Reclaim the Parlour

by Rebecca Barnett

On July 14 1894, the British Medical Journal published a short piece entitled ‘Immoral “Massage” Establishments’:

“We have received communications suggesting that an association should be formed for those who have gone through a proper course of instruction in massage and obtained certificates in proficiency, and asking our assistance in the preparation of a list of good and satisfactory workers. The suggestion is, however, beset with difficulties …

Our impression is that the legitimate massage market is overstocked, and that no woman, unless she has a private connection, has the slightest chance of getting a living by massage alone – at all events in London.”

This editorial gem was accompanied by a 15-page pamphlet with the sensational title “Astounding revelations concerning supposed massage houses or pandemoniums of vice, frequented by both sexes, being a complete expose of the ways of professed masseurs and masseuses”.

Astounding revelations!

This delightfully salacious episode came to be known as “The massage scandals” and it has continued to profoundly influence and shape our industry to this day. It’s like a post-Victorian era hangover that keeps relentlessly pounding away at the temples of our deep-seated anxiety about being associated with the sex industry and our endless quest to find a more “proper” and acceptable way to brand ourselves.

We’ve been running from the word massage ever since.

A modern pandemonium

On March 24 this year, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that “massage parlours” were to shut down, you could hear the roaring existential gale, as the collective soul leaked out from massage therapists around Australia. Inconceivable!

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means The Princess Bride GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Australian therapists weren’t alone. In the US, countless states were issuing similar closure orders for massage parlours. If anything, US massage therapists seemed even more affronted than us.

One hundred and twenty six years of massage scandals later and governments around the globe still don’t know how to refer to us. It was painfully clear that we had some serious work to do.

In the days after the PM’s announcement, I wrote literally hundreds of emails and made dozens of calls to various health department officials and advisors, in an effort to establish what was meant by the term “massage parlour”. Nobody knew. (I will never get those hours or melanin-rich hair follicles back.)

The PM clearly wasn’t talking about sex work, though, because that was dealt with separately in the announcement. Jurisdictional health departments were basically guessing when they wrote up the various public health orders in the days that followed. Yep. Soooooo much work to do …

In most states, police enforcement actions showed that the interpretation of “massage parlour” was broad and encompassing. Therapists working in home-based settings and commercial settings started receiving visits and warnings to shut down. A few were issued with fines.

So, how did we get into this mess and which 1970s pandemonium of vice was Scott Morrison apparently channeling when he blurted out “massage parlour”, shortly after he mispronounced “barre” 17 different ways?

A short history of parlours

Actually, I am not about to write about the parlours you might think. I am happy to call them by their proper term – brothel.

I am interested in the origins of a much more determinedly wholesome, middle class kind of parlour.

Ironically, the origins of the term parlour are monastic. The word derives from the old French word parloir or parler meaning “to speak”. It entered the English language in the early 1500s and was used to describe the two rooms in a monastery where clergy, otherwise under vows of silence in the cloister, were allowed to converse. The “inner parlour” was used for conversations between residents in a monastery and the “outer parlour” was where you could receive and chat with members of the public.

In the 1800s, the concept of the monastic outer parlour was adapted into domestic architecture and became the room at the front of the house where household members greeted visitors. Having a parlour was a sign of social status and wealth. The parlour was (to quote Wikipedia)

“the room in which the larger world encountered the private sphere of middle class life (the family’s face to the world) … it was invariably the best room in the home.”

(The Merriam Webster history of the word parlour is delightfully wry. I warmly encourage you to read it.

So why the hell is she blathering on about the history of the term “parlour”, I hear you frustratedly intone

After 126 years of massage scandals, it seems pretty apparent that we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t even know or understand it. There’s about 73 different tangents I could explore at this point but I have a deadline and a word limit so I am just going to focus on the most immediately relevant one for now.

In the weeks after the PM’s massage parlour debacle, AMT started working in earnest on a biosecurity planning process to help massage therapists navigate the new COVID-19 world in their clinics. And the very first thing that the committee undertook was a workforce survey to establish what settings massage therapists work from. Because AMT, along with around 20,000 massage therapists across Australia, self-evidently recognise that there is a better way to describe those settings than “massage parlour”.

It turns out, though, that 50% of massage therapists spend some portion or all of their working lives in a home-based setting. And, according to the latest tranche of work from AMT’s biosecurity planning committee, those settings have some of the lowest risk ratings in relation to practising during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owning the parlour

Is it, perhaps, time to reclaim and destigmatise the parlour? Somehow, thinking about massage therapists across the country operating their clinics from the best room at the front or side of their house, the place where the private sphere of middle class life meets the public and all manner of pleasant conversation takes place, doesn’t sound even remotely lewd or immoral.

If half of us are working from home-based settings at least some of the time, perhaps the parlour is more central to our identity than we comfortably imagine. And when you add all the mobile therapists doing home visits, that’s an awful lot of massage therapy practice taking place inside the home.

Providing care, comfort and a sense of ease is very much central to our professional identity and massage therapists do this from a broad variety of settings. A silly euphemism that stigmatised a wonderfully redolent word can’t take away our power or the public’s enthusiasm for our services. As far as I can ascertain, massage therapists are currently dealing with unprecedented demand for their services since lockdowns have eased. Ten weeks of isolation showed us just how much our clients missed the sense of human connection we can provide, regardless of where we practice.

Massage Therapy Treatment Setting Risk Snapshots

This might all seem like a rather bizarre and tangential way of launching the latest work from AMT’s biosecurity committee but the primary audience of the Massage Therapy treatment setting risk snapshot document is government and we need to give them an informed insight into our workplaces. It is designed to not only inform government about the many settings that massage therapists work from but also the particular risks associated with each of those. There is a profound irony in the fact that the very setting that the government reopened first – the allied health setting – is actually high risk according to AMT’s analysis. And it is supremely ironic that all those home-based clinics are low or moderate risk in comparison.

Hopefully that’s enough of a spoiler to pique your curiosity and have you reaching for your tea and bikkies while you consume the contents of AMT’s risk snapshots.

Massage Therapy Treatment Setting Risk Snapshots

About the Author

Rebecca Barnett reckons you should be incredibly relieved that she didn’t take the Foucault “Birth of the Clinic” tangent cause that would have been way more intense. She also plans to use the phrase “pandemoniums of vice” as liberally as possible henceforth.

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  1. To avoid further scandals, we could form into one powerful association. 5 associations or more, or at least, 5 bodies representing us does massage no favours and limits our power.
    The ex-MTs (physios) managed to do it. Do they have powers that are beyond us? No, they successfully rebranded and then developed from there.
    We are widely popular, yet we have no authority behind us.
    Maybe we are our own worst enemies!
    I’d be very interested to know what could be done to make this come into effect (I know its been tried before, but there is no need to give up).

  2. Rebecca,
    I’ve been an avid reader of yours since “all things Covid-19”. I am honestly not sure how I came across you and your blog but I am so grateful! I absolutely love the humor, knowledge and personal insight you share with our profession and industry around the world! As a massage therapist in Florida/USA…I thank you.

    Today’s blog Re: Parlour is fabulous. For the past 32 years, I’ve cringed at the use of “massage parlour” and even masseuse and masseur verbiage. I’ve always used the opportunity to educate and inform. Yes…even our FL Governor used “the P word” during the shutdown. Yikes! “Soooo much work to be done.”

    I wanted to extend kudos to you! I will be sharing this entry (as I’ve shared several of your previous ones) with many.
    Thank you for keeping us informed as well as entertained. Your keen humor is essential IMHO. Keep up the excellent work!

    • Oh, thank you Donna. I am glad you stumbled across the AMT blog and doubly glad you are enjoying the ride! Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know. The “COVID months” have been prodigiously stressful and this kind of feedback helps to make the effort worthwhile! x

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