Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Massage and Misdirection

I have gotten – as I presumed I would – a lot of replies to the post yesterday about sex workers using the word massage. Let me reiterate that I have much respect for licensed massage practitioners. My mom was one for years, and she was definitely not a sex worker and did not want anyone to ask her for sex. So I’m all down with LMP’s having boundaries about this.

I will also repeat what I said yesterday: some LMP’s do engage in sexual behavior in their massage sessions. I know ya’ll don’t like to admit that, but it is true. So it is not a matter of only people who don’t have licenses muddying up an otherwise pristine profession.

That said, I completely agree that if you do not have a state license, you should not claim you do. I do not support anyone pretending to have medical skills they do not possess.

Several people suggested that sex workers should use the phrase “sensual massage” and only LMP's should use the phrase “therapeutic massage.” I would not be adverse to that, but it’s not an option. This is a state-by-state issue, but here in Washington, if you don’t have a state license, you may not legally use the word massage professionally. At all, period. If I’m wrong on this I’m sure someone will correct me, but last time I had a lawyer run through this with me, I was told that the fine for using the word massage if you did not have a license was substantially higher than the fine for a first-offense prostitution charge. The former is a thousand dollars, and the latter, five hundred. The LMP professional organizations apparently lobbied hard to get that fine very high, and since the state is never adverse to taking money, they agreed.

So at least here in Washington, ya’ll do own the very word massage, which is why you see ads offering “Sensual Touch”. That’s a sex worker trying to avoid having an LMP see her ad and report her to the state, because that's often the way unlicensed people get into trouble.

But see, sex workers are really not the problem. They are not the people asking LMP’s for sex. It’s the guys, right? (Yes, I’m sure that women sometimes solicit sex from an LMP, but I doubt it happens a lot.)

Men, as a gender, want sex and pursue it. You can think what you want about why that’s true, and whether that it is a good thing or a bad one or – as I myself believe - a morally neutral impulse that must be judged in context. But in general, that’s what they do.

And you will never change men’s behavior by changing women’s behavior. The world is full of examples of women trying to seem sexually unavailable to avoid unwanted overtures: by adopting face- or body-concealing styles of dress, not going to certain places, never being alone in the room with a man, et cetera. (Although many of these rules were designed by men trying to make 'their' women unavailable to other men.) But my point is: nowhere in recorded history have men responded to women emphasizing their chastity and unavailability by saying “Oh. Well, all right, we’ll stop asking, then.”

It would be great if simply by altering a word or two in an ad, sex workers could ensure that LMP’s who didn’t want to be sexual were not asked for sex. (Trust me, sex workers would love it if they got all that business.) But there will always be men in the world who either honestly don't perceive sexual boundaries until they are firmly explained, or else just don't respect them. No matter what women do, we cannot change that. We definitely don't have to just passively accept it. But it is fruitless to think "If only women acted like this, men would never act like that."

So the existence of sex workers is not the reason that some men ask LMP’s for sex. Men ask LMP’s for sex for the same reason they ask anyone else: because they want it. And that’s unlikely to change.

It can be frightening to be the object of a sexual overture you don’t want. But women who are not sex workers will never succeed in making themselves safer by isolating and stigmatizing women who are. The idea that they can is, I believe, a really clever shifting of blame on the part of certain unethical men who pursue sex from women in inappropriate ways, but who don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. “The woman tempted me!” It’s as old as the Adam and Eve story - and just as mythical.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From The Mailbag
Mistress Matisse:
I read your column often and was glad to see you reminding erotic/sex workers that they flourished before Craigslist's erotic services section. Please for the sake of boundaries and the sake of other professionals could you possibly ask them not to simply move to the therapeutic services section? As it is, it is impossible to advertise in the Stranger or the Weekly as a legitimate non-erotic therapeutic massage therapist. Or a waste of time, as all the respondents are looking for sex. When sex workers co-opt the words "therapeutic massage", it makes it extremely difficult for a whole group of people who are also highly trained to practice their profession.
I have nothing against sex workers until they start pretending to be licensed massage therapists, which creates an expectation in the public mind about what real LMPs are willing to do which is mistaken.

This letter elicited several different responses in my mind. For one thing, I don’t think the writer honestly believes that I can bring about a change in anyone’s behavior simply by saying, “Hey, sex workers - stop calling yourselves massage therapists.” She knows, and I know, that isn’t going to happen. She is simply venting her annoyance, which is human nature. God knows I do it all the time.

And I have some sympathy for her. I, too, wish to practice my profession in peace, without being pestered by people I don’t wish to deal with. That’s an understandable thing to want. And as every small business owner will tell you: it’s not an easy thing to get.

But let me ask you massage therapists a larger question: why do you think you’re more entitled to use the massage than sex workers? I don’t mean that in a hostile way, I respect that you're hardworking business people. But I’m sincerely asking you to examine your assumptions. I have known many people who did non-sexual massage who complained vociferously about this, so when the author of this letter speaks of sex workers “co-opting” that word, she is not saying anything I’ve not heard before.

So really – why do you have a right to the word massage that other people don’t have? Because you paid a school to teach you techniques and then test you? And then you gave the state some money and they gave you a piece of paper? If sex workers had the option of going to school and getting a piece of paper that legitimized us, I’d be more inclined to say that was a fair argument. If there was a system like that in place for us, I'd go, in a heartbeat. But we are not permitted to do that.

I think this sense of entitlement is based on the idea that touching someone in a non-sexual way is inherently better and more legitimate than touching them in a sexual way, and I don’t accept that. What I’m really hearing here is: you don’t want anyone to even think you’re a sex worker, because whether you admit it or not, you think that’s a bad thing to be. And you can’t really expect me to back you up on that.

(Besides, plenty of people who have LMT licenses actually do engage in sexual behavior, either sometimes, or all the time. So it's not like there's a hard-and-fast line there.)

I will grant you that some of this is probably a simple desire to have your business model be easily understood by potential clients, and some not-wholly-unreasonable fears of having an unpleasant encounter. I can relate to those concerns, I share them. But I don’t support putting sex workers in a language ghetto. Do as we do, and address the issue with potential clients however you see fit. But it is not our job to enforce your boundaries.