When engaged in a business that provides a service, paying attention to customer preferences is extremely important. The Massage & Spa industry is one in which personal preferences are not only details – they are everything!
There are obvious preferences, such as the amount of pressure a person likes, the type of music playing, whether or not someone prefers oil or lotion to be used, different scents, and so on.
The Gender Example
Another key preference has to do with a therapist’s gender. Many people are adamant when it comes to the gender of their therapist. Some customers, whether they themselves are male or female, will only take a woman; others will only take a man. (With the increasing acceptance of the transgender community, this preference itself has become more of an issue. For more on transgender massage therapists you can visit my prior blog discussing that topic).
It is generally accepted that it’s perfectly OK for a massage customer to request either a male or female massage therapist, for their own personal reasons and preferences. While in some cases the reasons behind the stated gender preference might be assumed or guessed, I believe it is generally agreed upon that it is not really up to a massage business or therapist to question the motives behind this preference.
For example, is a male client requesting to see a male therapist because he prefers what he considers to be a stronger massage that he may receive from a male? Or is it because he is shy and doesn’t feel comfortable being that exposed with a woman? Or maybe he is gay and prefers to have a man offer the massage for some reasons related to that. Who knows?!
As a massage business owner, the reasons don’t really matter to me as long as the client understands that it’s a professional therapeutic massage. After all, the only alternative would be to tell clients that they are not allowed to have that preference for whatever reason, and that’s that! That would be a great way to go out of business quickly! You will be hard-pressed to find any massage establishment that refuses to honor a gender specific request as a matter of principle. (Then again, maybe in Boulder or Berkeley…!?)
Handling Massage Therapist Race Requests. Good Citizen? Part of the Problem? Cynic?
This brings me to the question at hand which is; what do we do when a client has a request for a person of a certain race? I don’t raise this question simply to be provocative. My own business has had many examples of individuals making such requests. Sometimes it is apparent that it is someone requesting a person of their own race, and other times they are requesting someone of a different race. I have also encountered clients specifically requesting that we do not send a person of a specific race.
So is it a question of racism, or something more comparable to a gender preference that might be called racial preference? Is it up to me as the business owner or massage therapist to try to figure out what the motivation is for this preference? If so, is it up to me to be the judge of this person based on this request? Or do I simply try to accommodate the request with no questions asked?
One thing to keep in mind as we look at these questions is that massage is not like other service businesses. It’s way more personal. Other than a visit to the doctor or maybe playing a role as an actor, there really isn’t anything else quite as personal and intimate as a massage – and it’s usually with a total stranger.
It’s not like asking for your waiter or plumber or pizza delivery person to be a certain race. It’s a completely different context. This reminds me of the recent news report where a woman contacted Lowe’s for an appliance delivery, and asked that the delivery men not be African American. Lowe’s got into some hot water for trying to accommodate that request. Let’s face it; demanding that the delivery guy not be black – that’s pretty damn racist, and everyone can see that.
But with the understanding that massage is very unique and intimate, I feel that the entire issue in this particular context becomes a little less black and white (no pun intended).
If I’m taking it purely cynical view of a race-based request, then obviously I feel that this person is a racist and I may not choose to do business with that individual. However, there are countless scenarios, given the intimate nature of massage therapy, where one could imagine that it’s not necessarily a matter of racism but some other factor that may not be that “evil”.
For example, take again the issue of gender. Many women feel more comfortable having another woman perform their massage. There could be many reasons for this. But one reasonable guess might be that the woman prefers to have someone “like” them – another woman. The “same” at least as far as gender, with the quite innocent goal of feeling more comfortable and relaxed getting a massage.
So if we follow this line of reasoning, is there anything wrong with, for example, an African-American person preferring to receive a massage from an African-American massage therapist? Perhaps for cultural reasons this individual simply feels more comfortable with someone else who they personally feel is more “like” them. And in any case, does it matter whether or not I think this is ridiculous or inappropriate or racist?
If I choose to not judge the person’s motives and simply try to accommodate the request, do I then become complicit in some form of racism and racial bias that is inappropriate? If I choose not to honor it (and most likely I have no idea behind the motivation for it) am I then a victim of a culture of political correctness that has gone out of control and beyond common sense?
It is possible that a person has some reasonable reason for it that is not racist (at least not intentionally, if that’s possible). For all I know it may be some psychological issue this person literally can’t control. Maybe this person suffered abuse at the hands of an individual of a particular race and being touched by a person of that race would make it impossible to relax and enjoy the massage. I’m no psychologist and this is just an example, but it seems plausible and supports the idea that a race request may not be morally “wrong” in every case. I think it depends on how cynical we want to be in the absence of any evidence to support the idea that the person is just being a racist.
Or to take it to the other extreme, what are we to do when it’s perfectly clear the person is in fact a racist? (I would say “racist asshole” but it’s actually more difficult to answer if the person is otherwise perfectly polite). Being a racist isn’t against the law. It’s a belief system or an outlook that most civilized people don’t agree with. I don’t like the beliefs of some people of certain political persuasions – but I am not asking for their reasoning or rejecting their business based on that. I am not suggesting a moral equivalency, but how to handle these things as a business person can get into some gray areas.
I think most massage businesses and therapists, myself included, find it a little bit strange or uncomfortable to, first of all receive a request like this, and secondly to actually accommodate it. I am personally inclined to operate by giving those people making a race specific request for massage the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, it’s not that common.
What is your take on it? Please comment and share using the social links on the left or below! The more we can have open and honest dialogue about race, the more we can all understand each other and move our society forward.
Thanks for reading!
Dan Melmed, LMT
Owner & Founder,
Body Well Therapy