolled laughter such as you just caused is a real problem!

  42. Rob,

    My barber’s got probably 10-20 years on yours and while I prefer a female for a shampoo, sh*t this guy cuts hair!…. And it’s funny, for a while in the 80’s in DC I used to go to this real barber shop — all guys, they even had copies of Playboy and Penthouse on the rack — and I could get a fabulous* haircut.

    But they closed in the early 90’s and my then girlfriend, now spouse, introduced me to Sophie who, while not all that great at cutting hair, was HOT, French, and would rub her pelvic bone agaist my arm whenever she needed to trim the top….. No massage ever did for me what Sophie did!

    It’s been years and now I am back to a male barber who can frickin’ cut hair!

    *the use of this word is supposed to be funny in an ironic sort of way

  43. I need one of the Sophie type. Anyone know of any good, hot hairdressers in the Northern Chicago area?

  44. I am more of a giving massage type of guy than a getting a massage type. I really only like to get one when I am hurt or sore.

    But I have gotten plenty in my day. When I was in Thailand I would go and have this young and little ladies give me a massage, and they were awesome. And I have to dissagree with the whole, ‘massage has to be given by a strong man’ thing. These ladies could apply enough pressure to cause a lot of pain

    So I had these ladies teach me how to give a massage so I could give massages to girls as either a seducing technique (it works wonderfully) or as something I could do to as a nice thing to do to someone I was dating. But the Thai girls would not let me do some of the moves to them as they thought I was a little brutish and might brake something.

  45. Garth,
    So… Whatever happened to Sophie? Heh!

    kwais – I’ve got to agree with you, it doesn’t take a big dude to put the hurt on. A tiny little Asian girl who knows what she’s doing can do the best job ever – or hurt you. Then again, my nerve endings start registering pain seeral feet from my body…

  46. I wonder if there’s a false dichotomy between the sexual and the sensual. Maybe more likely that one is a subset of the other? Perhaps the sensual does not always have to descend (or ascend?), er so to speak, to the sexual. But then again if we think of sex more broadly as the energy that powers all creative and nurturing acts then every act that is creative and nurturing (whether intended to be just ‘sensual’ or not) is sexual. Just a thought. I’m waiting for Jack Handy to pipe up now.

  47. I don’t buy the medical line, and I don’t think it’s necessary….Humans are sensory beings. Massage doesn’t need to justify pleasing our muscles and skin any more than music has to justify pleasing our ears.

    Massage by a professional may be the only way some people experience non-sexualized touch, whether it is perceived as touch-feely or not. And that may be where some spa massage comes in. However, there is a reason why massage therapists are recognized as health professionals in over half of the United States, and that is that they are indeed health professionals. Massage is a treatment listed in the AMA’s CPT Code Book and is prescribed for any number of health conditions listed in the ICD codes.

    If you want a seductive back massage, by all means, ask your sweetheart for a back massage. If, however, you are concerned about lumps in your breasts or the health of your prostate gland, you’d be more likely to go to your doctor’s office. Should you be suffering from neck and shoulder pain with limited range of motion following an automobile accident, and your physician prescribes massage therapy, you would want to find a massage therapist. Seriously, if you end up with your neck in a collar, you won’t care what your therapist looks like, but you will certainly want to see your massage therapist’s credentials.

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