Pleasure Is Not A Dirty Word
By Tim Clark
Generally speaking, an hour of massage flies whereas an hour in a dentist’s chair can seem endless. A massage can be enjoyed immediately, in the moment, whereas in other modalities pleasure is, if anything, a delayed by-product of symptom relief.
Despite this, there seem to be so many reasons for us to avoid invoking pleasurable states in our clients – not to mention taking pleasure in giving a massage – that it feels a little dangerous to even raise the topic here, where ‘pleasure’ may be loaded with a culturally entrenched association of massage with sex work and the more overt sexual connotations of the verb ‘to pleasure’.
It makes sense that some massage therapists (and others) feel uncomfortable about equating massage and pleasure. Wanting to be taken seriously by the medical profession doesn’t really lend itself to the spreading of ‘good vibes’, and this has been accepted by some clients who see medicine as gospel and pleasure as an indulgence.
How often do we hear clients intone some variation on ‘no pain, no gain’?
Then there is the ethical responsibility for us therapists to avoid fostering dependence, or exploiting clients by satisfying our own need to please others. There are undoubtedly more reasons, but do any of them justify us worrying about clients enjoying their massage?
On the contrary, we can use pleasure to harness the physical and mental health benefits of massage, and we have an opportunity to educate clients experientially about the pleasure of safe, non-erotic touch. Of course, this requires clear boundaries and definitions. We need to be very clear about what constitutes pleasure in massage and what can facilitate it. Three prerequisites for us to consider (and there are undoubtedly more) are:
Massage can affirm or destroy a client’s belief that the world is a safe place, depending on how the therapist approaches their work. We have an opportunity to give every client an experience of safety that not only brings relief in the moment but reinforces their trust in the world. In a successful therapeutic massage, the client’s willingness to be vulnerable is not only respected but rewarded.
Rather than being a source of pleasure in and of itself, safety is a precursor to the client’s experience of pleasure.
It is not just that the client is safe but that the client feels safe that is central to their ability to enjoy the experience.
So, safety is about more than infection control and work health safety practices.
It requires that the therapist holds beneficence and non-maleficence as key personal and professional values. It requires that the therapist is clear with clients about what treatment will entail and delivers, as much as possible, what is agreed at the outset. It requires that the therapist knows their own boundaries and how to respond when a client knowingly or unknowingly tests those boundaries.
(AMT sets out the requirements for Professional Boundaries in the Code of Practice.)
Of course, these are issues for us all to grapple with in our own ways, and we may never feel that we succeed perfectly. We need to accept that and then strive for our ideals.
Imagine the ultimate uncomfortable massage experience: the face cradle feels like a vice, your feet are frozen, the towels are like sandpaper, the radio is blasting the traffic report and you can smell baby oil and the therapist’s halitosis. It would all be okay if you thought the therapist would be receptive and responsive to your feedback, but they’ve given no indication of caring about your comfort. You put up with it, hoping that things might get better, but they don’t. When it’s over, you quietly resent handing over your money but you have no choice.
Now imagine that this is typical of your life experience: that although you give generously of your kindness, the world seems perpetually hostile and others routinely fail to respond to your needs. For some of us this will require little imagination, while even those of us with a more affirming experience of life may recognise in it some of the quiet desperation of day-to-day existence.
We all experience the world’s hostility to some degree and have moments of feeling overwhelmed by negativity, anger, hopelessness and isolation. One of massage’s gifts is a moment’s respite from this, an opportunity to re-learn that others can and want to offer solace.
Failure to keep our clients comfortable can rupture the therapeutic relationship, denying the client of the human connection that massage can offer. It might convey to them that they are not deserving of careful attention and that their needs don’t need to be met, exacerbating low self-worth and reinforcing patterns of poor self-care. Reassuring clients that it’s okay to voice needs, and then being responsive without interpreting requests as criticisms, can offer clients a new experience of relationships and the world in general.
I once got into a spirited discussion with an older client of mine after I observed that he liked to talk throughout his massages. “Why shouldn’t I?” he responded. “I spend most of my days in silence at home, sometimes not talking to anyone for days at a time. Silence stresses me out more than anything.”
It was a great way to learn that how and what we choose to communicate can impact on our clients’ ability to enjoy their massage. Talking during the massage can feel intrusive to some, while others feel liberated and soothed by the opportunity to just converse in an easy way with another human being for a little while.
Of course, communication isn’t just about talking. Everything we do as massage therapists communicates something to our clients. We communicate with our voices, bodies and faces and, of course, through the environment we set up.
Perhaps most uniquely for us, though, we communicate with our hands. When I’m massaging, I often think about what my hands would be saying if they could speak. Is it, “I care,” or is it, “I’m distracted”? Are they giving away that I’ve had a bad day, or are they responding to the client’s needs in the moment?
In this way, communication is the same as connection, and we need to wonder if our clients are receiving our messages across a crystal clear, high definition line or if they’re struggling on the other end of a tin-can telephone.
It’s the nature of human communication that we might never know for sure, but never wondering is the best way to ensure we never know.
To think more about the role of pleasure in massage, it might be helpful to bring in Paul Dolan’s 2014 book Happiness by Design: Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life (explained concisely in this video). Dolan suggests that happiness in life requires a balance between our sense of purpose and our experience of pleasure. Massage is one of the few healthcare modalities that offers people an experience of pleasure that is also purposeful. Let’s embrace that.
About the Author
Five years ago, if you’d told Tim Clark he would be a massage therapist and psychotherapist in five years’ time he would have laughed in your face. That said, he completed his massage training last year and has just finished the Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy. His Master’s thesis examines the relationship between a massage therapist and her client through the lens of psychotherapy.
Tim is presenting a talk on “The Pleasure-Purpose Principle (or how I learned to stop worrying and enjoy my massage)” and a breakout workshop on “Knowing Thyself: The Role of Self-Awareness in Massage Therapy” on 13 October 2018 at the AMT National Conference. Book your place here – earlybird prices close on 13 August 2018.