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19 August 2022

Massage therapy is not sex work. Period.

By Kari Pincin, LMT, instructor for the Massage Therapy Program at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College

Published by PennLive, Aug. 18, 2022

I have been a massage therapist for 20 years. With few exceptions, every time I tell someone my occupation, I am met with uncomfortable silence.

Sometimes the person I am with will make a rude innuendo about my chosen profession and laugh like I am in on the joke. I am not. Other times I am asked, “So, you give back rubs for a living?” The common thread in these responses is a lack of understanding about massage therapy and the individuals who choose to be practitioners of massage.

Massage therapists are educated, diverse, caring people who want to serve their communities. They are licensed healthcare professionals passionate about helping others maintain pain-free, stress-free lives. Massage therapists work in doctors’ offices, spas, private practices and hospitals. Some unfortunate myths about massage therapy have persisted for decades – it’s past time for us to debunk them.

Myth number one (and this is a big one): Massage therapy is not sex work. Period.

In Pennsylvania, as in 43 other states, massage therapists are granted licenses after completing a comprehensive exam, submitting background checks and swearing they will adhere to a set of regulations that includes standards of professional conduct. In addition, most licensed massage therapists belong to professional associations that provide an additional level of legitimacy as well as educational opportunities and liability insurance.

Although massage therapists have licenses and professional organization certificates, clients may never see them on our walls. What the public sees instead are signs advertising “massage” all over the place. Some of these establishments are run by ethical, licensed practitioners. Some are not. In TV shows and movies, massage therapists are often portrayed as morally ambiguous. Since massage therapy has been misrepresented in the media for so long, it is no wonder that the general public often conflates unethical practices with therapeutic massage practices.

Myth number two: Massage therapists are uneducated.

Many times my clients have said, “I didn’t know you had to learn all that!” when I explain that massage schooling consists of 900+ hours.

Thirty percent of the program at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, focuses on anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology and the effects that massage has on each system of the body. While massage therapists cannot diagnose conditions, we need to be able to assess a client’s current state of health to make informed decisions about the type and techniques of the massage we give. We cannot see what is happening in the muscle tissue, so we must be able to feel it. At HACC, massage therapy students develop their knowledge of the body by working in our student clinic on members of the public, under the supervision of instructors. Therapists are tasked to “do no harm” (the mantra of physicians) while managing clients’ expectations and goals.

An education in massage therapy may take less time than a “traditional” college education, but it is intense and no less rigorous.

Myth number three: Massage is a luxury.

If you close your eyes and envision someone receiving a massage, you probably picture a woman lying face down on a table with her back exposed. You see candles and bowls of flowers or herbs. You may even hear soft music or the sounds of waves crashing in the distance. This is one version of massage therapy, and it is a wonderful one, but it is not the only one.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), 25% of men and 21% of women received a massage in 2021. Of those, 63% received massage as part of a treatment plan from their medical provider. In fact, according to statistics published by AMTA, only 16% of massage consumers listed their primary reason for receiving a massage as a luxury or pampering. Today, physical therapists, physicians, mental health practitioners and other healthcare professionals recommend their patients for massage therapy.

Massage therapists are educated, heart-centered people who work in a variety of settings. The prevailing ideas about therapeutic massage were constructed by a lack of awareness and inaccurate representation in the media. These assumptions are insulting and wrong. It is time to throw out the old ways of thinking and change our perception of licensed massage therapists.

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