Originally written as a research paper for ENG 112 at UBC. Republished here for archival purposes.
According to Tom Delph-Janiurek, a “mis-performance of voice” may be necessary in order to gain authority in specific interactional spaces by creating a display of control and assertiveness (277). He proposes that the vocal performances in teaching spaces adapt to their social roles of authority by opposing the hegemonic heterosexuality in voices and perform vocal features of “drag” without giving up their gendered identities, contributing to and disrupting the “heterosexing of [teaching] space” (277). In spite of his conclusion regarding voice as “drag”, he fails to thoroughly assess the aspects outside of vocal performances that also relate to the projections of gendered bodies such as embodiment. A performed gender role relies on the physical aspects of body language and gesture in addition to voice in order to create a complete portrayal of a sexualized identity.
The greatest panic of heterosexual men may be the perceived inability to conform to the hegemonic image of masculinity, especially in a female dominated environment (Delph-Janiurek 265). As a result, men may not be willing to enter a setting of close relations and intimacy such as massage therapy possibly by reason of homophobia, alongside the belief that it is solely a woman’s profession (van Meter, 2006). Female dominance is evident in massage therapy because of the nurturing and caring qualities that are typical of hegemonic femininity and this particular profession (Dobson, 2005). However, not all men share this same necessity of adhering to an idealized, unachievable masculinity, as there is still a presence of men (albeit a scarcity of them) in female-dominated work environments (van Meter, 2006). In consequence, men are forced to adopt effeminate qualities to gain authority in the interactional space of massage therapy. Thus, how are men’s gendered identities performed when they cross the boundary of conventional gender roles and enter a female-dominated work setting?
Men In Massage
The Performance of Hegemonic Femininity by Male Bodies in the Female-Dominated Environment of Massage Therapy
Studies have shown how sexualized bodies adopt characteristics of other gendered identities to better perform their occupational roles. According to Tom Delph-Janiurek (1999), a “mis-performance of voice” may be necessary in order to gain authority in specific interactional spaces by creating a display of control and assertiveness (277). He proposes that the vocal performances in university teaching spaces are adapted to their social roles of authority by performing vocal features of “drag” without sacrificing their gendered identities (277). However, he fails to thoroughly assess the aspects outside of vocal performances that also relate to the projections of gendered bodies such as embodiment. As previous evidence suggests, performed gender roles rely on the physical aspects of body language and gesture in addition to voice in order to create a complete portrayal of a gendered identity.
Delph-Janiurek proposes that the greatest panic of heterosexual men may be the perceived inability to conform to the hegemonic image of masculinity, especially within a female-dominated environment (265). As a result, van Meter theorizes men may not be willing to enter a setting of close relations and intimacy such as massage therapy possibly by reason of homophobia, alongside the belief it is solely a woman’s profession (48). Moreover, Dobson illustrates how female dominance is evident in massage therapy because of the nurturing and caring qualities that are typical of hegemonic femininity and this particular profession (165). McCarthy notes how “men… are constructed by gender ideologies that discourage their participation in… caretaking activities that involve body intimacy” (12). However, van Meter suggests not all men share this same necessity of adhering to an idealized, unachievable masculinity, as there is still a presence of men (albeit a scarcity of them) in female-dominated work environments (48). Thus, men are forced to perform femininity in order to gain authority in the interactional space of massage therapy.
According to Sullivan, people are drawn to massage as a form of health care therapy because of the psychosocial processes relating to contact, comfort, connection, and caring (182). He also claims the “culture of care” affiliated with massage therapy provides clients with “benefits such as relaxation, feelings of well-being, improved circulation, and reduction in anxiety and pain” (181). A consumer survey conducted in 2007 by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) found 25 percent of men, relative to 43 percent of women, had a massage within the past five years; 30 percent of the total recipients had massage therapy for medical reasons, whereas 22 percent did so in search for relaxation and 13 percent for indulgence. These statistics suggest men and women mainly seek massage therapy for (medical) maintenance of the body.
The profession of massage therapy is recognized as women’s work because of its associations with qualities of mothering. According to AMTA, approximately 82-84 percent of the 258 000 total therapists in the United States are female. Both Dobson and McCarthy agree the nature of intimacy in massage is inherently related to the stereotypical characteristics of nurturing and caring perceived in hegemonic femininity. They emphasize how massage is a sensual and intimate profession, where these “natural properties” of femininity parallel the nurturing and caring mothers typically display to their children, relative to the infrequent physical interaction children receive from their fathers (171; 180). Dobson speculates that the similarities between the natures of work in massage therapy and being the caretakers of the family are intrinsic precursors to the societal idea of massage being a profession of femininity, where women are typically located in the “domestic sphere of work” in a heteronormative society (9). However, she also suggests women are drawn to massage because of its self-employability and flexible scheduling, which ultimately permit women to achieve a balance between work and family (9).
The preference for female massage therapists is determined by the construction of gender roles in a heteronormative society. Through van Meter’s interviews with licensed therapists, she found their clients tended to have the preference of female therapists over male ones when scheduling appointments, some to the extent where clients would rather wait for the next available female therapist (when no others were available) and decline the offer for a male therapist, even after reassurance by the receptionist concerning the proficiency and experience of the male therapist (48). Notably, for women having had experience(s) with violent men, Klein reveals the preference for female therapists may develop from their fear of being sexually assaulted, as female therapists provide the safety and comfort male therapists typically may not be able to contribute to (13). Dobson continues by suggesting the difficulty for male massage therapists to reach out to female clients is a result of the conventions of a heteronormative society implying “all heterosexual men must want sex with women” (180).
Male clients who choose to embrace massage therapy will request female therapists to pronounce their masculinity in this setting of femininity (Klein, 186). Socially constructed homophobia functions as a constituent in determining the masculinity of men in massage therapy; Klein suggests homophobia has been internalized to the degree where the notion of being massaged by another male is perceived as unconventional and irrational in society (13). Furthermore, van Meter illustrates how the sexualisation of touch heightens the difficulty for male therapists in gaining male clients as Dave Murdock, a nationally certified massage therapist, notes, “Your potential male clients are afraid you might be gay and your potential female clients are afraid that you’re not” (48). However, as noted by Nevels through an interview with Pete Whitridge, a licensed massage therapist and former assistant director of the Florida School of Massage in Gainesville, there is minimal gender difference once the client has overcome the initial barrier of sexualisation and enters the massage room and gets on the table (108).
Massage therapy is not openly accepted in a heteronormative society because of its implied associations with sexuality and intimacy. Nevels identifies men as being hesitant in accepting massage as a form of health care therapy due to the perception that having massage means being “pampered” (which relates to indulgence and luxury), rather than having the body being medically “maintained”, ultimately leading to the disruption of the “hegemonic normative prescriptions of gender” (104). Moreover, she believes the conventional performances of male gendered bodies are illustrated through the omission of femininity and therefore, massage, because therapy in this form does not recognize their masculine needs (104). To Connell, hegemonic masculinity forces men to disregard qualities of femininity in body language and speech (cited in Delph-Janiurek, 265). Similarly, Pascoe suggests any qualities of effeminacy in the behaviour of men results in being labelled as non-heterosexual, consequently “powerfully undermin[ing] a man’s masculinity and social value in a misogynist, heteronormative culture” because of the constant judgement by society (cited in Klein, 186).
Males interpret touch differently than females as a result of the physical interactions they, as children, have with their parents. According to Klein, young children must have physical interaction as a form of “social nutrition” in order to grow and develop in society, despite human sexuality being restrained throughout childhood (49, 50). Kiely’s study of fathers in families illustrates how fathers rarely (if at all) have physical interaction with their children: 59 percent of respondents were never hugged by their fathers whereas 61 percent were occasionally hugged by their mothers (cited in McCarthy, 180). McCarthy proposes this evidence leads to the belief that touch is solely for women in a heteronormative society, as patriarchal ideologies insist men have minimal physical interactions (of intimacy) with each other (180). Thus, while women interpret touch as a sign of friendliness, men interpret it as being intrusive (180).
The impartiality of a male’s performance in massage therapy deprives them of their own embodied experience of healing from massage (van der Riet, 153). Seidler emphasizes “learning to be a man means learning to be impersonal” by reason of the “hegemonic scripts of conventional gender roles” (cited in van der Riet, 153). Chodorow follows by stating men prefer not to be handled or touched because masculinity is threatened by intimacy, which subsequently gives rise to, as McCarthy describes, the implications of a reduced status as a gendered body (cited in van der Riet, 151; 180). Van der Riet’s study of a students’ massage workshop finds the intimacy and sexual implications of massage therapy cause males to feel uncomfortable, which is shown through a lack of concentration by the male students in practice (e.g. constantly looking around, not focusing on the massage), and most notably, their body language of awkward movements, rigidity and tense facial expressions throughout the duration of delivering their massage (151).
The sexual implications of massage force therapists to continuously desexualize the massage atmosphere in order to establish a professional relationship with the client. Van der Riet states massage is perceived as “socially fragile” because of the evident risks in embarrassing the client through physical and/or emotional invasion of the client’s body and private space from “unpleasant” procedures (151). Klein emphasizes it is especially inherent for male therapists to discourage the socially constructed “sexual misrepresentations of massage” by avoiding terminology associated with sexual connotations (i.e. “massage table” vs. “massage bed;” “disrobe” vs. “take your clothes off”) and by presenting themselves professionally through their clothing and personal grooming (78). Furthermore, it is essential for male therapists to respect the personal boundaries and comfort zone of the client. However, Dobson suggests this becomes difficult when the therapist is sexually attracted to the client and is forced to manage his “sexual responses to ‘beautiful women’ or ‘pheromones’” (171). In order to create a “non-sexual interaction” with the client, Klein speculates desexualisation is achieved through the therapist partitioning the body (by draping the areas not being worked on) and avoiding “sensitive” areas (inner thighs, abdomen, sides of women’s torso, buttocks) of the client (81). Moreover, van der Riet proposes therapists should be emotionally detached from the massage by setting emotional boundaries between the client and themselves (153).
From analysing past studies on massage therapy, it is evident the difficulty for males to become effective therapists lies in the construction of heteronormativity in society. Male therapists are faced with the issue of being judged in society through their choice of profession, thus deterring other men from entering massage therapy. As previously stated by van der Riet, the continuous effort by men to prove their masculinity causes male student therapists to perform poorly, where the display of mothering qualities of nurturing and caring are necessary in order to enhance the atmosphere of massage for the client (153). Thus, males entering massage therapy should disregard the socially constructed pressures to conform to the hegemonic image of masculinity in order to gain authority as a proficient therapist. Moreover, as Nevels illustrates, it is recommended for male therapists to cohere to the characteristics of hegemonic femininity by embracing the caretaking qualities evident in the “culture of massage,” possibly allowing them to attract a client base of both males and females (104). Male therapists are still able to thrive as a male gendered body despite massage being a female-dominated profession by desexualizing the environment and relationship between the therapist and client, consequently producing a healthy atmosphere for healing and maintaining the body for their clients receiving massage. Additionally, the preference for female therapists may be refuted once male and female clients allow themselves to disregard what a heteronormative society forces them to believe concerning the sexual misrepresentations of massage therapy.
In spite of the adequate evidence to suggest the performance of femininity is necessary for male therapists to thrive in massage therapy, this does not directly translate into the acceptance of massage as a suitable form of health care therapy for males and females without facing repercussions by a heteronormative society. Although male therapists are able to stylise their sexualized identities to present themselves in a more attractive light for both male and female clients, it is ultimately the decision of clients, with respect to their perception of massage therapy, whether or not to embrace massage as their desired form of medical healing. While this paper explains how male therapists perform their gendered body in a female-dominated setting to gain authority, it fails to answer how massage therapy may be displayed without the negative connotations of sexuality that hinders its growth as an effective method of healing. Future research should include further evidence concerning why sexual interaction is frowned upon in society, possibly achieved through studying the influence of mass media on parents and their children, as the notions of non-sexual interactions are primarily induced during childhood. Regardless, it is fundamentally necessary for masculine bodies to adopt effeminate qualities in massage therapy where authority is predetermined by female gendered identities.
Dobson, Marnie. “Professionalizing Touch: Gender, Sexuality, the Law and Massage Work.” University of California, Irvine, 2005. United States – California: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT). Web. 9 Nov. 2011.
Klein, Noa. “Loving Touch: Therapeutic Massage, the Socialization of the Body, and the Healing of US Culture.” University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010. United States – California: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT). Web. 9 Nov. 2011.
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