Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sex and Massage Part 3: Power Differential

"You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude
toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering
change rather than allowing change to master you."

- Brian Tracy     

Just Like Sex...

Just like sex, massage is also a form of social relationship. And just like sex, massage involves some form of power differential (not to mention nudity and touch, see part 4 of this series). I hate to compare it that way, but it is the reality of it. And power differential, in sex, in massage or in whatever social relationship thereof, usually involves the concept of "who" is in control and who is "giving-up" control. True - but massage therapy involves an understanding of a professional and therapeutic relationship than just knowing that the client is placing the trust on the therapist with their permission to be touched all over because of their goal of receiving therapeutic benefits or whatever they want from the massage being given by the therapist. That being said - a power differential is a form of psychological boundary. Going back to our school days, the massage program we learned usually examines this issues far deeper to empower us therapists to handle this power differential when we eventually go "out there" in the real world. As it has always been in school, it will not be that easy as how it was ever taught. Nevertheless, they are useful.

There is an inherent social hierarchy between a client and the therapist, since by nature massage therapy is a social relationship. "We" - the massage therapists are the professionals - the experts (or employees, since we are being paid for our services); while our clients or patients are the receivers - the customers (or employers, since they pay us for the massage). In any of these cases, one can have power over the other depending on which angle we look at the situation. In a professional point of view - the more powerful gives benefit to the other who is less powerful. Therapeutically speaking the practitioner has power over the customer on the table; Financially, the employer (also the customer) has power over the employee (also the practitioner). 

Of course we know that the above only exists if the social relationship is at its healthiest circumstance. But this is not always the case. The social relationship together with the power differential can shift. At any given moment, during a massage session, he who is supposed to have the power over the other can be overwhelmed and the situation can turn the other way. The client is vulnerable in this case, since he lay naked on the table and the therapist is in his personal space. But do  you know that, in the exact same moment, the therapist is also vulnerable since he is seeking the clients approval for his techniques and his future employment?

The case I mentioned applies to two persons in a Professional Massage relationship who are both aware of their vulnerability. As a client you always know you will need to give permission to the therapist to touch and get close to you within your personal space. - and many times you needed to be unclothed to receive a massage. Being the therapist on the other hand, you are aware that  the person on the table may not come back to you if he does not like what you gave him and you want him to come back for your business! BUT what if you are aware of your advantage and your power over the other, and you know that you are in the position to overwhelm the other? Say for example: a rich and massage-experienced client receiving a session from a good-looking, broke and newly grad rookie therapist? Or a good looking, middle-class massage first-timer receiving a massage from a veteran and multi-talented therapist?

If there is the intention, an ulterior motive, those who have the power to provide does not usually meld well to those who have desperate needs - and I am not YET talking about money here! That is another case! The psychological boundary that I mentioned in the beginning can get blurred, and this is where the misconduct usually happens. The social relationship that is supposed to be therapeutic can become something else not so healthy - and it is all because of a sudden shift of power and intention. The therapist and even the client can sensualize or even sexualize a massage session when the line between therapy and sexuality in their eyes get blurred. They both know that Sex and Massage both involves nudity and touch and they both can elicit responses other than therapy to both the client and the therapist! (See also Part 5)

My examples may be extreme, but it does happen and it can - to one extent to the other, whether subtle or not so. We are humans and even when we attempt to shun the power differential shift, the health of the social relationship between the client and the therapist still demands a clearly articulated psychological boundary (see also part 6). The influence of the mind, the thinking, can infuse every aspect of behavior, both parties in the relationship. And we all know that the nature of touch, massage per se, can

cross normal social boundaries. As a Massage Therapist we need to understand and accept the unusual nature of massage (and of what we do) and that uncommon situations in massage can invoke uncommon responses (see also part 5). We need to be prepared to whatever response our client will have to our massage - and just as important, we need to be just as prepared to how "we" respond, regardless of who has the control, or who submits/trusts on that particular moment.

 - Leo Feraer-Oporto     

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