Real Talks: Massage Parlors

Pablo Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ 1907

HER: We’ve all seen them: the flashing neon ‘massage’ sign in a conspicuous location in an industrial park, or the ‘spa’ located on the second-floor of a downtown walk up. It’s usually obvious by the suggestive names that these are not the sorts of places you’d go to ease your lower back pain, or get a nice mani/pedi. I had always wondered, with a mixture of fascination and repulsion, what goes on in those places.

So I have to admit that I was more than a little intrigued when I found out that you knew the answers to my questions. In great detail. Early in our relationship, you told me that visiting massage parlors was one of the ways you tried to meet your needs during your long, sexless marriage. Now, I have to confess up front that I am not comfortable with the thought of paying for sex, of any variety, in an industry that is not regulated and has so much potential for exploitation. But before I get into those issues, maybe you can pull back the curtain and change my mind. Tell me everything.

HIM: As always, I’ve got nothing to hide from you, so ask me anything you want.

HER: Well, I guess my first question is why did you choose to go to a massage parlour in the first place? Why not pick up a girl in a bar?

HIM: I was definitely craving actual human contact, but real people come with certain challenges. First of all, I was afraid that picking up a woman in a bar (that is, if I even had the skills and confidence to do it) would inevitably lead to her appearing on my doorstep someday to have it out with my wife. Secondly, I was afraid of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. The massage parlor solved both dilemmas for me – human contact without emotional entanglement, and without penetration.

Now that I think about it, though, there was another factor. I was extraordinarily busy in my 30’s — finishing my master’s degree, building a business, being a husband and father — and I didn’t have three hours to spend in a bar hoping something magical might happen. I liked that if I found myself with an hour to spare I could make a reasonably satisfying sexual encounter happen with certainty.

HER: Okay. So, getting back to the massage parlour – when you walk in, what’s it like? 

HIM: They generally look like slightly weird professional offices. There’s a receptionist – a very inappropriately dressed receptionist. Sometimes there’s a waiting room, but if there is, it’s always empty. They play a kind of shell game at massage parlors, moving the customers from room to room when it’s busy to make sure they never see each other. No one wants to risk bumping into their boss, or their brother-in-law, or anyone else who could cause embarrassment. As you might guess, the decor does tend toward the garish, although some are surprisingly upscale.

HER: Is there a secret code or special handshake you have to do to indicate what you want? Is there a menu on the wall with pictures like a Vietnamese restaurant? How do you choose your services and your ‘girl’.

HIM: Generally, they’ll tell you who is available. They might bring them to your room to say hello before you choose, or show you their pictures on a computer. Once you’ve taken a shower, and the woman enters the room, you discuss with her which of the services you want. Usually there were three options – topless, nude and the ‘nude reverse’ (the masseuse is naked and you can touch her). Some places also added something called a ‘body slide’, which is exactly what it sounds like with lots of oil involved. After that, it was just a matter of how much time you wanted, usually ranging from 40 to 90 minutes. Oh, and yes – sometimes there was actually a menu on the wall.

HER: What was the pricing like?

HIM: Generally there was something like a room fee of $35-50.00, depending on how much time you requested. On top of that you would pay for the type of massage you wanted  – maybe $50.00 for topless, $65.00 for nude and $80.00 for a ‘nude reverse’. I would tip on top of that, but I don’t know if that was common.

HER: Did you ever see full-on sex advertised or offered?

HIM: Surprisingly, never. One woman seemed to be offering me a blow job once, but she was speaking in code and it was easy to turn down. I did get asked if I was an undercover cop on a couple of occasions.

HER: Do they actually give massages first, or do they get straight to the cock? How was your time typically spent?

HIM: In my experience, it always began with the semblance of a traditional massage – traditional except for the fact that the masseuse was naked, of course. A low-key start was absolutely essential to making the whole thing work for me. I would close my eyes and relax into the casual fiction that this was an everyday therapeutic appointment about to go wonderfully awry. The erotic experience depended on my anticipation of when the massage would transition from professional to unprofessional, so to speak, when a fingertip would stray into the erogenous zone.

HER: Did you have a highlight experience? A favourite time that stands out or a special woman you particularly enjoyed seeing?

HIM: The truth is that, almost every time was good. In spite of the fact that it was a pale shadow of  what I would later find with you, those massage parlour experiences worked well for me during a time when I was so deeply dissatisfied with my marriage. Contrary to what you might think, the women were generally positive in attitude. I would definitely have noticed if the energy was negative or begrudging, which would have killed the sexual dynamic. And you know me: I can’t buy a donut without trying to connect in some small way with the person behind the counter. It was the same with these women. I was sincerely interested in them as people, and would make small talk about their lives if it seemed welcome.

As for highlights, you know I tend to respond most to little gestures that seem unexpected or revealing. There were many such moments along the way, like the time a woman came into the room early , still dressed, and made small talk while watching me shower in the glass enclosure. That said, there was also the time a woman brought me to orgasm using just her breasts, which was a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

HER: Yeah, even after the boob job, I can’t do that for you. So tell me: how many times did you go to these places?

HIM: Well, we’re talking about a ten or twelve year time span, so I would guess at least sixty times, but it could have been as many as a hundred.

HER: Alright, I have to stop here. As we’ve been writing this, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable. No, not uncomfortable — that’s too easy a euphemism. Angry. I’m angry at you and the men who support this kind of business. I’m angry that women are shown on screens for you to select like they’re some kind of product you’re buying. I’m angry that the men get to choose who they like the look of, but these women probably can’t say no if the guy who walks in is hairy, fat and smelly, and she’d really rather not have his hands all over her and go home to her kid with the smell of that guy’s cum on her.

HIM: I get your anger, but you won’t be surprised to find out that I have a different perspective. In terms of the gender/power relationships, it seems obvious to me that there are men who would gladly provide nude massages for paying women if there was any demand for that service. That just reflects a difference between male and female sexuality. And of course anyone in a service industry would love to pick and choose their clients, but that’s not the way it works. I don’t believe it’s right to judge a business by its worst customers.

HER: Sure. And, don’t get me wrong, I want to think of myself as sex-positive and over the moralistic hang-ups our society has about sex. I absolutely do not condemn the women who work in the sex trade. I understand that some of them choose that life — for a variety of reasons — and it’s not only the illegal immigrants and victims of human smuggling who work in these places. But I feel very judgmental of the men who create a market for this work.

HIM: That’s one of the contradictions in modern feminism (all worthwhile social movements should have contradictions, by the way): there is lots of support for sex workers, not so much for sex clients. But, of course, one is not possible without the other.

HER: I suppose I think of sex work in much the same way I think about places like Marine Land and Dolphin Cove: I love dolphins, and I would love to swim with them; in fact, I might be the most enthusiastically loving guest they had all day. But I cannot support the places that keep them confined. I don’t judge the dolphin for being there, I judge the people who create the market that makes their imprisonment profitable.

HIM: I used to explain it to myself by drawing a parallel to the restaurant business. Restaurants perform a function that used to be considered very intimate: the preparation and serving of meals. Something that was traditionally done in love. But we all know that no one in the modern restaurant kitchen is there for love. They are making food for strangers solely because they are being paid to. Moreover, many of the waiters serving that food are frustrated that they can’t do the job they are truly passionate about — acting, say, to use the stereotype — and they consider bringing you your meal to be soul-crushing work. Still, everyone is comfortable with the restaurant business, even though the parallels to sex work are many.

HER: I guess my question is how did you square your ideals with this behavior? I know you to be a thoroughly decent human being who believes in human rights and is very respectful of women. Did you ever feel any moral compunction about supporting this industry? Do you feel at all regretful about it now?

HIM: I definitely agree with you that the potential for abuse in that business is high. I did not perform thorough due diligence to determine how the women came to be in these establishments, and if they were being treated fairly. My intuition was that that was the case, but of course I couldn’t say for sure. It’s like when you eat a steak: you don’t really know if you’re supporting a business based on animal cruelty. You can only deal with what you see.

In the end, this is what I can say for sure: I treated every woman I encountered with respect, consideration and generosity. That was the only part I knew I could control.

HER: I’m sure you did. But until there are laws in place to regulate this industry and protect the women in it, I can’t imagine ever supporting it. I will always be uncomfortable with what you did in that phase of your life, no matter how you try to explain it.

HIM: I hear you. I’ve often thought that, if they ever develop a CT scanner that can spot ‘elaborate defense mechanisms’ in the human brain, I will light it up like a Christmas tree.