Is Lifetime's new series The Client List harmful for the massage therapy profession?

An interesting, intelligent and opinionated take from our very own therapist, Katherine: There has been quite a hubbub in recent weeks about the new Lifetime series The Client List. I have read reasonably (and unreasonably) articulated comments from both camps, including the American Massage Therapy Association.

After watching the first episode, I'd like to believe that it will have no impact whatsoever. It's a dramatization of a woman's life – a woman who happens to be a massage therapist and who makes the choice to supplement her income performing sexual "extras". Massage therapists aren't the first ones to be misrepresented by entertainment and media. Take the well-worn stereotype of lawyers, for example. And more specifically, I am sure that the Showtime series Weeds didn't suddenly give all widowed mothers of young children the reputation of being drug dealers any more than Dexter makes people believe that all forensic experts are murderous criminals. The show is full of so many overworked cliches that it's almost funny. There are the obvious jokes about one therapist's strong grip being the reason she makes so much money (that joke didn't even take any creativity) and the correlation of performing massage for 8 hours as foreplay (massaging clients for 8 hours is absolutely exhausting, it's not a turn-on). My favorite, though, is probably the montage of old, sick, hairy, unattractive people who are bad tippers implying that only young, uber-buff men tip well, but only if you give them "extras". But it's not as simple as these cliched misrepresentations.

Massage has been a legitimate medical modality for almost 4,000 years, with promoters the likes of Hippocrates (the father of western medicine wrote about the importance of massage), Homer (wrote about the importance of massage and nutrition before and after battle), and Julius Caesar (received daily massage for neuralgia). Then, in the late 1800s, massage therapists suddenly saw the
profession preyed upon when wives of wartime men were trained as massage therapists so they could provide for their families, but were instead put to work in brothels. The massage scandals of 1894 saw publications in the British Journal of Medicine imploring law enforcement to crack down on those advertising massage as a front for sex acts. Those scandals marked the beginning of over 100 years of massage therapists trying to rebuild their reputation and expertise as heath care workers, a struggle that continues today, and is challenged further by shows like The Client List.

Licensed massage therapists in New York City are required to complete an education program exceeding 1000 hours (the most in the United States), pass a state licensing exam, and complete continuing education every 3 years. The massage therapists I know work with doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, birth assistants, sports trainers and physical therapists to provide non-sexual care for clients. Massage therapists are down-to-earth, caring, knowledgeable, talented, compassionate, professional, generous people. We also have a sense of humor. But, no one wants to be thought of as a whore. It's not funny. Not even mildly amusing. Ever. Not at a party, not across the dinner table, not when trying to make light conversation and bad jokes are all the ammunition you possess. It's not even about being called names. It's a matter of safety. Imagine that your child, brother, sister, or partner is a massage therapist alone in a room with a stranger and they are suddenly sexually propositioned because the client thinks it's OK. It's not.
Massage therapists care about your health and wellness. We want to help you reduce pain and find balance in your body. We want to empower you, help you recover and ease your mind. We don't provide sexual services. Period. I have been fortunate to have worked with incredible clients who wouldn't dream of compromising my safety. But, it happens. There are places that offer massage therapy as a front for sex acts. And there are people who think it's acceptable to be aggressive and sexually harass massage therapists. I feel that perpetuating the stereotype with shows like The Client List continues to breed the opportunity for potentially unsafe circumstances. Do I think the show could single-handedly set the profession back to its 1800s status? Of course not. But I believe our time is better spent educating the public and standing up for the legitimacy of our profession than indulging in complacently watching a show that clearly demeans the field of massage therapy.


Katherine is a New York state licenced massage therapist with an Associate of Occupational Studies degree and medical massage certification from the Swedish Institute in NYC, and a B.S. degree in Forest Products Marketing from Virginia Tech. She is proud to lend her writing skills to our blog, and her professional massaging skills to Massage Williamsburg.