My Client, the White Supremacist and Cross Gender Massage.

(In which I go to bat for clients that have a penis.)

So, ya, you read that right. I wasn’t at a Klan rally.

I do teacher appreciation days at local public schools. It is a great way to advertise to one of my targeted demographics, and I truly enjoy providing this service. I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I could remember, and actually began massage school so that I could have a part-time, high-paying job while I went through a four year university and got my teaching degree…but then, Massage Therapy and I fell in love…and you know the rest of the story. Teachers still have a special little spot in my heart though, since I have been fortunate enough to have so many great ones. At these teacher appreciation days, I raffle off a free 1 hour gift certificate. The person that won this particular gift decided to give it to someone else, which I was ok with.

When I arrived at my client’s house, things went a little differently than planned. Over the phone I was told we would be setting up in the bedroom but when I arrived, he had a worried look on his face and we set up in another room instead(I learned later, upon passing the room in the hallway with the door open, that it was filled with Nazi paraphernalia). At this point, I couldn’t really interpret the vibes I was getting – except that I didn’t feel threatened. I felt comfortable enough to stay. The house was full of people and I wasn’t afraid of him, just a little put off. So I set up, asked the usual questions, he let me know he was a tattoo artist so he has the usual neck/shoulder issues from long work hours,  and excused myself while he clambered up onto the table. (Normal, normal…normal).

Then I came back in and undraped his back.
A giant swastika glared back at me.
I blinked.
It didn’t.

I closed my eyes and centered myself, blinking a few more times to hold back wet eyes. Holy shit. I had a racist on my table. I had a Proud and Out racist on my table. I’m not white, but I pass as white pretty well. They think I might have a little Italian in me, or some Greek, or maybe I just have a good tan. I have a bit of a western twang…in other words, people have said I “sound white”. No one can usually place my racial mutt-ness of Seminole/Creek/Irish. I finally understood his confused and apprehensive behavior. He was trying to figure out whether or not I was white. Apparently he had decided it was worth the gamble for a free massage. Apparently also gambling on the fact that if I were white, that I would be ok with his hateful views. …and I was PISSED.

Then something happened. I heard a little voice inside of me say “First, do no harm.” I clung to it as I breathed steadily and began the massage. It became my quiet mantra, and I performed my best work, while remaining disengaged from the person on the table. Or rather, from the identity the person had imposed on themselves. I felt the human creature beneath my hands. I marveled at the intricacies of his circulatory system, the thought that he had been nurtured and loved as an infant. That he had grown and survived. I filled myself with pleasant thoughts of life and living, and rubbed/pressed/stripped/rolled/rubbed.

I wondered to myself why I didn’t just ask him to get up, or throw the jerk off the table and leave. Something made me stay. Not fear, but a sense of duty. I had work to do, damn it, and I was very well going to do it. I hadn’t finished my work. I thought of the only other line that I knew of the Hippocratic Oath, or at least what I thought was the Hippocratic Oath at the time (It is actually the Oath of Maimonides):

“May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.”

His neck and shoulders were a inflamed hotbed of trigger points and hypertonicity. Years of stress, possibly anger, possibly a great number of life’s other tragedies, failures, heartbreaks, or irritants had lodged there tightly. He was in serious pain. That is why he took the gamble.

I continued to work quietly, as I wondered why I only knew two lines of the Hippocratic Oath, even though I felt like a healthcare worker.

I continued to wonder how anyone in this day and age can actually be a racist.

I had a boyfriend when I was 21, who always wore jeans to the river. We had a summer romance and went to the river, the lake and the pool a lot. One day at the pool he flipped in and on his way down I noticed a swastika tattoo on the backside of his thigh. Naturally, I flipped the hell out. He had managed to hide it from me for the 2 months we had been together. After a day and a half of refusing to speak to him (I’m mature like that) I finally let him in and he explained that he got it in a garage when he was 13, he was part of a little punk group that thought themselves to be racists, and he acted like a complete ass for about 2 years – generally doing a lot of dangerous drugs, messing around with a lot of dangerous people, and spreading around a lot of hate. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what changed his mind, just that “there was this girl.” I asked him why he didn’t have it removed, and he said it was because he never wanted to forget how he felt and he kept it to remind him not only how wrong he could be, but how wrong other people could be. We had a long conversation about empathy and second chances, responsibility and growth. That conversation along with his gentleness and candor was one of the many reasons that I loved him.

This wasn’t the case with my client. It was the first thing I reached for in my attempt at empathy and understanding. An explanation.  His Swastika tattoo was fresh and bright, and if that wasn’t enough to convince me, it had other embellishments with names and was dated 2012. It wasn’t a misunderstanding, this man meant with every pixellated inch of his tattooed skin to convey his message to the world. I would have to reach deeper to find what I would need to get through the next hour.

The truth is I came up with a lot of the same insights as I did when I examined the idea of refusing cross gender massage, which is why I have tied these two posts together.

There is a huge faction of massage therapists that refuse to perform massage therapy on clients of the opposite sex. This really bothers me, the same way that it bothers me that men have such a hard time in our profession. For a lot of the same reasons.

When a client shows up at a spa for a massage, and refuses to see a male therapist, it shows a distrust. They don’t see men as nurturing. Some of them that are male aren’t quite homophobic, but just don’t feel “right” having a man touch them. This is discrimination. It is allowed, because as a consumer, we have the right to decide who touches our body. As therapists, we continue to educate to the best of our ability, but some people just aren’t “there” yet, or are holding on to old ideas of what nurturing means, or are confused about aspects of their sexuality or even the boundaries between sensual and sexual. They might be afraid that men will massage too “deep” or be dealing with a multitude of emotional issues that we can only refrain from guessing at.

Most people hold on to their prejudices. Many don’t care “why” they feel what they feel. They just know that that is the way they feel and that is the end of it. They don’t want to have to explain it to themselves or anyone else. Growth is uncomfortable. People need to do it on their own terms, and the best we can do is educate, in our individual practices and as a profession.

However, this is how I feel: Practitioners don’t get those same rights. Or rather, we seem to, but we shouldn’t.  Please let me clarify. I feel that a massage therapist should have the right to refuse service to someone, on an individual basis. If someone treats you badly, drains you, pushes your buttons, asks you for sexual favors, implies things, or makes you uneasy or afraid, you have the right to refuse service to them at any time. If over the phone you feel like someone poses a potential threat to you, or you get that uneasy feeling about them, you can refuse to see them. There is no reason for them to come in if all of your alarms are going off. Human beings made it pretty far on instinct. It is there for a reason. There is no need to have a mind so open that all of your brains start falling out.

This is different than refusing to service a specific subset of the population such as: “I don’t work on men”, “I don’t work on women”, “I don’t work on black people”,  “I don’t work on white people”, “I only work with healthy people”, “I don’t work on fat people” or “I don’t work on republicans.”

You can also target a specific demographic, no problem, that is different than refusing to work with a specific population (I mention this because recently in Facebook threads there has seemed to be some confusion between these two ideas).

I am of the idea that we should be held to the same standards as healthcare workers in terms of non discriminatory practices and other practices outlined in the following (and pictured below). As I learned more about the Hippocratic Oath, the Oath of Maimonides, and the Declaration of Geneva…I read through them and although I am not religious, I was touched. I got goosebumps. I think there is a reason for that.

When you dedicate your life to service, to taking away the pain of others, there is a certain responsibility that comes with the knowledge and skills. I’m trying to articulate this the best I can…and I keep coming back to this simple sentence:

We can be more.

Therapeutic touch transcends all boundaries. We can be more than what we are. We should always strive to be better human beings and to better serve the rest of humanity. To be of the best possible service. In a culture rife with sexism, misogyny and rape it is all the more necessary that we strive to provide non judgmental, healthy touch. I am of the idea that we are on the front lines of this change, this shift, in the way that people look at human contact, relationships and gender roles.

We are waking up from hundreds of years of imposed religious ideas about female sexuality and the role of women in the hierarchy of civilization. Even today, women continue to fight to be taken seriously in the workplace, to receive a fair wage, to have control over their own bodies, and to hold positions in elected offices. Even today, men in the political spotlight are criticized for their voting history and opinions while women are criticized on the size of their waist, the color of their nail polish, or what they chose to wear that day.

Women today continue to fight (socially, if not legally) for the right to be treated as equals to their male counterparts…and so do our male allies. Many of those women who have fought for our rights, did have men standing next to them, or behind the scenes, who supported them. Many had supportive husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, grandfathers, cousins and male friends.

No matter how you look at it, when you refuse to serve half of the population because something might go wrong in the session, or you might get hurt, or you might feel uncomfortable – you are perpetuating the idea that all men are potential rapists. Furthermore, you are reinforcing someone else’s idea that the men in your life are potential rapists. This is disingenuous to our profession, disingenuous to good men, and to all of the work human beings are trying to do to collectively improve our perception and understanding of one another and civilization.

Men are not rapists. Rapists are rapists.
Men are not creeps. Creeps are creeps.

People are individual.

As their massage therapist, it is none of my business if they have a penis or a vagina or any amalgamation thereof.

Or what race they are.
Or how old they are.
Or who they voted for.
Or how much money they make.
Or where they come from.
Or who they choose to love.
Or what their religion is (if any).

My job is to relax them, to relieve them of pain. To help them feel better in , and move with, their body. Plain and simple.

Now if a religious person preaches to me and makes me uncomfortable, I have no problem refusing to see them. Or if a man leers or starts wagging around his wally the one eyed wonder, or asks suspicious questions over the phone, or if a right-wing person pressures me about my political views, or if someone is generally just being a rude jerk…then they can be fired. But they are the exception, not the rule.

As I finished up on my racist client and left, I’m not going to lie, I cried a bit in the car. Partially because I was uncomfortable and confused, and partially because I felt truly sorry for the person I was working on. I felt he would lead a life compartmentalized by his belief system,  unable to feel that loving thrum of humanity…that dazzling, rusty, rough hewn, unpolished, vibrating plane of connection we are still working on while reconciling our emotional and rational selves to work harmoniously together…to further our understanding, to be open to new ideas, to connect to one another, learn, engage and grow. It is a beautiful thing.

People can become shackled by their beliefs. ” I mean, you can change an idea, changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.”

I silently thanked him. I had finally sorted out my thoughts and feelings regarding refusing a specific client vs refusing to service a group of people. I won’t be seeing him again…but for the span of an hour, he made me uncomfortable.

Just uncomfortable enough to help me grow.


(Please click on the images to enlarge them)

Declaration of Geneva or Physician's OathOath of MaimonidesThe Hippocratic Oath

37 thoughts on “My Client, the White Supremacist and Cross Gender Massage.

  1. Ariana, this is so excellent. It’s true. We all have certain issues and people that we don’t think we can deal with—on the table and off. I try to remember that the person who can have that kind of belief is just as much in need of compassion (if not moreso that most).

  2. “Growth is uncomfortable. People need to do it on their own terms, and the best we can do is educate, in our individual practices and as a profession.

    However, this is how I feel: Practitioners don’t get those same rights. Or rather, we seem to, but we shouldn’t.”

    This is the essence of professionalism, right there.

    Thank you very much for this post, Ariana.

  3. Absolutely great reflection and article, you got right to the roots of what matters and where we should all be coming from in this profession. I’m so happy to read this. My own experience with a white supremacist client who absolutely loved to expound his opinions once he figured out that they offended me, has turned out to be an incredible lesson for me in exactly what you write of here. I learned and learned and learned from him, and I thank him for that. I cried many tears of outrage and frustration, and still I knew I had to go deeper than that, and be the health care professional I set out to be. Our greatest teachers are not the ones with the lessons we are eager to learn.

    • “Our greatest teachers are not the ones with the lessons we are eager to learn.” I really like that.

      I’m so thankful that he was quiet during the entire massage. I processed a LOT in that hour, and in that day.

  4. Bless you, dear lady. While I realize the overall message is about the tolerance of all clients, even those with the less-than-PC philosophies, I particularly appreciated the nod that male therapists often get it from both ends, (so to speak). I’ve always maintained that I’ll work on anyone once (that I don’t already know), and I’ve held to that, thusfar.

    And it doesn’t happen often, but once every six months or so, I’ll slam smack into the wall of ‘Oh, I wanted a female therapist’. Which is, naturally, discouraging and leaves me feeling like I should be apologizing for that pesky Y chromosome that had the audacity to invade my DNA. Naturally, I behave myself and just save my grumbling and venting for my colleagues later, but the temptation is there. It’s no fun to be convicted of horrible crimes before one ever sets eyes on a client.

    And even then, one can’t help but be fair. Some people have very valid reasons to have body security issues. Perhaps they’ve already run into someone with a decided disregard for the personal space of others, traumatizing to the point of an instinctual mistrust of anyone of the offending gender. In that case, being a male therapist in the room would do harm all on its own. As much as I’d rather it weren’t the case, as much as I’d dearly love to demonstrate that any given client is safe as houses while on my table, if someone is THAT traumatized by a past event, then I’m the last thing they need.

    But I digress. Thank you for that little tip of the hat to an ongoing issue that we of the Y Chromosome run into periodically.

  5. Your deep introspection in this piece is amazingly profound. I, too, have been guilty of thoughts of limiting my practice to women only, but I realize now that that gives the power back to my traumatic experiences, those which I thought I had let go of so many years before. After I volunteered at a soup kitchen, I hadn’t the experience of seeing all humans at their most basic and unlimited potential to be perfectly beautiful as they are and my opportunity to assist them as an honor. By overriding the obvious discriminative process that had unfolded as a result of my own trauma, I had been allowing that experience to run my business too! Thank you for sharing this very moving lesson.

  6. Wow…riveting, challenging, well-worded, and touched my heart. Thank you for your insight, your vulnerability, and for being the MT you are…shining in the dark!

  7. Ari, I just read your post for the FOURTH TIME, and I get a little bit choked up every time I do. I don’t think there’s a MT — no, PERSON — among us who can’t learn SOMETHING from your heartfelt account of that day’s events.

    Rock on!

    • Thanks so much lady. I’m so glad that Tom dropped me off that day. It was the same week my car broke down. I think if I would have been in my car, alone, I may have forgotten a lot of what I was feeling, kind of shoved it down, and just gone on with my day…but because Tom picked me up, and watched me go though being so upset, then peaceful, then upset and talked it out with me that it really helped me sort out my feelings/fears/emotions/rationalizations.

      I love that dude. I’m going to marry the heck outta him.

  8. I’m a moderate, and a male, and a massage therapist for 23 years. You’ve written a wonderful article which only has one flaw as I see it. “or if a right-wing person pressures me about my political views” – liberals can pressure you about political views as well as conservatives. As a male, the only time I’ve been sexually approached was by VERY liberal clients.

    • Thank you for the kind words about the post. As far as the flaw, I don’t really see it as a flaw. I was listing off a set of individual examples and that was one of them. For instance, I have been sexually approached by female clients as well as male…but I didn’t feel the need to list off every example of inappropriate client behavior in that paragraph (That list is a mile long, and we’d be here for awhile, amiright?) just a few. :)

  9. I have had this exact same experience and I agree with what you have said. When we become massage therapists, or at least those of us who take what we do seriously, we understand that we are not only asking clients to become vulnerable but we are meeting at the same place. This is an aspect of our work that should be taught early in massage education. But you are right; no matter what that person on the table is asking for something and there we are.

  10. “We are not only asking clients to become vulnerable but we are meeting at the same place.”

    Exactly. It is funny, I use that same sentence often in an opposite sort of manner. I am constantly asked by friends, fellow mts and clients whether or not I am scared to go to people’s houses for massage (I run an entirely mobile business).

    I say something very similar…that I look at it from my client’s perspective. They are letting a stranger in their home and trusting, based on our interactions, that I am trustworthy, honest, non-judgmental and there to help. They are vulnerable too. Whether you look at it from the perspective of potential violence or just possible social awkwardness that can result from the intimacy of letting someone into your home, even into your bedroom (usually the case with parents who have kids at home).

    The vulnerability of what we do (within the framework of good boundaries and good business) is fascinating. The trust involved in a really good session of bodywork is sacred and beautiful.

  11. Thank you for your beautifully written post, Ariana, and thank you for your courage of conviction. I wonder what your take would be on practitioners who choose not to practice cross gender massage, or to receive care from opposite gendered care providers, due to reasons of religious modesty.

    • Oh! That take on the subject is interesting and something that hadn’t crossed my mind. I am not a religious person, but I think in order for religious people to respect my freedom from religion, I am expected to also respect their choice of practicing their religion. So if a client or therapist is simply and truly following their religion, my opinion would be that those choices need to be respected.

      Very interesting topic. That could make an entirely new blog post and conversation.

      As religion continues to evolve, my hope would be that there is less and less emphasis placed on gender differences…but that is an entirely different, and personal, discussion and can of worms.

      • Such a wonderful post. I have probably not fired enough clients in my 15 years of massage. Four to be precise. But your post made me understand better why I stayed with ones who I would have perhaps been better off getting rid of. Thanks for that.

        • Thank you, Ezekiel. I think that was part of my confusion about my rights when refusing service. I have fired clients as well, but kept on many that I believe others may have fired because their views don’t align with mine. When I was thinking about firing them…was I really thoroughly offended by their behavior? Was it anything they did? Did I feel physically or psychologically threatened? …or were they just “bothering” me? Was it just that my work, instead of being sunshiny 24/7, actually occasionally felt like “work” (le gasp!) :)

          The day my massage therapy career ceases to be challenging is probably the day I’ll lay down my oil (not on someone’s back, haha) and find another profession.

  12. Just a note:

    Racism is only with regard to race. Greek, Irish, Italian, etc.. are not races. Also, many people think hispanics and latinos are a race, wrong. There are hispanics and latinos that are white, and those that are black, mulato, mestizo. Hispanics and latinos are not the same thing either. Just hope people keep using the word “racist” for any type of discrimination.

  13. I aprpeciate your blog and perspective and agree with much of it. However I am concerned about the second to last paragraph.

    “I won’t be seeing him again…but for the span of an hour, he made me uncomfortable.”

    Likely a good choice on your part to not see him again and he will likely not choose to seek you out, that’s all okay. That said “he made me uncomfortable” – really he had that much control over you? He went inside yoru brain to make you feel a certain way? I encourage you to take back your own power and recognize only you can determine how you feel in any given situation. In understanding that you become even clearer about interacting with folks who present opportunities for growth – ours and possibly theirs depending on what we model thhrough our professional behavior

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